Babi Yar at 75: Filling in the Blanks in Ukrainian History
September 30, 2016 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Long before Auschwitz, long before Treblinka and Sobibor, there was Babi Yar—the sprawling ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where the Nazis, with support from the locals, murdered 33,771 Jews in a two-day killing spree on September 29 and 30, 1941. The Holocaust as the “final solution” began here, in Ukraine and other Soviet territories. Over the fall of 1941 the number of victims at Babi Yar grew to 100,000, to include, beside the Jews, the mentally ill, Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, Communists, and other undesirables.
posted by Etrigan (36 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
. * 10^5
posted by Gelatin at 7:40 AM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


Surely the last line should read "to include, beside the Jews, the mentally ill, Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, Communists, and other people classed as "undesirables" by the Nazis." I know you don't agree but it sorta sounds like it with the way it is written.
posted by marienbad at 7:44 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I get the idea that the status of Auschwitz as symbol of the Holocaust has kind of effaced people's knowledge of other sites of genocide. I've even seen deniers arguing, apparantly under the belief that this is a cogent point, that it is impossible that 6 million people were killed at Auschwitz.
posted by thelonius at 7:50 AM on September 30, 2016 [3 favorites]


I don't know, I think that when we are talking about genocide, using the term 'undesirables' without scare quotes accurately states that these people were reduced to objects to be disposed of by those with total power over them. It wasn't just an epithet, it was reality; I think the language we use should reflect that.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 7:55 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


There is also the focus on gas chambers. A significant portion of the Final Solution was performed using more traditional means.
posted by redyaky at 7:56 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


This was on Wikipedia's front page yesterday. The cold, calculated cruelty is hard to take in.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 8:00 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


Just to note: The phrasing of the last sentence (and lack of quotes around "undesirables") is a direct pull-quote from the article.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:16 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I fell into a wikipedia hole following links about the Holocaust. I just can't understand the efficiency of killing thousands of people an hour, a day, a week. How did this happen? It is beyond my comprehension...
posted by cass at 8:27 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


It does not take a nation of killers to engage in genocide. Just a few really dedicated psychopaths and a system that ignores them if they want to kill a few dozen or hundred (as with mass murderers who target people on society's margins) or actively supports them (as with genocide.) There are always people willing to pull the trigger, if provided the opportunity.

The Holocaust was not an aberration for the Jews in content -- there had been politically motivated mass murder of Jews before, always by a few, but tacitly or actively encouraged by those in power, and ignored by everyone else. The big shift in the Holocaust was the degree to which it was industrialized, the extent to which an assembly line of murder occurred.

And why? Because of more than a thousand years of institutional antisemitism, from the church claiming modern Jews bore the guilt of the murder of the messiah to those in power establishing Jews as proxies for their power while simultaneously relying on Jewish moneylenders to float them cash during a crisis. When the debt got to be too much, well, you could always make an excuse to kick the Jews out, and, if they complained, well, there were always butchers willing to encourage the movement.

The Nazis also industrialized this. Because Jews (and the others they killed, to a greater or lesser extent) weren't just victims, and they weren't just convenient scapegoats. They were tremendous sources of income, thanks to the Nazis stealing their property and possessions, and tremendous sources of slave labor, until they were useless as slave labor, at which time they were murdered.

I don't know that this worked out the way they hoped. It's actually pretty expensive to imprison and murder millions of people, and there were a lot of complaints within the Nazi party that the Final Solution was a waste of resources and money. But by then the machine had started, and there is inertia in everything, even mass murder.

The Holocaust only seems incomprehensible when you see if from the past, and see the terrible accomplishment of it, the fact that suddenly it was possible to kill so many. But looking at it on a day-to-day level, there was often a businesslike quotianess to it. Mass murder is just a matter of details -- find the butchers, build the camp, staff it, and set it to work.
posted by maxsparber at 8:47 AM on September 30, 2016 [17 favorites]


But looking at it on a day-to-day level, there was often a businesslike quotianess to it.

Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
posted by lalochezia at 8:54 AM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


May as well look at some counterpoint to Harendt's (arguably) naive view of Eichmann too.
posted by thelonius at 8:58 AM on September 30, 2016


It does not take a nation of killers to engage in genocide. Just a few really dedicated psychopaths and a system that ignores them if they want to kill a few dozen or hundred

The gas chambers were developed because it was too psychologically traumatizing for members of the Einsatzgruppen to travel the countryside performing mass executions.
posted by My Dad at 9:07 AM on September 30, 2016


Not sure if I would call Arendt "naive." She was a more complex thinker, and a more complex person than that.
posted by My Dad at 9:07 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


I called her view of Eichmann arguably naive, not her.
posted by thelonius at 9:15 AM on September 30, 2016


Sorry, I don't see the difference.
posted by My Dad at 9:32 AM on September 30, 2016


I get the idea that the status of Auschwitz as symbol of the Holocaust has kind of effaced people's knowledge of other sites of genocide. I've even seen deniers arguing, apparantly under the belief that this is a cogent point, that it is impossible that 6 million people were killed at Auschwitz.

It is sobering to remember that Auschwitz is a symbol because it was also a work camp in addition to being a death camp, so there were survivors who could tell their stories and make known the horror. Compare to less known places that were solely death camps, like Belzec, where almost half a million Jews were murdered. Only seven Jews survived out of 500,000, so there was almost no one left to testify to the atrocities committed there. In that silence, there is only an abyss of unknowing.
posted by Falconetti at 10:00 AM on September 30, 2016 [15 favorites]


As a kid, I saw Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13, Babi Yar at the BBC Proms at Royal Albert Hall, a choral symphony featuring poems by Yevgeny Yevtushenko on Babi Yar and antisemitism, which premiered in 1962 despite efforts by Khrushchev and the party to stop its performance. It was deeply haunting, and I'll never forget it.

The Philadelphia Orchestra's performance is on YouTube.
posted by zachlipton at 10:11 AM on September 30, 2016 [8 favorites]


There have been some interesting discussions of archaeology and archaeological ethics at Holocaust sites recently. In places like Babi Yar, or Sobibor, where so few people survive, archaeology is one way to understand and contextualize what happens.
[At Sobibor,] the team also uncovered an escape tunnel that prisoners began digging but never used. This is an especially notable find, Mazurek says, as the tunnel was found in the area of Sobibór’s Camp III, from which no inmates ever emerged alive. (As the extermination and cremation area, Camp III was under heavy guard and cut off from the rest of the camp; its inhabitants could not take part in the well-known prisoner revolt of October 1943, when about 300 inmates managed to escape—most were later caught and did not survive the war.) The tunnel’s existence had never been confirmed until the archaeologists found it. With the inhuman conditions and grim odds the Camp III workers faced, Mazurek knows what a challenge it must have been for them to try to dig their way out: The Germans put barbed wire about 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) underground, he says, to prevent the inmates from escaping. “It was so difficult. Most important [is that] they tried to do it, and for everybody coming here I think it’s necessary to know the story.”
posted by ChuraChura at 10:39 AM on September 30, 2016 [7 favorites]


Yevgeny Yevtushenko Recites His Poem Babi Yar (He switches to English around 1:50), with music from Shostakovich's Symphony 13, "Babi Yar".
posted by Rumple at 10:52 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


"'It does not take a nation of killers to engage in genocide. Just a few really dedicated psychopaths and a system that ignores them if they want to kill a few dozen or hundred'

The gas chambers were developed because it was too psychologically traumatizing for members of the Einsatzgruppen to travel the countryside performing mass executions."


Man, humans are the WORST.
posted by corvikate at 11:04 AM on September 30, 2016


ChuraChura pointed me here.

