October 6, 2021
This is the report filed by one of the Nazis’ mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, on October 2, 1941: “Sonderkommando 4a in collaboration with the group staff and two commandos of Police Regiment South on 29 and 30 September 1941 executed 33,771 Jews in Kiev.”
A concise, clinical summary, that contained an immeasurable amount of human suffering.
The victims at Babyn Yar were forced down into the ravine, where they were made to lie in neat rows on top of the bodies of those who had already been executed. Then, according to an eyewitness, “A marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck … uninterruptedly, with no distinction being made between men, women, and children.” Row upon row, for two days. The killers worked in shifts. Some took breaks around a nearby bonfire to talk and drink coffee. Not everyone who was shot died immediately. Some suffocated under the weight of the bodies.
Survivors later said that the earth around the ravine moved and moaned for days after the mass killings, as if the land itself were rebelling against what it had been asked to hold.
As we mark the 80th anniversary of Babyn Yar, we remember that both the victims and the perpetrators were human beings. Every one of the Jews killed in those first two days was a man or woman, boy or girl with a full, distinct life, with loves and hopes. And every one of the dozens of men who pulled the triggers was also an individual who made a choice.
We also remember that for much of the last eight decades, the world did not remember what happened at Babyn Yar. That was by design.
In 1943, some of the same men from German Sonderkommando 4a returned to Babyn Yar to try to erase evidence of the massacre. They forced prisoners from concentration camps to dig up the remains and place them in huge pyres, where they were doused in gasoline and set on fire. Then the Nazis executed those prisoners, too.
But the Nazis were not alone in trying to bury what had happened. For decades, Soviet history omitted that the 33,771 victims of those first two days – and tens of thousands more executed later –were Jews. And that they were killed because they were Jews.
Thirty years after the massacre, in 1971, my stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was asked to join a small delegation of Americans for a series of off-the-record discussions with leaders from the Soviet Union. Members on both sides were drawn from different walks of life – the arts, politics, business –with the aim of fostering a candid dialogue on tough issues.
The conference was held in Kyiv and, from the outset, the remarks from much of the Soviet delegation were hostile and rife with anti-Semitism.
My stepfather, a Jew who had been born in Poland, had lost almost everyone he loved in the Holocaust, and had survived Auschwitz and several other Nazi concentration camps.
When members of the Soviet delegation used terms like “the Jewish Nazis of New York” – and gave a tour of Kyiv that focused on the suffering and heroism of the city’s population during the war without once mentioning the Jews –my stepfather said, “the numbers on my arm began to itch.”
So my stepfather asked to address the Soviet delegation. Speaking off the cuff, he talked about the dangers of anti-Semitism, the hard work societies must do to root out ethnic and racial hatred, and the perils of covering up the darkest parts of our history. He closed with a suggestion: “Yesterday, you gave us an opportunity of seeing the memorials to your Great Patriotic War against the Nazis… Today, it would be worth our while to pay a visit to Babi Yar.”
The Soviet delegation didn’t respond in the moment. But when the session ended, the American delegation decided to visit the site that day. They were brought by bus to the edge of a wood and walked across a clearing, where, as my stepfather later wrote, there was “nothing to tell of the infamous mass grave under the newly planted birch trees.” Then another bus arrived. The Soviet delegation descended and quietly joined the visit.
After that visit, my stepfather said, the tone of the dialogue softened considerably.
Fifty years since that conference, I have been thinking a lot about why my stepfather urged the delegations to visit Babyn Yar. And I believe it was because he knew that one of the most powerful ways to conquer hatred is to show people where it leads – its human consequences. He made those delegates see that he could just as easily have been one of the people buried in that ravine. Or one of the six million. He knew that when we fail to remember, or when we intentionally erase parts of our history, we further dehumanize the victims. And we deprive ourselves – and future generations – of the lessons we must learn, and act on. And he knew the power of changing the mind of even a single member of that Soviet delegation, because the only thing that ever stands between us and atrocities is our fellow human beings. For just as people have the capacity to be perpetrators, so can they be righteous.
So on this anniversary, we honor the memory of all those lost at Babyn Yar, recommit ourselves ensuring that their full history is told, and pledge to act, every day, so that history is not repeated.