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Ukraine Marks 75th Anniversary Of Babi Yar Massacre

  • RFE/RL

KYIV -- Foreign dignitaries joined Ukraine’s president and others in marking the 75th anniversary of the World War II-era mass execution of nearly 34,000 Jews on the outskirts of Kyiv.

The slaughter of Jewish men, women, and children at the Babi Yar ravine, which began on September 29, 1941, was an early example of the industrial-scale murder the Nazis would employ in their quest to annihilate European Jews.

Overall, up to 100,000 more people -- Jews, Roma, and Soviet prisoners of war -- were executed at Babi Yar during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine.

"There have been those [in Ukraine] for which one felt shame. And this, too, cannot be erased from our collective memory,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said.

"No Ukrainian has the right to forget this tragedy," he said during the commemoration ceremonies.

Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman also called on all Ukrainians to never forget the victims.

"There were Jews, Roma people, Soviet prisoners of war, and fighters of the Ukrainian liberation movement among those executed by firing squads," Hroysman wrote on his Facebook page. "We remember each of them."

PHOTO GALLERY: The Story Of Babi Yar

Other foreign officials in attendance were German President Joachim Gauck, European Council President Donald Tusk, and an Israeli government delegation.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had been scheduled to attend but cut short his state visit to Ukraine to return to Israel following the death of former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.

Ahead of the September 29 ceremonies, Rivlin sparked some controversy when he told Ukrainian lawmakers that many of the crimes committed against Jews "were committed by Ukrainians," particularly members of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

Members of the nationalist group collaborated with Nazi officers in the early years of the war because they felt the Nazis could help them win independence from the Soviet Union.

ALSO READ: Historian Timothy Snyder: Babi Yar A Tragedy For All Ukrainians

Rivlin warned against making heroes today of complex historical figures such as members of the group.

Parliament vice speaker Iryna Herashchenko criticized Rivlin’s remarks as undiplomatic.

"We do not hush up either heroic or dramatic or black pages in our history, but there is a time and a place for every word," Herashchenko wrote on her Facebook page on September 28.

Ukraine's ongoing confrontation with Russia, including Russia's 2014 seizure of Crimea, has created a rising tide of nationalism that has lionized some of the groups accused of World War II crimes against the Jews.

The commemoration marks a growing recognition of Babi Yar as the key symbol of the Nazi program in the former Soviet Union. Prior to Ukraine’s 1991 independence, Soviet authorities recognized the ravine as a site of Nazi-inflicted mass atrocities on Soviet citizens but downplayed that the majority of victims were Jewish.

WATCH: Remembering The Massacre Of Roma At Babi Yar

Timothy Snyder, an expert on the Holocaust and professor at Yale University, said Soviet officials avoided recognizing that the executions at Babi Yar deliberately targeted the Jewish community.

"For the Soviet authorities, memorializing the Holocaust was not useful because it would reveal the fact that Nazism is not just of a form of fascism against communism but also a force against the Jews," he told RFE/R. "Therefore, for the Soviet authorities, it was inconvenient to confirm that Jews had suffered more than other parts of Soviet society."

During the Soviet era, the areas on and near the ravine were built up, including the construction of a dam to retain industrial run-off.

The 20th anniversary of the massacre gave increased attention to the site, which became a meeting place for Jewish activists in the 1960s. In 1976, a monument was erected at Babi Yar for the first time, dedicated to all Soviet citizens killed during the Nazi occupation. It made no specific mention of the Jews killed.

After the Soviet collapse, the Ukrainian government apologized and on the 50th anniversary of the killings a separate menorah-shaped memorial was dedicated that specifically identified the Jewish victims as part of the Holocaust -- the systematic killing of some 6 million Jews across Europe.

Kyiv resident Volodymyr Pogrilchuk said he was almost 6 at the time of the killing.

"It was a nightmare. And I come here every year,” he told AP.

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, AFP, Interfax, and TASS
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