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“Babi Yar: Context” Explores the Mass Murder of Jews in Rare Film Footage

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By: Fern Sidman

In the annals of the gruesome record of the history of the Holocaust, many examples of sadistic mass murders stand out, but one in particular has received more attention as of late due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

On September 29th through the 30th of 1941, Ukrainian collaborators who joined Nazi soldiers murdered 33,771 Jews at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kyiv.

The decision to murder all the Jews in Kyiv was made by the military governor Generalmajor Kurt Eberhard, the Police Commander for Army Group South, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich Jeckeln, and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch. Sonderkommando 4a as the sub-unit of Einsatzgruppe C, along with the aid of the SD and Order Police battalions with the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police backed by the Wehrmacht, who carried out the orders, according to a report on Wikipedia.

These mobile killing squads, known as Einsatzgruppen, are estimated to have taken at least 1,5 million lives.

The massacre was the largest mass-murder under the auspices of the Nazi regime and its Ukrainian collaborators during the campaign against the Soviet Union, and it has been called “the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust” to that particular date. It is only surpassed overall by the later 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941 (committed by German and Romanian troops), and by Aktion Erntefest of November 1943 in occupied Poland with 42,000–43,000 victims, according to the report.

In a new and riveting documentary called “Babi Yar: Context” Ukrainian-born filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, uses rare archival footage to provide a detailed visual narrative of the genocide that took place so many years ago, as was reported by the New York Times.

During the World War II years, Germany made the decision to document its invasions and military achievements by memorializing their sadism through film records. As such, they brough movie cameras with them. According to a review of the documentary that appeared in the New York Times, the footage used in the film came not only from the German side but from the Soviet Army in 1943 when they regained Kyiv, along with film provided by amateurs.

As such, the review indicates that an extensive cinematic record exists along with a panoply of still images that have mostly languished unseen since the end of the war.

While the Babi Yar massacre took place off camera, the events leading up to it and what immediately followed was documented in both black and white and color film footage.

The Times reported that Loznitza weaved them together and added sound such as crowds murmuring as well as tanks rumbling and “an occasional snippet of intelligible speech.” The review called the assemblage of film “a wrenching and revelatory collage.”

Horrific and nightmarish scenes such as Jews being mercilessly beaten and humiliated after being rounded up can be seen as well as graphic scenes of villages being set ablaze by Nazi soldiers, frozen corpses laying in fields fill with snow and downtown Kyiv in the midst of German bombings. The film also shows scenes of 12 Germans who were publicly hanged after their conviction for devastating atrocities in the years after the war, according to the Times review.

Also in the Loznitza documentary are vivid displays of “the intense individuality of anonymous, ordinary people” such as peasants, perpetrators, victims of Nazi barbarism, bystanders, city dwellers and images of Germans, Jews, Russians and Ukrainians. Several government officials are identified and most prominently is USSR leader Nikita S. Khrushchev (who many might remember as banging his shoe on the desk assigned to him  at the United Nations in New York City when he delivered an address in the early 1960s). Soon after the Nazi war machine was expelled from Russia, did he become the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

While most people featured in the film do not present much dialogue, the documentary does show the intensity of Vasily Grossman, a Soviet Jewish writer and author of the 1943 essay, “Ukraine Without Jews.” According to the Times review, he is quoted in the film to emphasize the enormity of what can’t be shown.”

The review also said that most of “Babi Yar: Context” is not focused so much on words or verbal descriptions of brutality but rather finds “an eloquence in actions and gestures that words might not supply. And also an element of indeterminacy, as you try to read the thoughts and feelings on those faces.”

What is most interesting and certainly quite topical considering the current war on Ukraine is the fact that film tells the viewer what occurred when such Ukrainian cities such as Lvov and Kyiv fall prey to the Nazi army.

The Times review described such scenes as girls wearing traditional costumes while presenting flower bouquets to Nazi officers as well as “banners are hoisted proclaiming the glory of Adolf Hitler and the Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera. When Jews are rounded up, harassed and brutalized, local civilians are on hand to participate.”

As a peripheral note, many Holocaust survivors from the Ukraine region and their now adult children speak of the brutality of the Ukrainian people during and after the Holocaust. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one adult son of a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor who is 63 years of age, told the Jewish Voice, “the visceral hatred that the Ukrainian people had towards Jews truly matched or even exceeded that of the sadism and sick lust for Jewish blood that the Polish people had. My father’s mother, sisters, etc were all killed by the Nazis with the enthusiastic help of the Ukrainians.”

He added that, “Even though we all strongly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and we mourn the loss of human life that has taken place, we must admit that maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin has a point when he says that Ukraine is filled with those who have adopted the philosophies of the Nazis towards Jews. I have always believed that a vocal strain of Nazism still exists in Ukraine.”

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