Contemporary history | 1941: “Sea of ​​Heads”

For a long time, the Soviet canon of remembrance did not give the massacre of the German occupiers of over 30,000 Jews in Babiy Yar near Kiev the appropriate place

On September 19, 1941, Anatoly, a twelve-year-old boy, watched German troops march into Kiev. “They moved like a cloud, flooded the sidewalks, filled the whole Krestschatik with crackling and gasoline fumes,” he wrote a quarter of a century later as a writer under the name Anatoly Vasilyevich Kuznetsov about the invasion. The scene is in his autobiographical novel Babij Jar recorded, which describes the existence under German occupation. The first West German version of the book, published in Munich in 1970, surprises with its typeface: normal print for the 1966 version, which was trimmed by Soviet censorship, italics for the then removed, now reinserted passages, square brackets for subsequent additions and comments by the writer, who wrote in 1969 fled the Soviet Union and died in London in 1979.

The “Exodus of the Jews from Kiev”, the “roaring procession”, the “sea of ​​heads” announcing the “sea of ​​blood-smeared corpses” in the abyss of Babiy Yar are etched in the author’s memory. A few days after the occupation by German troops, several stately buildings in which the invaders have settled on the Krestschatik shopping and promenade in Kiev are blown up. By members of the retreating Red Army or the Soviet security organs, explosive charges have been set which are equipped with time detonators or detonated remotely. Shortly after the explosions, the occupiers faked a resettlement operation and ordered the Jews living in Kiev and the surrounding area to assemble on September 29, 1941 at a precisely designated place near the freight station. Those who resist are threatened with death by shooting.

A large part of the Jewish population of Kiev, numbering over 170,000 in 1939, fled from the German troops. Thousands hold out, gather at the prescribed place and are driven to Babiy Yar. It is the sixth day after the end of the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is to be celebrated on the evening of the following day. The time between these high holidays is called Ha-jamim ha-noraim – the “awesome days”.

Shortly before arriving at the huge gorge, the train is pushed into a narrow passage formed by two rows of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder with machine guns and dogs. With rubber truncheons they beat those who have meanwhile been robbed of all their belongings, and they hound dogs on those who have fallen. In the meantime, stragglers and those who fled have been captured, driven onto trucks with high side walls and transported to Babiy Yar. On September 29 and 30, 1941 alone, the murder squads, consisting of police units and members of the Waffen-SS, together with the Wehrmacht and supported by local helpers, shot over 30,000 Jewish people in Babiy Yar.

Anatoly Kuznetsov describes what he saw or heard directly as a boy and tells the story of Dina Pronitschewa, an actress in the Kiev puppet theater who – as the only or one of the few – survived Babiy Yar and told him her story after she had concealed her origin during the last years of Stalin for fear of anti-Semitic reprisals. What is missing in Kuznetsov’s book is what is in the work Black book. The genocide of the Soviet Jews (1947/1994), an important primary source for the history of the Holocaust, is referred to as the “prelude to mass murder”. The chapter on Kiev, which, like the entire Black Book, is based on witness reports, farewell letters and diaries collected in 1943/1944, makes it clear that the looting, mistreatment and murder of the Jewish population of Kiev began on the day of the German invasion.

On one of the days following the mass murder of Babiy Yar, the Kiev Duma building went up in flames. “The Germans grabbed all passers-by who were walking along the Krestschatik, pushed them into cars and drove them to Babiy Yar,” writes Kuznetsov, once again suggesting the function the motor vehicle fulfilled as an aid to terror and murder. Sick people who were in a nearby psychiatric clinic were taken out of the building by a German murder squad, “with a doctor at the head”, and crammed into gassing vehicles. When their engines were running, the sick suffocated from the exhaust fumes that had been directed into the interior of the car.

After the war, in 1960, the Soviet authorities tried to “wipe Babiy Yar off the ground” by building a dam – attempts that Kuznetsov in Chapter The destruction of the ashes and those of the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko a few lines of his poem written in 1961 and translated into German by Paul Celan Babij Jar has dedicated: “Babi Yar is the talk of the wilderness, the grass. (…) The silence is screaming. “The” silence “was broken in 1976 in line with the prevailing ideology: by a memorial dedicated to” all Soviet citizens, the prisoners of war and the officers of the Soviet army who were shot by German fascists in Babiy Yar “, was dedicated. There was silence about Roma and Jews. Only after the Soviet Union had dissolved was the murdered Jews commemorated with a memorial, a menorah, related to them. For other groups of victims that had been overlooked by then, signs of remembrance – tablets, crosses, stones – were gradually set in Babiy Yar. And now, 80 years after the mass murder? A gigantic Holocaust memorial with a museum and numerous buildings for multimedia, research and conference centers is planned or under construction. Violent controversies about artistic and commemorative concepts as well as resignations and dismissals hinder the project again and again. In the end, will the humble monuments from the period of early Ukrainian independence after 1991 have to be missed?

When the Eastern European archives opened after 1990/91 and the above-mentioned Black Book appeared, the first complete edition of which was published in German with “almost fifty years delay”, according to the editor Arno Lustiger, in 1994, numerous scientific papers were produced on the massacres perpetrated by Germans . At the beginning of the 21st century, Timothy Snyder contributed Bloodland. Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010/11) helped to enable “a real understanding of the National Socialist crimes”, which was a long time coming because of the misunderstandings about the places and methods of mass murder, according to the US historian. Some German authors seem unaware of this delay, omissions and misunderstandings. They claimed about in that Süddeutsche Zeitung from 1./2. 8. 2020, the Holocaust takes up far too much space in German cultural life, which is detrimental to the “coming to terms” of other crimes against humanity (couldn’t the opposite, namely beneficial, be the case?).

This is countered by a finding formulated by the Hungarian writer Imre Kertész in 2007: “It is not easy (…) to confront the brutal fact that the low point of existence to which man fell back is not just the peculiar and strange story of one or two generations, but at the same time represents a general possibility of human beings. “

Judith Klein is a social scientist. She works in Germany and France. Her last book was published in 2018 Paris, Exile

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