Friday, October 07, 2016

True Colours


This past week marked the 75 anniversary of 'Babi Yar' - aside from Auschwitz, probably the single other 'iconic' representation of the Holocaust.  It was to that ravine in the northwest part of the Ukrainian city of Kyiv that Sonderkommando 4(a) , assisted by German police and army  units and  number of the new mobilized Ukrainian 'auxiliaries'  marched what Jewish people they could find (they reported some 32 000 over two days) left in the population of that city.  German forces had suffered some significant lost time and lost lives besieging and then assaulting Kiev. They lost more in street fighting and from a number of sabotage attacks in the weeks after they occupied the city. German newsreels of the time made much of local indignation at finding a number of 'patriotic' corpses executed in the recently evacuated NKVD headquarters, and also referred to the Ukrainians' 'natural thirst for revenge' on Communists, and Jews.



From the moment German forces stepped into the Ukrainian SSR , eager Ukrainians were offering them the traditional welcome gifts of bread and salt and volunteering to show them Russian positions or  help track-down Russians left behind in the retreat.  Although there was little love lost between them, the Germans realized that gift horses shouldn't be looked in the mouth and, with the large number of Russian weapons being taken every day, a 'home guard' force might be useful. Those 'ersatz' Ukrainian 'hilfe' units were morphed into auxiliary police units as the invasion pressed east and by the time Kyiv was taken, Ukrainian  'police auxiliaries' were ready to take over those duties among the Ukrainian population if nothing else.

The fall of the city led to a 'squaring of accounts' with any Communist party  'apparatchiks' who hadn't fled east. The Ukrainians among them were killed quite efficiently. So when the einsatzgruppe appeared with their own 'special handling' assignment, it didn't take long to get some help.  But given the Jewish population - some 133 000 -  there was going to be a substantial need. Happily, elements of the 6th German Army were 'resting' in the area and they would help too.

 Babi Yar was itself a godsend when it comes to such things, a short march from the city centre, the deep ravine had been used in previous times  as a burying ground. The Jewish cemetery was there and the sandy loam soil meant that pick and shovel should suffice for earth moving requirements. The physical formation of the gully meant that preparatory activities could occur out of sight, if not out of sound of the final solution. The victims could be herded in close quarters to the execution site with little chance to escape.  There are no recorded escapes after the victims arrived at the site, although some survivors escaped by playing dead among the corpses and clawing their way out of the gully after dark. Some victims were shot on the march to the site.

At the site the sonderkommando personnel attended to the actual shootings while army personnel formed an inner cordon. Ukrainian volunteer 'helpers' escorted the march, guarded the prisoner preparation and formed an outer cordon to see off any of the  curious. Who the volunteers were was not recorded.

At the site the victims, already separated by gender, were relieved on their belongings, forced to undress 'for disinfection', they were told they were being relocated.  They were taken in groups to the 'finger ends' of the gully and either shot into prepared pits or told to lie down on the feet and legs of those ahead of them and them shot individually by SS personnel told-off for that purpose. The sonderkommando report of the 'aktion' and some photographic evidence supports this.




As the war proceeded Babi Yar was the site of further executions and interments - other Jews, partisans,  Gypsies and Russian POWs were done to death there. In early 1944 as things started to take a turn for the worse, a concentration camp was built at the site with the sole purpose of excavating the graves and destroying the bodies by burning. Some 300 prisoners were kept occupied at this for most of the year. that their hearts or something may not have been in their job is evidenced by the fact that numerous bodies have been disinterred in the ravine in the years after the war.



To-day the ravine is a memorial park in the City - with monuments commemorating the dead of all nations involved  - Russia, Ukraine and the Jews. In all some 140 000 were thought to have met their end in Babi Yar.  It is the largest Holocaust event to have happened on Ukrainian territory.

The President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, whose family was killed in Ukraine, attended the commemoration ceremonies for the tragedy, held last week in Kyiv. As part of his  role,  he was invited to address the Rada. He mentioned Ukrainian involvement in the deaths of Jews. Within minutes of the conclusion of his speech the fascists and right wingers who 'no longer have a part in the government'  - Rada Member Oleh Lyashko for one - were haranguing the air waves with charges that the Israeli had insulted the Ukrainian people and "spat in the face of the nation" and making demands for an apology.


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