Putin claimed that genocide was taking place in Ukraine. The real genocide occurred in 1941.
Update: On Tuesday, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky and his chief of staff reported that a Russian missile apparently targeting a TV tower had hit the Babyn Yar memorial site and killed five people. The ravine where the massacres took place looked like a dusty river bed. In 1941, it was outside Kyiv, Ukraine, out of sight. The sound of gunfire from within didn’t carry far.
Over two days that September, more than 33,000 people were executed there by Nazi killing squads in one of the worst mass murders of Jews during the Holocaust of World War II.
Today, the notorious site is inside Kyiv city limits. It’s called Babyn Yar, or Babi Yar, and the invading Russian soldiers fighting to subdue the city might notice the monuments to those who were murdered there.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited “genocide” against Russians in Ukraine as a reason for invading. He also claimed Russia would pursue the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, bristled at the assertions. “Putin’s statements made analogies that are absolutely false,” Paul Shapiro, the museum’s director of international affairs, said Friday. “Ukraine is not committing a genocide.”
“It is an assault on the memory of people who actually were victims of genocide,” he said. “The leadership of the Russian federation ... has made it a habit to distort Holocaust memory for political gain.”
A real genocide took place across Ukraine in World War II, with as many as 1.5 million Jews murdered by the actual Nazis and their allies.
Across Europe, more than 6 million Jews and others were systematically slaughtered between the late 1930s and the war’s end in 1945.
On the eve of the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941, Ukraine was home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, according to historian Wendy Lower. Some were able to flee the Nazis. But many — children, the elderly, the sick — stayed.
Of those, less than 2 percent survived, she wrote.
Ukraine had been part of the area in 18th-century Russia where Jews were permitted to live, Shapiro said. They thus became early victims of the Nazi invasion.
Special Nazi killing squads, called Einsatzgruppen, followed the German army, murdering people in its wake. “In every town and village in Ukraine, somewhere there is a shooting site,” Shapiro said.
Jews were massacred at Babyn Yar, Dubno, Gurka Polonka, Bila Tserkva, Kamenets-Podolsk — where 23,000 were killed on Aug. 27 and 28, 1941 — and scores of other Ukrainian towns.
At Babyn Yar, on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, German troops and Ukrainian police rounded up unsuspecting local Jews and herded them toward the ravine. They were instructed to leave their belongings sorted into piles, and then told to strip.
A truck driver watched what happened next.
“Once undressed, the Jews were led into a ravine which was about 150 meters long, 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep,” the driver, identified only as Hofer, recounted in historian Michael Berenbaum’s 1997 book “Witness to the Holocaust.”
They were taken through a narrow entrance to the ravine and forced to lay down on the bodies of people who already been killed. Two executioners methodically shot the Jews, one by one.
The killers “would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him,” the driver related.
“It went on in this way uninterruptedly, with no distinction being made between men, women and children. The children were kept with their mothers and shot with them,” he said.
The gunfire could not be heard outside the ravine. “That is why I think the Jews did not realize in time what lay ahead of them,” Hofer recounted.
Kurt Werner, one of the executioners, said it was hard work. “I had to spend the whole morning down in the ravine,” he recalled, according to Richard J. Evans’ 2008 book “The Third Reich at War.”
“For some of the time I had to shoot continuously,” he said.
Babyn Yar continued as an execution site for local psychiatric patients, Roma (Gypsies), Russian prisoners of war and local citizens, according to the Holocaust museum. An estimated 100,000 people, Jews and non-Jews, were killed at Babyn Yar during the war.
In Dubno, about 280 miles west of Kyiv and not far from current Russian attacks on Lutsk, a German civilian construction manager, Hermann Graebe, witnessed a slaughter similar to that at Babyn Yar.
His account was read at the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals after the conflict ended.
“Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells,” he said. “I watched a family of about eight persons, a man and a woman, both about 50 with their children of about 1, 8 and 10, and two grown-up daughters of about 20 to 24.”
“An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the 1-year old child in her arms and singing to it,” he said.
“I looked for the man who did the shooting,” Graebe related. “He ... sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a Tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette.”
In Bila Tserkva, just south of Kyiv, the entire adult Jewish population of about 900 was murdered in August 1941. Orders were to shoot the children, reportedly 90 in number, too. But two German chaplains protested. The execution was put off, but only for a day.
German Field Marshal Walter von Reichenau ordered it to go forward, and the children were taken into the woods and shot. “The wailing was indescribable,” a Nazi officer who was present said later.
In 1961, the late Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar,” a meditation on the massacre that includes the stanza:
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
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