When I was 9 years old, and a precocious voracious reader, I was allowed to browse the neighbour's extensive bookshelf. I picked up a book called Babi Yar. Now, at 50, I'd say I was far too young to have been introduced to man's inhumanity to man. And the book seared me. So much so that I later devoured books on the topic - from King Rat (Changi Prison camps) to a more age appropriate Anne Frank's Diary. There's more that I don't have teh right words to say, but I've always stepped out of my way to hear from survivors (an old sailor in the Peace park in Nagasaki, those who spoke of life in Auschwitz) I grew up feeling it was the very very least that I could do.
3 years ago, a conference brought me to Warsaw, and mefite hateater and his wife were kind enough to drive me to Auschwitz and Birkenau on a pilgrimage I knew I must complete.

I know in my bones that if ever I had to stand up to stop this happening again, within my power and locale, I would have no choice. As MLK said,

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.

In my very minuscule little way I try to speak up. In the last 40 years, the words "Babi Yar" are what come to to my mind when I hear of gross atrocities and evidence of man's inhumanity to man.

Where is the light?
posted by infini at 11:16 AM on September 30, 2016 [10 favorites]


The big shift in the Holocaust was the degree to which it was industrialized, the extent to which an assembly line of murder occurred.

They don't allow photographs in that particular room in Auschwitz, but I started screaming inside my head, rather like the Munch painting. There are samples of grey industrial carpeting displayed, that were manufactured in efficient German factories. Then you realize teh raw material that was shipped off to them for 6 pfennigs for a sack of whatever weights they were using - braids of hair, ladies hair, grey hair, blonde hair, brown hair, human women's hair was the cheap raw material for these industrial carpets.

That's the efficient German engineering taken to its insane extreme of productive lowcost industrialization of maximizing output from all resources.

The rest of teh room's exhibits displayed the piles of spectacles, gold teeth, suitcases, tin plates, toys, prosthetic limbs, corsets, all neatly sorted.
posted by infini at 11:21 AM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is what I wrote on my 47th birthday, the day after visiting that room (I'd rather not link to the post):

Every profession must come face to face with the ultimate reality of the ways that their industrial training can be perfect in operational form yet perverted completely in its application.

As an Industrial and Production engineer, I studied assembly lines and efficiency. As an Industrial Designer exploring the concept of human centered design, particularly from a systems point of view, I learnt how to orient the ecosystem of device-service-revenue around the challenge of humanity’s needs. My B-school training only enhanced the strategic planning and control of processes and systems, to cater to the market’s needs.

Yesterday, a glass window separated me from a display in a museum. A shrine, a penance and a memory.

There was a bolt of grayish brown cloth. And carefully displayed upon this bolt of industrial manufactured textile was the natural fibre that was the raw material.

Three plaits of hair – brown and grey and faded blonde.

Human hair. Female human hair with traces of cyanide, according to the plaque next to the display, validated by forensic scientists.

Raw material bagged and sold for 40 pfennigs per kilogram to textile manufacturers.

I found myself screaming inside with a sudden blinding spurt of rage against mankind.

And, as a human being, I wept.

.

/today, I sit in lone meditation in my room. It is my 47th birthday.

posted by infini at 11:26 AM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


The introduction states that this took place "long before Auschwitz" etc.(in 1941) That is not so.

"Auschwitz, also known as Auschwitz-Birkenau, opened in 1940 and was the largest of the Nazi concentration and death camps. Located in southern Poland, Auschwitz initially served as a detention center for political prisoners. However, it evolved into a network of camps where Jewish people and other perceived enemies of the Nazi state were exterminated, often in gas chambers, or used as slave labor. "
posted by Postroad at 11:47 AM on September 30, 2016


Auschwitz was also were the first tests of gas were made in September 1941. Exactly 75 years ago this month.
posted by infini at 12:03 PM on September 30, 2016


> I don't know that this worked out the way they hoped. It's actually pretty expensive to imprison and murder millions of people, and there were a lot of complaints within the Nazi party that the Final Solution was a waste of resources and money. But by then the machine had started, and there is inertia in everything, even mass murder.

