Now the capital of the independent nation of Ukraine, Kiev was the capital of the Soviet Ukraine when the German Army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Before the German invasion, some 160,000 Jews resided in Kiev, comprising about 20 percent of the city's population.
Approximately 100,000 Jews fled Kiev before the German advance. Axis forces killed or captured more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers in the great encirclement during the Battle of Kiev. Most of the captured Soviet prisoners of war never returned alive. German forces entered Kiev on September 19, 1941. Along with a large portion of Axis-occupied Ukraine, the city was incorporated into the Reichskommissariat Ukraine, headed by East Prussian Nazi district leader Erich Koch.
During the first days of the German occupation, two major explosions, apparently set off by Soviet military engineers, destroyed the German headquarters and part of the city center. The Germans used the sabotage as a pretext to murder the remaining Jews of Kiev. At that time, there were about 60,000 Jews in the city. Most of those who remained were women, children, the ailing, and the elderly, who had been unable to flee.
On September 29-30, 1941, SS and German police units and their auxiliaries, under guidance of members of Einsatzgruppe C, murdered a large portion of the Jewish population of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the city. As the victims moved into the ravine, Einsatzgruppen detachments from Sonderkommando 4a under SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel shot them in small groups. According to reports by the Einsatzgruppe to headquarters, 33,771 Jews were massacred in this two-day period. This was one of the largest mass killings at an individual location during World War II. It was surpassed only by the massacre of 50,000 Jews at Odessa by German and Romanian units in October 1941 and by the two-day shooting operation Operation Harvest Festival in early November 1943, which claimed 42,000-43,000 Jewish victims.
In the months following the massacre, German authorities stationed at Kiev killed thousands more Jews at Babi Yar, as well as non-Jews including Roma (Gypsies), Communist officials, Soviet prisoners of war, and Soviet civilians. It is estimated that some 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar.
The Soviet army liberated Kiev on November 6, 1943. In January 1946, proceedings in Kiev tried 15 members of the German police for the crimes at Babi Yar, with actress Dina Pronicheva, one of 29 survivors of the September massacre, testifying before the Soviet court.
Critical Thinking Questions
- What pressures and motivations may have affected soldiers to volunteer for the Einsatzgruppen and later murder innocent civilians?
- Investigate what penalties there may have been for refusing to shoot Jews.
- Learn about the postwar Einsatzgruppen trial.