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The Other Babyn Yars: Remembering Where Else Ukraine's Jews Were Massacred

In an undated photo taken during World War II, a Jewish man in western Ukraine is attacked by a mob next to a bust of Lenin.
In an undated photo taken during World War II, a Jewish man in western Ukraine is attacked by a mob next to a bust of Lenin.

Seven months after 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were shot, their bodies dumped into a ravine known as Babyn Yar, a group of 20 people marched to the outskirts of a village southwest of the capital, Kyiv. Nazi soldiers ordered them to widen two dug-out silos.

The following day, one of those villagers, Tikhon Lysak, later recalled, police drove more than 700 men, women, and children to the pits on the outskirts of Lypovets. They were ordered to undress and enter the pit and lie down in groups of 20 to 30, Lysak said, according to a typewritten record of his account that has faded with the decades. Then the "German executioners shot them in bursts with machine guns."

Eighty years on, the Babyn Yar massacre is recognized as one of the worst mass killings of Jews carried out by the Nazi regime in occupied Ukraine.
But that slaughter of the Jews, which took place on September 29-30, 1941, was far from isolated.

WATCH: Eighty Years Later, Ukraine Remembers The Nazi Atrocities At Babyn Yar

Eighty Years Later, Ukraine Remembers The Nazi Atrocities At Babyn Yar
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The map of modern Ukraine is littered with hundreds of sites of lesser-known but no-less-deadly contributions to the Nazi Holocaust. Like Lypovets, where, Lysak remembers, a second group of Jews was driven to the pit containing the bodies of the dead as well as the still living. Then it was covered with dirt, he said, according to the record of his account..

"The earth above the grave shook for several hours," Lysak said. Those buried alive were still moving.

No one in the local ghetto escaped, according to documents kept in the provincial Interior Ministry archives, and "800 Soviet citizens, mostly Jews," were shot dead.

Austere Monuments

The scale of the mass killings that took place in towns and villages across Ukraine varies from the single digits to the tens of thousands. Many of the sites are marked with austere monuments as part of the continuing effort to keep local extermination campaigns in the collective memory.

After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the mass killings of Jews and Roma -- as well as communists, Soviet POWs, Ukrainian nationalists, and religious figures, among other "undesirables" -- quickly followed.

Often aided by local police units, massacres were carried out by German murder units across Soviet Ukraine.

By November 1941, all of Soviet Ukraine was under occupation.

By the spring of 1942, the "final solution to the Jewish question" was formally codified at the Wannsee Conference as a plan for genocide.

A memorial to the massacre at Lypovets
A memorial to the massacre at Lypovets

Early massacres took place months after the Nazi invasion.

In the western city of Kamyanets-Podilskyy in August 1941, 23,600 local and Hungarian Jews were killed.

In the central city of Vinnitsya, 15,000 Jews were killed, among them a man whose impending death at the edge of a mass grave was infamously documented in July 1941 with a photograph bearing the hand-scribbled message "the last Jew in Vinnitsya." In the nearby town of Khmilnyk, 8,000 were killed, and in Proskurov (today Khmelniktskyy), 7,000.

To the north, 80 Roma were killed in the summer of 1942 in the village of Divoshyn. Outside the village of Kalynivka, 32 Roma were reportedly killed when they were locked in a barn that was set alight.

In Lypovets, the first mass murders took place there in September 1941, when a group of German police officers detained several dozen young Jews, mostly men, and transported by truck to a field outside the village's Jewish cemetery.

Transcripts from eyewitness statements taken during a 1944 investigation by the Soviet NKVD -- the predecessor to the KGB -- described what followed.

"In the town of Lypovets, the German SS death squad conducted a raid on the settlement," according to a document archived by Connecting Memory, an international project dedicated to marking and protecting Jewish mass graves in Ukraine.

The detachment, the investigation found, took the group of about 200 innocent civilians to a field "and brutally shot them."

The killings, according to researchers, were likely carried out by members of German paramilitary death squads whose job was to follow the invading regular army soldiers and establish order in the newly occupied territories, which included clearing them of "undesirables."

The rest of Lypovets' Jewish population was sent to live in ghettos and serve the regime as forced laborers. Total annihilation came in April 1942.

Many of the village's Jews did manage to get out ahead of the Nazis' arrival or were mobilized into the Red Army.

According to historian Ray Brandon, who researched the history of the Holocaust in Lypovets for Connecting Memory, about 1,000 Jews were left behind.

Leonid Gulko, who was 10 years old at the time and is today approaching 90, was among those to escape Lypovets. Now a U.S. citizen, he said that he and other children were loaded onto a train and sent to the Caucasus.

"We were bombed along the way, but we were children, we didn't understand," he told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.

After Soviet troops drove the Nazis out of Lypovets in January 1944, some of the village's Jewish population returned, including Gulko.

"When my grandparents returned, they saw that their house had burned down," Gulko said. "There was nothing left."

His mother's home, he said, was also gone, and she was unable to locate neighbors, friends, colleagues, and classmates.

Past Lessons, Future Lessons

According to historian Andriy Usach of the newly formed After Silence initiative, which aims to gain a better understanding of Ukraine's past and present, an entire layer of the town's rich Jewish history was wiped out.

"Jews have lived in this area since the middle of the 17th century," he told RFE/RL. "They occupied niches in the traditional economy of the town -- they were shoemakers, hairdressers, or photographers."

In an area where Jews often accounted for 30 to 50 percent of the population, Usach said, their numbers were reduced to dozens.

And the Holocaust was carried out by the Nazis in such a way that it crippled entire communities, Usach said: many local, non-Jewish Ukrainians were involved, including government officials, those who drove Jews to execution sites, and some who themselves killed, robbed, beat, and raped.

Many Ukrainian organizations and individuals are now working to keep lessons of a national tragedy alive.

In Lypovets, history teacher Olena Nenyukova and her students work with German and Ukrainian state initiatives to maintain Jewish monuments and to advance people's knowledge of the Holocaust.

"We started doing the educational part of this project: looking for materials in the archives, creating information banners, recording witnesses, conducting tours," Nenyukova says of her work with Germany's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies.

Survivors are also involved. Gulko's family, for example, is behind the Remember Us initiative, which has raised funds to open a small Holocaust museum in Lypovets, which today has around 8,000 people.

According to Usach, the local memory of the Holocaust is no longer a matter for Jews alone.

"The Holocaust in our area is becoming a large-scale topic that includes the experience of Jews and non-Jews," he said.

Written by Michael Scollon, based on reporting by Maria Shur and Dmitro Shurkhalo of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

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