But it wasn't a matter of inertia, it was a main priority of the regime. Similarly, people say "Why did the Nazis behave so badly to the Ukrainians, who mostly hated Stalin and Soviet Russia anyway? If they'd just been nicer to them, they would have had useful allies!" What they don't grasp is that the Nazis didn't want useful allies, they wanted dead Slavs, except for a few slaves to do the dirty work in the New German East. As far as the Jews went, they wanted them dead, and they didn't care how much it detracted from their other priorities (except, of course, for the bosses trying to make those other priorities happen, who naturally complained, just as the head of one army group complained about tanks going to another army group). It's hard to wrap our heads around even after all the information that's been put out there for decades, because it's so depressing to think about, but the murder of Jews wasn't a side effect or a distraction, it was a main goal of the war and the regime.

As for Babi Yar, I highly recommend the Kuznetsov book infini mentioned... but don't give it to a nine-year-old. It's hideous reading about a hideous event.
posted by languagehat at 12:08 PM on September 30, 2016 [6 favorites]


Oh, and this: "The most concerning part of this is that in multiethnic and multiconfessional Ukraine, it suggests that the tragedies of some of the other ethnic groups that continue to share the country with ethnic Ukrainians, such as Jews and Poles, are not considered to be part of the national Ukrainian tragedy." Anyone interested in Ukrainian history should try to get hold of Paul Robert Magocsi's A History of Ukraine, which deliberately tells the story of all the ethnic groups that have made their homes in the territory of what's now Ukraine; more recent editions are pretty expensive, but you can get newer history elsewhere. And I see he's coauthor of a brand-new book, Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence, which I bet will be good.
posted by languagehat at 12:17 PM on September 30, 2016 [5 favorites]


Thank you for this post. I think Babyn Yar still remains far too unknown/unacknowledged given its terrible scope, impact, and importance.

I think the 75th anniversary is also coming at a very interesting time in Ukrainian societal evolution. Recent political and military upheavals have refocused questions of identity, nationalism, ethnicity, religion, citizenship, and solidarity. Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean, Tatar, Jewish, Orthodox, Catholic, pro-this, pro-that — everyone seems to be their own unique hybrid of language, ethnicity, and political allegiances. I think that Jewish and non-Jewish Ukrainians are now re-examining the relationship between their communities.

Anti-semitism remains a very large problem in Ukraine and all of Eastern Europe, of course. Vocal/militant right-wing minorities in Ukraine have had lots of coverage. The Babi Yar memorial, tragically modest as it is, was itself burned and defaced not too long ago. But I'm seeing glimmers of hope that there is a new (I hope positive) restructuring of the relationship and coexistence of Jew and gentile in Ukraine:

• The Ukrainian government seems to have given a decent level of effort and priority to acknowledging and commemorating this anniversary.

• Lviv, a city that has seen its Jewish population decimated from over a hundred thousand in the 1930s to a couple of thousand today, had severely neglected the remnants of Jewish history in the city. But just recently a large new memorial complex was opened on the site of the Golden Rose Synagogue (destroyed by Nazis). It was funded by both government and private funds.

• Groups have emerged, like the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, who aim to engage "scholars, civic leaders, artists, governments and the broader public in an effort to promote stronger and deeper relations between the two peoples." Their planned events commemorating Babi Yar include a push to have the territory of Babi Yar legally recognized as an inviolable historic and commemorative site, protecting it from any commercial development.

Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence, mentioned above by languagehat (by Magocsi, also involved with the UJE) was awarded special recognition as one of the best books at the Lviv Book Forum 2016 by the Forum’s president.

I may be overly optimistic, and being of the diaspora gives me a view distorted by distances and western biases. But anecdotally I'm seeing traditional reflexive anti-semitism on the wane with newer generations, and I’m seeing increasing recognition that Jewish and Ukrainian histories and cultures are firmly intertwined and that the Jewish contribution has been, as is, an essential part of what is Ukraine.

