Ukraine revisits Babi Yar tragedy 75 years on

Three quarters of a century after 34,000 people were killed by Nazi German troops and local Ukrainian forces, Jews in Ukraine still live in uncertainty amid rising nationalism.

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

A Jewish Menorah in Babi Yar, Ukraine

Ukrainians are marking the 75th anniversary of one of the worst single massacres to take place on its soil in World War II.

Between September 29 and 30, 1941, around 34,000 Jews, Roma and other groups were killed by Nazi German troops, supported by some local collaborators, in the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kiev.

The Nazis then went on to capture the western flanks of the Soviet Union on their way towards Moscow.

Soviet POWs being forced by the Nazis to dig up the remains of Jews killed at Babi Yar in 1943

Today, the remaining 100,000-strong Jewish community in the city of 2.8 million people is a mere shadow of its former self, having once comprised about a quarter of the city’s population.

Raisa Maistrenko, the only living survivor of the tragedy, was just three years old when Nazi troops set the Jews of Babi Yar on the “path to death.”

"All the Jews decided to go because they thought they would be evacuated by train as the railway station was nearby. Nobody could possibly assume there would be a mass execution," she said.

Raisa Maistrenko revisits the site where 18 of her relatives were killed 75 years ago.

Raisa and her grandmother managed to escape the executions by hiding in a local cemetery before making their way back home under the cover of darkness.

Only 29 people survived the massacre, either by falling into the mass grave before being shot in the back or wearing crosses to hide their true religion.

Raisa lost 18 relatives in the tragedy.

Nazi troops executing Jews in the Babi Yar massacre of 1941

'Tragic page'

Marking the anniversary, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko honoured the victims of the massacre at a commemoration ceremony in Kiev.

"The Holocaust is the most tragic page in the history of the Jewish people, as well as of Ukrainians," he said. "Together we are building Ukraine, where anti-Semitism has no place.”

Poroshenko also signed a pledge on Thursday to build a new memorial for the victims. "It is important to all mankind to remember the gory facts of the Holocaust - about the dangers of hatred, bigotry and racism," Poroshenko tweeted. 

Around 6 million Jews were killed during World War II at the hands of Nazi forces. Scores of Roma were also killed, with death toll estimates ranging from 250,000 to 1.5 million.

The Soviet Union suffered the most casualties with over 20 million people killed, around half of whom were civilians.

Three quarters of a century later, Jews in Ukraine again find themselves surrounded by uncertainty in the face of rising far-right sentiment.

Just as in the past, nationalist elements in Ukraine today are mobilising against Russian expansionism in the face of a pro-Russian rebellion in its eastern regions.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who cut short his planned attendance to the commemoration ceremony after the death of his predecessor Shimon Peres, did not hesitate to remind Ukrainian lawmakers in Kiev on Tuesday that "many of the crimes were committed by Ukrainians."

"They victimised the Jews, killed them, and in many cases reported them to the Nazis," Rivlin said.