April 10, 2024
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Tell the Story of Babi Yar

There are many ways to exterminate groups of people. During the Holocaust, Hitler’s plan to eradicate the Jewish people involved the use of use of Zyklon B, a highly poisonous insecticide thrown into gas chambers designed to look like showers. Within minutes, everyone inside was dead. The corpses were hauled off by soldiers, robbed of anything of value left on their bodies: gold teeth, fillings, even their hair, before being taken to the crematorium and burned. For Hitler and the Nazis, this was the most efficient way to rid society of the scourge of Judaism.

Before that, however, Nazis used more traditional means of murder. The “Holocaust by bullets,” as it has come to be known, took place on September 29-30, 1941, at Babi Yar, a ravine just outside of Kyiv. Victims were brought by Nazi soldiers to Babi Yar and forced to undress. They were then commanded to enter the ravine, where they were shot in small groups. An estimated 33,771 Jews were killed in these mass shootings during this two-day period.

Babi Yar remained an active killing site until shortly before the Soviets took back control of Kyiv in 1943. During this time it is estimated that 100,000 people were murdered in this ravine—first Jews, then psychiatric patients, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, and even civilians. So many people were exterminated by the Nazis for the crime of being unfit, of being “lives unworthy of life,” of being the Other.

There was no proper burial for the victims of Babi Yar. In fact, when the Nazis learned that the Soviet forces were close to recovering Kyiv they attempted to cover up what they had done to avoid potential prosecution for their crimes. Three hundred twenty-one prisoners were ordered to dig up the mass graves and burn whatever remains they could find. As if shooting the victims and leaving them to die in a ditch wasn’t enough, they were robbed of their dignity once again in an attempt to exterminate their existence once and for all. This is the dark history of Babi Yar, a final resting place for thousands of nameless, faceless victims of the Nazi regime. The site stood empty for years after the war.

In 1976, the Soviets erected a monument to those who were killed at Babi Yar, but there was no mention of the first victims—the Jews—the group of people whose ultimate annihilation was the goal for so many of the Nazi policies that resulted in the labeling, persecution and eventual mass murder of so many groups of people considered to be unfit. Nazi ideology thrived on dehumanizing these groups of people so that it became easy to lure them into a pit and shoot them without any regard for their personhood. Refusing to acknowledge their existence years later was yet another way to rob them of their humanity, even in death.

When Ukraine declared its independence on August 24, 1991, and the Soviet Union began to dissipate, another monument was constructed at Babi Yar. This memorial was in the shape of a menorah to honor the Jewish victims and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tragic events that took place on September 29-30, 1941. One month after Ukraine reclaimed its independence, the Jewish victims of the Holocaust were able to reclaim some of the dignity that was taken from them not once, but multiple times, at Babi Yar. The site stands as a symbol of defiance to those who want to exterminate a group of people, whether that means the physical act of killing or the symbolic act of depriving them of their humanity and dignity.

On March 1, 2022, a Russian missile aimed at a TV tower on the site of the Babi Yar complex killed at least five people and reportedly caused damage to the memorial. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a Jew whose grandfather fought against the Nazis and who lost relatives in the Holocaust, tweeted, “To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?”

When the Nazis brutally executed 33,771 Jews in September 1941, the world was silent. When they continued to murder thousands of others at Babi Yar throughout the next two years, the world remained silent. When a Soviet memorial erased the memory of the victims who were not of Russian descent, the world allowed it to happen. We cannot remain silent any longer. We cannot allow people to be exterminated at the will of others. We must do better this time. We must tell the story of Babi Yar and use it as a lesson. It is our responsibility to ensure that the legacies of those lost in that ravine are not extinguished, but serve as a beacon of light guiding us towards a future in which the dignity of all individuals is respected and protected.


Dr. Stacy Gallin is the founding director of the Maimonides Institute for Medicine, Ethics and the Holocaust (MIMEH). She is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University and the co-director of the Department of Bioethics and the Holocaust of the International Chair of Bioethics (a World Medical Association Cooperation Centre).

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