I don't mean be all kumbaya all over the anniversary of Babi Yar. There needs to be far more recognition, memorialization, and atonement of that horrific event. There needs to be far more education about it, especially in Ukraine, as well as continued research and documentation. But in reflecting on such horrific events I need need to look for the hope. And I'm just hopeful that attitudes in Ukraine will continue along a trajectory that will make measured, moderate, educated, and compassionate dialogue and reconciliation the clear way forward. If Ukrainians as a whole can manage that, it will be an enormous step forward in the evolution and maturation of the nation.
posted by Kabanos at 1:14 PM on September 30, 2016 [7 favorites]


History in the courtroom: 70 years since the Nuremberg Trials

Seventy years ago, on 30 September 1946, Lord Justice Lawrence, the presiding judge of the International Military Tribunal, began reading out the judgement in the trial of the so-called major German war criminals at Nuremberg.

it took two full days to summarize the findings of the four-power tribunal
posted by infini at 2:24 PM on September 30, 2016


I saw the words "Babi Yar" and my hand flew to my mouth. Today is not the right day for me to read this link, but I am grateful for this post and will bookmark it. Thank you for remembering and helping us remember these things we must never forget.
posted by epj at 3:12 PM on September 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


When I was 9 years old, and a precocious voracious reader, I was allowed to browse the neighbour's extensive bookshelf. I picked up a book called Babi Yar. Now, at 50, I'd say I was far too young to have been introduced to man's inhumanity to man. And the book seared me.

I had much the same experience at the same age. It wasn't Babi Yar, I don't remember the title, but I remember the pictures. Learning about those horrors at that age was a formative experience and shaped my worldview ever since. There was time before it, and a time after.

From what I have read, the early attempts to kill "undesirables" via bullets and traveling gas chambers (vans pumped with carbon monoxide) was one of the inspirations for the creation of the death camps and their systematic approach to murder and use of Jewish Sonderkommando to perform much of the labor. Significant numbers of soldiers tasked with carrying out these mass killings would come back completely fucked up. Alcoholism, drug addition, suicidal/fatalistic behavior, basically the aftereffects of what we'd recognize now as PTSD. It is a commentary on how brutal these massacres were that even the hand-picked troops chosen for their commitment would be mentally broken by the act of carrying it out. So instead come up with an assembly-line method for murder, and employ the prisoners themselves to minimize your soldiers' contact with the act itself.
posted by schroedinger at 11:15 PM on September 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I'm shaken to note that in the 5 books I just brought back a couple of days ago from the library there is, among the Nordic travelogue, and Jeeves, a book titled "Hitler's First victims". Until this thread I don't think I ever paused to consider that shaping of worldview that schroedinger mentions.
posted by infini at 1:29 AM on October 1, 2016


I'm not sure if I want to read it now. I must think.
posted by infini at 1:31 AM on October 1, 2016


Thanks for the post. And for the Shostakovich symphony reference. I just put it on.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:53 AM on October 1, 2016


It's hard to wrap our heads around even after all the information that's been put out there for decades, because it's so depressing to think about, but the murder of Jews wasn't a side effect or a distraction, it was a main goal of the war and the regime.

A thousand times this. And the amazing thing about this is: this was popular. People turned their neighbours, whom they had known for decades, over to the secret police. They cheered as columns of Jews were marched down the road. They enthusiastically supported the deportation of the local doctor, the local pharmacist, the local midwife; anyone Jewish. And, when some of those Jews returned after the Holocaust - there were not infrequently riots and blood libels.

I live in Australia, and I'm a generation removed from the Holocaust, but I've had any number of people tell me that they (or their European parents, or grandparents) didn't know about the Holocaust. I nod sagely, but what I should really say is: you damn well knew about the deportations, didn't you?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:53 AM on October 1, 2016 [7 favorites]




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