Upon the 78th anniversary of Babi Yar: It was a poet’s pen rather than a soldier’s bayonet that first punctured the Iron Curtain.


When a human atrocity takes place in your figurative backyard, it is hard – if not impossible – to let go of that memory. The events which took place at Babi Yar were first obliterated physically, with cremation pyres manned by adjacent concentration camp prisoners – Jews and non-Jews – followed by other attempts to hide and disguise the site, including construction there during the Soviet era.

Yevtushenko was acquainted with the Russian-language writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, who would later write Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, and Yevtushenko asked him to take him to the site. Yevtushenko recalled to the BBC World Service on the 70th anniversary of the massacre: “What I saw was absolutely terrible – there were lots of trucks and they were unloading stinking garbage on the tens of thousands of people who were killed. I did not expect that.” He went back to his hotel and wrote the poem in under five hours.

Babi Yar – ‘grandmother’s gully’ in Ukrainian – is, surprisingly, not a remote location. It is a natural ravine in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, then the city’s outskirts near the medieval monastery of St. Cyril.

The Babi Yar atrocities followed Germany’s surprise invasion of its ally, the Soviet Union, in June 1941. Some 160,000 Jews resided in Kiev, comprising around 20% of the city’s population. German forces entered Kiev on September 19, 1941.

DURING THE first week of the German occupation, on September 24, two major explosions occurred, thought to be set off by Soviet military engineers, blasting the German headquarters. The sabotage was deemed by the Nazi commandant to be the responsibility of the Jews, and this became the pretext for retribution to murder the remaining Jews of Kiev. It also roused enormous animosity on the part of Ukrainians towards their Jewish neighbors.

According to Yad Vashem, there were still about 60,000-70,000 Jews living in the city, mostly those who could not flee: women, children, the elderly and the sick.