Kiev, Occupied Ukraine · September 29, 1941

By the end of 1940, sixteen months after Adolf Hitler had plunged Europe into war by in­vading Poland, the num­ber of Jews killed by Nazi Ger­many approached 100,000. But in 1941 the death toll grew expo­nen­tially as mass mur­der of Jews became state policy. By the end of 1941 roughly one mil­lion Jews had lost their lives. In late Septem­ber of that year, osten­sibly in retali­a­tion for a series of bombings that destroyed many buildings in the cen­ter of the newly occupied Ukrai­nian capital, Kiev—buildings that included Ger­man army head­quarters and the Hotel Conti­nental, where Ger­man officers resided—high-ranking Ger­man offi­cials in the mili­tary and the SS (Schutz­staffel) made plans to exter­mi­nate the Jews of Kiev and its sub­urbs. (When the city fell to the Ger­mans on Septem­ber 19, 1941, over 875,000 people lived there, of whom 20 per­cent, or 175,000, were Jews.) Trilin­gual wall pos­ters all over Kiev ordered Jewish resi­dents to assem­ble at speci­fied loca­tions at 8 a.m. on this date in 1941. They were to bring with them docu­ments, money, valu­ables, as well as warm clothes, under­wear, and so on. Expecting to be deported to labor camps by train (a rumor to that effect was circu­lated by the Ger­mans), Kiev’s Jews were in­stead marched in groups of one hun­dred to the Babi Yar ravine on the city’s out­skirts, ordered to un­dress, stack their belongings, and then led in groups of ten to the edge of the ravine, where they were machine-gunned by a special team of Ger­man SS troops, sup­ported by Ger­man army and police units and some Ukrai­nian-speaking troops. The mas­sacre of 33,771 Jews on Septem­ber 29–30, 1941, is con­sidered to be one of the three largest single mas­sacres in the his­tory of the Holo­caust and the largest in the his­tory of the Soviet Union. There were 29 known survi­vors. In the months that followed, thou­sands more were seized and taken to Babi Yar where they were exe­cuted. It is esti­mated that more than 100,000 resi­dents of Kiev of all eth­nic groups, mostly civil­ians, were mur­dered by the Nazis at Babi Yar. A con­cen­tration camp was also built in the Kiev suburb of Syrets (Syrez or Syrezky), seve­ral hun­dred yards from the Babi Yar ravine. The Syrets camp housed pri­soners per­ceived to be oppo­nents of the Nazi regime, mainly Jews. About 25,000 Ukrainians died in the camp.

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Babi Yar, Kiev’s Killing Pit, and Nearby Syrets Concentration Camp

Babi Yar burying detail, Kiev, October 1941Ukrainian women visit Babi Yar ravine, Kiev, early October 1941

Left: Johannes Hähle, a military photo­grapher attached to the Ger­man Sixth Army, used a single roll of color film to photo­graph the after­math of the Babi Yar mas­sacre early in Octo­ber 1941. About 300 POWs were taken to the ravine to bury the bodies.

Right: In this photo camp inmates level the earth over the mass graves. A Ger­man sol­dier in the fore­ground shows two Ukrain­ian women the acti­vity in the ravine below. The mass mur­der of Jews in Kiev lasted until Octo­ber 3, 1941. During the following months this Valley of Death con­tinued to be used as a killing site for Jews, Ukrain­ian civil­ians, Soviet POWs, and Roma and Sinti (Gypsies). According to Soviet sources 100,000–200,000 peo­ple were mur­dered at Babi Yar up until Novem­ber 6, 1943, when the area was liber­ated by the Red Army. As stated in the “Opera­tions Situa­tion Report of Ein­satz­gruppe C” of Octo­ber 7, 1941, the Ger­mans claimed to have shot 33,771 Jews in Kiev between September 29 and 30, 1941.

Spot where the cremation took place, Babi Yar, Fall 1943Cremation pyres, Babi Yar, Fall 1943

Left: Before the Germans retreated from Kiev, they attempted to con­ceal the many atro­cities they had com­mitted at Babi Yar. For six weeks from August to Septem­ber 1943, more than 300 chained pri­soners from the Syrets con­cen­tra­tion camp were forced to ex­hume and burn the corpses. On Septem­ber 29, 1943, 15 pri­soners managed to escape; 312 of their com­rades were killed by the SS either during or on com­ple­tion of the work. This photo and the next one were taken by a Soviet team that visited the site after the Ger­man retreat from Kiev. West­ern jour­nalists were also taken to the site. Hun­dreds of photos like these became exhibits for the pro­se­cu­tion at the post­war Inter­na­tional Mili­tary Tri­bunal at Nuremberg.

Right: The corpses were cremated on funeral pyres built on iron rails and stood as tall as a two-story house. The piles of corpses were not set on fire at regu­lar in­ter­vals. Only when one or more piles were ready were they covered with wood and soaked with oil and gaso­line and then ignited. Each funeral pyre took two nights and a day to burn com­pletely. After­wards the prison detail col­lected the remaining bones and pul­verized them with tomb­stones taken from the near­by Jewish ceme­tery. Finally the ashes were in­spected in order to collect any remaining silver and gold. The ashes were scattered on farm­land in the vicinity.

Syrets concentration camp near Babi Yar, Kiev, UkrainePOW corpses at Syrets concentration camp, Kiev, Ukraine

Left: Built in June 1942 the Syrets concen­tration camp was located near the Babi Yar ravine. Men and women were housed in wooden barracks and dug­outs with doors and stairs leading below ground, as shown in this photo. The in­mates were under­fed and many starved to death, with daily mor­tality of around 10–15 peo­ple. Besides Jews, the in­terned also included Com­mu­nists, cap­tured Soviet parti­sans, and Soviet POWs. Inmates began to be evacu­ated to other camps to the west in Septem­ber 1943 and in late Octo­ber the camp was liquidated. About three mil­lion Soviet pri­soners of war perished in German captivity.

Right: After the Red Army retook control of Kiev on Novem­ber 6, 1943, the Syrets con­cen­tra­tion camp was con­verted into a camp for Ger­man POWs and oper­ated until 1946. This picture, entered as evi­dence at the Nurem­berg Trials, shows lines of Soviet corpses that had been dug out of camp trash pit.

Below: Monument to the Murdered Ones in Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine. For poli­tical rea­sons an offi­cial memo­rial was not built at the killing site until 1976. The first memo­rial did not men­tion that most victims were Jews. The mas­sacre of 33,771 peo­ple on Septem­ber 29–30, 1941, was the largest single mass killing for which the Nazi regime and its col­labo­rators were respon­sible during their cam­paign against the Soviet Union. Only ten per­cent of the Babi Yar dead have been identified.

Monument to the Murdered Ones in Babi Yar, Kiev, Ukraine


Video Memorializing Those Murdered at Babi Yar on September 29–30, 1941