KYIV, Ukraine—Seventy-four years later, I reached up and broke off a small piece of a branch that was long and gray. It was bent in the strange, contorted ways it had blindly grown to look for light here at the cold bottom of the ravine, where the forest canopy above had turned the sunny spring day into dark winter’s night.
The branch connected to an old tree with gray and brown bark that was growing out of the hardened black earth on which I stood. It had been a difficult climb down here to the bottom, where tens of thousands of bodies had fallen all those years ago.
The ravine’s muddy walls were steep and slick and carved by erosion.
>> Editor’s note: The Ukrainian government on Wednesday pledged $1 million to build a memorial at Babi Yar, a ravine where Nazis murdered about 150,000, including 50,000 Jews, during World War II. Officials plan to complete the memorial by the 75th anniversary of the massacre in September. The Daily Signal’s Nolan Peterson recently visited the site. <<<
An old road ended at the edge of the ravine. That road was overgrown and closed to traffic and now just a path through a park. Young mothers pushed strollers, and young men played fetch with their dogs. Students hurriedly walked past with headphones in their ears; old men in tweed jackets and old women with covered heads shuffled along.
This old road crossed through a forest of tall trees that swayed in the spring wind until it joined a noisy, larger road full of cars and taxis and buses. This road rolled up and down hills and past stores and restaurants and coffee shops into the heart of Kyiv, where, on Sept. 26, 1941, occupying Nazi soldiers posted this order:
All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, Sept. 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Doktorivska streets (near the cemetery). Bring documents, money, and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.
Three days later, on Sept. 29, 1941, more than 33,000 Jews packed as much as they could carry and left their homes in Kyiv forever. They brought suitcases full of clothes, jewelry, art, and memories. Some children carried a stuffed animal in one hand and held a parent’s hand with the other as they spilled into Kyiv’s cobblestone streets for the two-mile walk from the city center to the Babi Yar ravine.
The SS troops, waiting at the corner of Mel’nikova and Doktorivska streets,were surprised; they expected only 5,000 to 6,000 Jews to show up. The troops, part of the combat arm of the Nazis’ most fanatical organization, wondered if they had enough bullets for what they had been ordered to do.
As the procession marched along the road to Babi Yar, most still believed the lie that they were to be resettled. But some within the crowd must have suspected what was about to happen. They were marching to their doom.
Maybe it happened when the SS troops started taking away their luggage, and then their coats, and then their clothes, and then their shoes and their underwear. Maybe they understood when they first heard the machine guns firing, or when they reached the end of the road and were beaten and driven in groups of 10 to the edge of the ravine and looked down at the pile of naked dead and waited for their turn as the bullets went down the line and the bodies dropped sharp and hard in the faster-than-gravity way that death pulls one to the earth.
Maybe during all of this, some finally understood what was happening to them.
But a morning walk is hardly enough time to abandon all hope in the goodness of men and believe in the evil at your back.
By the night of Sept. 30, 1941, the bodies of 33,771 murdered Jews lay at the bottom of the Babi Yar ravine. Soon the bodies of about 100,000 others—ethnic minorities, communists, prisoners of war, gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists, and more Jews—slid down the steep dirt slopes to join them.
The bodies remained there, naked in the earth, until August 1943, when the Nazis decided to conceal their crimes as the Red Army advanced on Kyiv.
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