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This Month in Holocaust History – Alfred Lerner Fellows – September 2021

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This Month in Holocaust History – September

Portrait of five-year-old Mania Halef, a Jewish child, who was later killed during the mass execution at Babi Yar. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yelena Brusilovsky
An aerial photograph of the Babi Yar ravine taken by the German air force. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD
Holocaust Rescuer Natalia Bondarenko Chekhova
Natalia Bondarenko (pictured here) and her family hid Raisa Dashkevich until liberation after Raisa clawed her way out of the mass grave at Babi Yar.

The Babi Yar Massacre

On September 19, 1941, German forces entered Kiev, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, after the Soviet Union was invaded by the German army in June of 1941. Approximately 160,000 Jews lived in the city, making up a significant proportion of the population. Before the invasion of Kiev about 100,000 Jews were able to flee through evacuation or escape, while 60,000-70,000 Jewish mothers, children, and the elderly remained in the city. A few days after the occupation, the NKVD (Narodny Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del, the People’s Commisariat for Internal Affairs), the Soviet secret police agency, orchestrated two major explosions, obliterating the buildings of the German army headquarters and part of the city of Kiev in the process.

The Germans used this sabotage as the reason to punish and murder the rest of the Jews that resided in Kiev. On September 28, 1941, German officers released an announcement in the local newspaper, ordering all the Jews in the city of Kiev to report to the corner of Melnikova and Dekhterivskaya Streets with their personal belongings, valuables, linens, and documents on September 29, 1941. Any Jewish person who refused to follow these orders would be shot. This announcement did not seem to hint of any danger to the Jews who read it, as most of the population believed that they were being transferred or resettled into another area. Many Jews complied, thinking it would be safer to obey, not knowing that they would be shot and killed in a ravine called Babi Yar, northwest of the city.

According to the reports by Einsatzgruppe C, the mobile killing unit that followed the Wehrmacht into the area, 33,771 Jews were massacred in Babi Yar over the course of the next two days, which included Yom Kippur, making this one of the largest mass killings during World War II in one location. The victims, mostly elderly Jews, were marched in small groups in a line into the ravine, guarded by SS and German police units and their auxiliaries. They were forced to take off their clothes, and were then machine-gunned into the ravine and covered with dirt and rock once the massacre ended on September 30. For the next two years, thousands of Jews, Russian prisoners, Soviet civilians, and Soviet officials were shot and killed at the Babi Yar ravine; it is estimated that 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar over the course of the German occupation. On November 6, 1941, Kiev was liberated by the Soviet army.  Survivors of the massacre testified against the members of the German police who were tried for the Babi Yar crimes in January 1946.

When discussing this topic with your students, consider having them talk about the manipulation and deceitfulness of German officials when putting the Babi Yar announcement in the newspaper. You could also point out the significance of the Babi Yar Massacre occurring on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of Jewish calendar, and how that impacted the morale of the remaining Jews in Kiev. You might discuss how the “Commissar Order” issued by the German Armed High Command, on June 6, 1941, which directed the killing of Soviet Communist Party officials, quickly changed to include the killing of Jewish men, women, children, and the elderly by September 1941.

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