The German “aktion” at Babyn Yar was the largest open-air massacre during the so-called “Holocaust by Bullets,” but the precise location of the two-day Nazi atrocity remained hidden for nearly 80 years.
Only in recent months were hundreds of puzzle pieces assembled by Martin Dean, a former Scotland Yard investigator who specializes in Nazi war crimes.
Through the efforts of Dean and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), a 3-D simulation of the massacre site — then and now — was created.
“I believe my work goes considerably beyond the previous understanding of historians that have worked on this topic,” said Dean in an interview with The Times of Israel.
During 36 hours at the end of September, 1941, the German occupiers of Kyiv ordered Jews to report for what was appeared to be deportation. The march to the outskirts of town, however, led to Babyn Yar — Grandmother’s Ravine, also known as Babi Yar — where Germans and Ukrainians slaughtered 33,771 people, according to a preserved SS report. Most of the victims were women, children, and the elderly.
In the following months, at least 70,000 people were murdered at the ravine, including Romanis, Ukrainian nationalists, and Soviet prisoners of war. Killing operations were halted in 1943, when Berlin ordered that all mass execution sites be excavated so the corpses could be destroyed.
“The Germans feared the Soviets would use any such evidence for propaganda purposes,” said Dean.
“Ironically some of what we know about the locations of the shootings comes from about a dozen former prisoners who burned the corpses, but then managed to escape just before the Nazis planned to kill them,” added the researcher.
Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, the Soviet Union suppressed memory of the Jewish genocide. National policy was to erase differences among the victims of Nazism, which included “erasing” the ravine itself by filling it with brick-pulp and other forms of landfill. Those changes made way for what rests atop the ravine today: apartment buildings, a street, a park, and several modest memorials.
“Babyn Yar is a symbol of the Soviet Union’s efforts to physically erase memory,” said human rights icon Natan Sharansky at a commemoration on September 29. During the gathering, Ukraine’s government committed to supporting the memorial center.
“[Soviet leaders] took the most tragic part of our history and tried to make it disappear. Thanks to an independent Ukraine, the policy was fully changed toward the memory of the Holocaust,” said Sharansky.
Largely funded by Russian-Jewish philanthropists, the memorial center has garnered publicity for a controversial plan to use Virtual Reality (VR). But there have also been research milestones including the gathering of 900 previously unknown victim names, as well as insight into the ravine’s vanished topography.
“In the end, I conducted around nine months of careful research and wrote more than 30 detailed reports, each analyzing a specific location or aspect of the mass shooting, trying to highlight any new information discovered or significant conclusions that we had reached,” said Dean.
With doors set to open in 2026, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center’s organizers call their collaboration “the most important Holocaust project currently in development anywhere in the world and the first memorial site of its kind in the former Soviet Union, after decades in which the issue was silenced for ideological and political reasons.”
A tipping point in Kyiv
As the Red Army began to push Germany out of occupied lands in 1943, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the exhumation and destruction of corpses from the “Final Solution.”
Throughout Poland, Ukraine, and other German-occupied countries, SS units were tasked with using prisoners to exhume and cremate more than a million corpses. The next erasure of memory at Babyn Yar took place years later, while Ukraine was dominated by the Soviet Union. At that point, the erasure was both physical and ideological.
“The whole area of the ravine was literally flattened and turned into a park that is unrecognizable compared to the wartime terrain,” said Dean, who has published on the “second wave” of the Holocaust in Ukraine, in which local German civil administrators collaborated with Ukrainian forces to murder Jews.
Since joining the Babyn Yar project in 2017, Dean mapped the route taken by victims during the massacre, which the Nazis timed to take place on Yom Kippur. Dean was able to cut through decades of confusion about the area’s former topography, including where specific photos were taken.
“I discovered that a key feature [of the massacre], the ‘sand quarry,’ which can be seen in some key wartime images, did not come into existence until the late 1930s, such that even people familiar with Kyiv, were not aware of this feature and could not find it on maps,” said Dean.
At the sand quarry, Jews were forced to leave their belongings and undress under harsh beatings and gunpoint. Next, victims were hurried up to the ravine edge, where firing squads murdered people in groups of ten.
According to Dean, the mass grave was about 150 meters (circa 500 feet) in length. Corpses were stacked in layers, like sardines, in a process refined during other massacres by SS commander Paul Blobel. After the killings, photos were taken of Germans and Ukrainians using shovels to close the grave, which stretched the length of two football fields.
