KIEV—The soil of Babi Yar is the color of pulverized ashes, its sooty gray and green landscape interrupted by the occasional trash heap. The sprawling park, just a few metro stops away from Kiev’s city center, was once dubbed “Kiev’s Switzerland” for its seemingly placid, plunging landscape.
But Babi Yar’s history is not one of calm. On September 29, 1941, German forces and their Ukrainian collaborators began a two-day massacre of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews, including many members of my family, in the ravine that once cut through the park. The steep canyon spared their killers the trouble of digging a mass grave. Ultimately, over 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar during World War II, including thousands of Roma and Soviet political prisoners along with most of Ukraine’s Jewish community. The site has become emblematic of the “Holocaust by bullets” propagated throughout Eastern Europe, a method of mass murder that preceded the gas chambers of Auschwitz and ensured victims came face-to-face with their killers.
Today, Babi Yar is a popular local hangout, complete with a makeshift soccer field and playground. When I visited the field on a sunny afternoon this summer, two young Ukrainians sat on the edge of the ravine smoking cigarettes, their legs dangling over a picnicking couple sprawled out in the valley below. Beside them towered a Soviet monument commemorating the “citizens of Kiev” killed there. On the ground beneath them, seven decades prior, the retreating German army exhumed and burned the corpses of their victims. Nearby, mothers pushed strollers along the park’s winding paths, past rows of men on wooden benches guzzling beer. At the entrance to the Dorohozhychi metro station, passersby queued before a bright neon-colored stand called “Big Burger” to buy shwarma and soda. Gas stations, an auto shop, and billboards advertising nearby apartments for rent dot the highway straddling the former killing field.