Exactly 80 years ago today, on 30th September 1941, around 34,000 mostly Jewish men, women and children were shot to death by the Nazis, in the Babi Yar ravine, near Kiev in Ukraine. Some were buried alive. It was the second and final day of an horrific mass murder carried out by the Einsatzgruppen, merciless paramilitary death squads created by Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler’s chief SS lieutenant and one of the key architects of the holocaust. Only a few months earlier, Hitler had torn up the Nazi/Soviet pact and launched the invasion of the USSR, codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’. Convinced that Hitler would be victorious, the Einsatzgruppen moved fast to round up and eliminate political dissidents, government officials, Roma, Jews and homosexuals. They operated behind the advancing German troops, ruthlessly hunting down their civilian quarries in cities, towns and villages in the Nazi occupied territories. The innocent men, women and children were taken to nearby forests, stripped, shot and buried.

Following the Wehrmacht’s capture of Kiev on 19th September 1941, Soviet partisans blew up several buildings occupied by the German military. The Nazis immediately ordered the Einsatzgruppen to eliminate all the Jews in Kiev. An order, in both Russian and Ukrainian, was posted on sites around the city stating: "All the Yids (sic) of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday September 29, 1941 by 8 a.m. at the corner of Melnikova and Dokhterivskaya streets (next to the Jewish cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables and also warm clothing, bed linen etc. Any Yids (sic) who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids (sic) and appropriate the things in them will be shot".

Believing they were to be re-settled, the Jews assembled outside the cemetery at the appointed hour. They were marched over two miles to Babi Yar, where they were herded into barbed-wire enclosures at the top of the ravine, guarded by Ukrainian collaborators, who ordered them to deposit their luggage, bedding and valuables in designated piles. They were told to remove their shoes, coats, clothing and underwear, again piling them in defined areas. Those who complained or hesitated were beaten. The men, women and children were made to trudge naked into the ravine, many mothers cradling their naked babies. A truck driver who witnessed the massacre described the horror that unfolded. He said: “Once undressed, the Jews were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep. When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schultpolizei (uniformed police) and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot. That all happened very quickly. The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun. I saw these marksman stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other.”

There were only fifteen survivors. They had been machine-gunned and left wounded under piles of bullet-riddled corpses, covered by layers of soil, but they managed to struggle free as darkness descended on the horrifying scene. They have provided grim evidence of this murderous bloodbath, which the Nazis subsequently tried to cover up. In August 1943, as the Soviet army advanced through Ukraine, the Germans panicked, conscripting hundreds of concentration camp inmates who were ordered to dig up the bodies. They toiled for over a month, with bulldozers reopening the mass graves, while the bodies were piled onto heaps of wooden logs, doused with petrol and set on fire.  Huge bone-crushing machines were brought in to destroy the remaining evidence. When the task was completed, the workers from the concentration camps were killed.

The extermination of the 34,000 Jews of Kiev in Babi Yar is a gruesome example of Nazi genocide, which people today may have hoped would serve as an historic lesson to future generations. The Nazis were ultimately crushed and the extent of their holocaust against the Jews was revealed. It is known that Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen were responsible for more than one million civilian murders, many of whom were Jews. But the infamous ‘final solution’ accounted for the death of around two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population, with total numbers reaching six million, who succumbed to starvation, disease, torture and extermination. The surviving Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg, with 37 sentenced to death in what should have been a stark lesson to future politicians that there can be no impunity for genocide and crimes against humanity. 

Sadly, those lessons have not been learned. A sham election in Iran has seen a notorious killer, Ebrahim Raisi, known as ‘The Butcher of Tehran’, become president. Listed as an international terrorist in the USA, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called for his indictment for violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. He has boasted of his role as a member of the ‘Death Commission’ appointed by the then Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini in 1988, which oversaw the massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners, mostly supporters of the Mojahedin e-Khalq (MEK)/People’s Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI) opposition movement. Raisi’s role in this genocidal massacre and subsequent human rights violations is now under investigation by the UN.

Raisi has joined an expanding list of ruthless dictators who seem to flaunt the concept of impunity for crimes against humanity, such as Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Vladimir Putin, President of Russia and Kim Young-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea. New arrivals on the scene are the leaders of the Taliban in Afghanistan, where at least 14 members of their government are on the UN Security Council’s terrorist blacklist. The Soviet Ukrainian poet Mikola Bazhan wrote a famous poem about Babi Yar, the final verse of which should act as a blunt reminder to us all:

For such a holocaust no one can ever

Full vengeance take or full requital give.

Accursed be the man who dares forget it!

Accursed he who says to us: “Forgive!”