Ukraine To Mark Anniversary Of Babi Yar

KIEV, Ukraine -- When the notices went up in Kiev ordering the Jews to gather on the corner of Melnyka and Dokterivska streets by 8 a.m., they assumed the Nazis were shipping them to a ghetto.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, second left, and Israeli President Moshe Katsav, left, visit the exhibition marking the 65th anniversary of the Nazi massacre at Babi Yar

Some even arrived early for a good seat on the train. There were no trains. What met the Jews that morning was death in a ravine called Babi Yar.

The mass murder on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital 65 years ago Friday has made the name Babi Yar infamous and has come to be seen as foreshadowing the gas chambers and crematoria of the Final Solution.

Forced to undress, the Jews were herded in groups _ men, women and children _ to the edge of a ravine. For 48 hours, the Nazis gunned down the crowd until at least 33,771 Jews _ the number recorded by the German executioners _ were dead.

The bodies that toppled down the embankment would be joined in the ensuing months by at least another 70,000 dead: Jews, Soviet POWs, other Kievans.

"Time can heal wounds, but it should not erase them from our memories," Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said as he launched two days of commemorations attended by Israeli President Moshe Katsav and 1,000 guests representing 41 countries.

"Not only bodies were buried at Babi Yar, but also hopes, dreams and expectations," said Yushchenko, whose father, a Red Army soldier, was prisoner No. 11365 at Auschwitz.

Ukraine was a Soviet republic when the Germans invaded in 1941. It became independent with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, and hopes the Babi Yar commemoration will show the world that it has completely shaken off the Soviet-enforced silence that clung to the tragedy for decades.

The commemorations began Tuesday with the opening of an exhibit entitled "Forewarning the Future," featuring photos of naked and twisted bodies stacked together at Babi Yar. They continue Wednesday at the ravine.

The commemorations come as Ukraine's Jewish community worries about the sale of anti-Semitic books and newspapers in the capital and a series of attacks on Jews near a synagogue last year.

Before World War II about 175,000 of Kiev's 875,000 people were Jewish. Today official figures say there are 103,000 Jews in all of Ukraine, although the Jewish community says the number is several times higher.

"Every Ukrainian city has its own Babi Yar," said Roman Levith, 73, who survived because his mother managed to get new passports with Ukrainian-sounding last names that fooled the Nazis. Six of his relatives died.

"I survived only because I don't look like a Jew," said Oleksiy Volikov, 72, who witnessed the Babi Yar executions firsthand as a boy of 7. "People's bodies were thrown into the pit like dead chickens."

Valentyna Sukalo, 82, cried as she recalled the Jews passing her house on the way to Babi Yar. "They were scared, some begged my mother to take their baby," Sukalo said, her eyes filling with tears. "We had to say no. We were already hiding one Jewish family _ a mother and daughter. There wasn't room. All we could do was say goodbye."

The exact number killed was never known; as the Red Army approached two years later, Jewish prisoners were ordered to dig up the bodies and burn them.

For years, the atrocity went officially unmarked, while an expanding Kiev grew around the ravine.

Then, in 1961, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko drew international attention to the massacre with "Babi Yar:"

"... Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,

"The trees look sternly, as if passing judgment.

"Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,

"I feel my hair changing shade to gray ..."

Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich set it to music in his Symphony No. 13. Soviet authorities tried to suppress the poem and the symphony, then offered a half-measure: a towering bronze monument at Babi Yar that made no mention of Jews.

Only in 1991, with Soviet rule coming to an end, was the Jewish community allowed to raise a 10-foot menorah at the ravine.

Today, the place where tens of thousands of bodies once lay is part of a popular tree-lined park, but still has the air of a forgotten monument. Boys play soccer there, and young couples slip past the hedges to stretch out on the carefully cut grass in the ravine.

Source: AP