This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar tragedy and Babi Yar. Context uses archival footage to remind people what happened.
The following order was directed to the Jews living in Kiev and its surrounding areas on September 26, 1941:
All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Viis’kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.
At the time, Babi Yar was the largest massacre during the Holocaust with 30,771 Jews falling to their deaths in the Babi Yar ravine over a two-day span. Only the 1941 Odessa massacre and the Aktion Erntefest would surpass the tragic event. Overall, some 100-150K people were killed at Babi Yar–not all of which were Jews. Had the world been paying attention, maybe things would have been different. The United States certainly could have done better prior to December 1941.
Vasilii Grossman‘s “Ukraine without Jews” scrolls by in its complete text at one point in the film. It is slow enough to allow audiences to read it. This haunting text was first published in 1943. And a reminder of what happened because of Jew-hatred. NEVER AGAIN.
Film images were restored by Jonas Zagorskas. Zagorskas did an excellent job with the process because there were moments in which I thought the events were being recreated on location. But despite these events being well documented, talk of what happened at the ravine was largely taboo in the 1970s. In fact, the ravine would end up being filled in with industrial waste during the 1950s! Of course, this is a few years after placing Nazis on trial and executing them for their crimes. But should one be treating the location of a mass murder in such a manner? Hardly! For all of the crimes that happened at Auschwitz, the site is now home to a museum.
In any event, these images that allow us to have a glimpse of life in Kiev under German occupation. It’s well-known by now when it comes to the Nazis and propaganda but the footage on display isn’t the type that would usually make it into their newsreels. Shockingly, the film shows the public hanging of Nazis in the town square in 1946. While Hitler may have evaded justice by taking the cowardly way out, these Nazi troops did manage to face justice.
The film runs two hours but it’s not light viewing by any means. It places a tragedy in the context for which it took place 80 years ago after the Nazis invaded Soviet Ukraine. Most surprisingly, the local civilians just let it happen. They didn’t rise up to resist when Jews were shot and killed by the Sonderkommando 4a of the Einsatzgruppe C, which was assisted by two battalions of the Police Regiment South and Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. The same civilians would just outright betray their Jewish neighbors even when they were to ill to make the march to the ravine. Very few of them did the right thing by helping to save the remaining Jews living in Ukraine. It is beyond sickening and disgusting that they just let this happen.
If we do not remember our past, we our doomed to repeat it. It may be a cliché but it’s true. Jew-hatred is all around us and it is getting worse. In recent years, the Jewish population of Europe has started to make aliyah in larger numbers. In the UK, Jews are facing an uptick in antisemitic attacks. Here in the United States, it’s on the rise with no signs of stopping. We even have elected members of Congress using antisemitic language in recent months on both sides of the aisle. Statements against antisemitism have been condemned and followed by an “All Lives Matter” statement. Jews have been facing antisemitism long before the founding of Israel in 1948. It’s within this context that we revisit a tragedy that befell the Jewish people in 1941 when 30,771 Jews were shot and killed at the Babi Yar ravine in a two-day span.
Babi Yar. Context is essential viewing for anyone looking to understand Jew-hatred in the 1930-40s. NEVER AGAIN.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Sergei Loznitsa