Massacres of this nature had been taking place for three months, but there had never been so many Jews murdered in one place. Because the execution took place on the edge of a European capital, news of Babyn Yar spread around the world within days.
According to Holocaust historians, the lack of international outrage about the murder of 33,771 Jews in Kyiv was emboldening to the Nazis.
During the second half of 1941, the German mobile killing squads — Einsatzgruppen — conducted massacres at hundreds of locations in Poland and occupied Soviet lands. This was the peak of the Holocaust by Bullets, in which local collaborators helped German units — from the SS, but also some regular army units — murder more than one million Jews.
Although the Babyn Yar massacre was successful by German standards, it also highlighted some problems. There were photos taken of Jews marching to the ravine, and many civilians heard or saw parts of the massacre. The killers had to be drunk to cope with slaughtering so many women and children, and there was also the “inefficiency” of bullets wounding — but not killing — some of the victims.
Three months after Babyn Yar, the pace of genocide was intensified in Berlin. The creation of death camps with gas chambers was intended to solve the problems of localized, open-air massacres, including the desire to spare German men from having to murder their victims up-close. Even after the creation of death camps, however, executions continued at the Kyiv ravine into 1943.
‘To share their feelings’
The evidence examined by historian Dean included oral testimonies, the drawings of soldiers, and even shadows cast by trees.
“My methodology has been to combine ground photographs with aerial photography, maps, and especially witness testimony,” said Dean. “In the postwar German legal investigations there are hundreds of testimonies by men who acted as guards or even shooters at Babyn Yar. I looked especially for any references to geographical features or descriptions of the process of how the shootings were organized,” said the investigator.
In addition to German and Ukrainian perpetrators whose testimonies were transcribed and translated, there were a handful of wounded Jews who were able to crawl out of the ravine at night. Dean juxtaposed all of these eye-witness descriptions to locate where the massacre took place.
“Fortunately, there were several photographs that had overlapping views, so we could piece together a panorama of the photos by finding distinctive vegetation or terrain features that overlapped,” said Dean.
“These were then also compared to aerial photographs and maps to visualize the entire topography,” said Dean. “By enlarging ground and aerial photographs, it was possible to identify features not obvious to the naked eye,” he said.
Among the pieces of evidence considered by Dean, some items had been previously discarded by investigators.
“In particular, there were two quite primitive sketch maps drawn by Germans, which do not look very useful at first sight,” said Dean. “However, together with the testimonies of these witnesses, the sketch maps strongly corroborate the overall picture I have built from comparing the various sources.”
Although the memorial center won’t open for six years, there are a dozen projects taking place through the auspices of BYHMC. Among them is the creation of a Virtual Reality (VR) installation intended to help visitors connect “emotionally” with what took place at Babyn Yar, according to Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the memorial center’s artistic director.
Last year, Khrzhanovsky’s film “DAU” premiered as part of his long-time multidisciplinary project blending cinema, art, and anthropology. After being in the headlines for his 24/7 “Stalinist Truman Show,” Khrzhanovsky — whose mother is Jewish — lobbied to work on the Babyn Yar project, whose budget is $100,000,000.
According to Khrzhanovsky, the medium is not the message when it comes to his role in shaping the museum.
“Technology is not the goal itself,” Khrzhanovsky told The Times of Israel. “It is a tool, but it is also a new language. VR technology will enable the audience to feel closer to the victims, understand who they and their families were, hear sounds from the past, and share their feelings, thoughts and actions,” said the director, who assured the public there will be no VR-based “role-playing.”
The emerging center will memorialize not only the victims of Babyn Yar, but all victims of the “Holocaust by Bullets” across Nazi-occupied Soviet countries. There is no Holocaust museum of this scope east of Poland, even though the genocide started in those countries with heavy participation from local collaborators — including police forces.
According to former Scotland Yard investigator Dean, the center is “broadly viewed as a necessary step toward creating a strong civil society in Ukraine.”
After 2026, visitors to the memorial center will learn what took place beneath them in Kyiv — a two-day massacre followed by the incineration of all evidence, after which the topography was slowly erased. Dean, along with eye-witnesses to Babyn Yar, have ensured the precise location of this atrocity is not lost to history a third time.
Header: After the mass murder of more than 33,000 Jews at Babyn Yar, Germans and Ukrainians walk atop the mass grave (public domain)
Source: Matt Lebovic – TOI