War memorials are heart breaking places. Genocide memorials are scary. But the most frightening are the ones residing on the places of atrocities, like the Drobytsky Yar Holocaust Memorial.
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For many decades the Drobytsky Yar tragedy was concealed from the public. A small sign, dating back to 1956, was the lone identifier of the Yar. The sign read: “Here lay victims of fascist terror” (“Здесь покоятся жертвы фашистского террора”). It did not mention mass killings of Jews. Some sources name Alexander Kagan, a man brave enough to petition authorities for the construction of a small obelisk in 1974.In 1988, after years of silence, there was another push to recognize victims. An article by a journalist Victoria Lebedeva about Drobytsky Yar was published in Kharkov city newspaper (Вечерний Харьков). Later that year, under the leadership of activists Evgeniy Lisenko and Victor Bojko, a group of volunteers began gathering pictures, letters, and names of victims.In 1991, the fall of the Soviet Union allowed for a more open discussion of previously taboo subjects. A committee of enthusiasts organized a contest for a monument designs. A prominent native Kharkov architect, Alexander Lejbfrejd, together with a well-known artist Victor Savenkov won the contest and started to work on the memorial design.From 1992 to 1994 donations for the memorial were collected and construction began. Donations came primarily from private donors. Ukraine lacked sufficient funds to help finance the memorial, especially due to the turbulent transitional post-Soviet era. There were no municipal funds and soon, private donations dried up. Shortly after the concrete foundation was poured the work stopped and did not restart for several years.In 2001, with Kharkov’s municipal support, in addition to support from various Jewish organizations and private donors, construction resumed under the supervision of S. I. Ishenko, the Righteous among the Nations (праведник мира). In December of 2002, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma officially opened the Drobytsky Yar memorial.In August of 2005 the memorial hall (the Room of Tragedy) was added.Two years later, in 2007, during a construction of an apartment complex at the site of old Jewish ghetto, remains of 150 bodies were discovered. The victims’ bodies were moved and buried at the Drobytsky Yar. It took two years to finance a burial headstone.
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The Memorial is built on the site of nine mass graves and occupies over 7 hectares.Even now, 70 years after the massacre, the burials’ boarders are not clearly marked. There is no indication that thousands of peoples are buried right under your feet. There are only temporary looking signs identify the burial places. The sign simply says:“burial place” (“место захоронения”).
From a large menorah at the entrance to the Memorial, a narrow winding road (the Road to Eternity) leads to a tall main monument. The Room of Tragedy constructed below the main monument lists names of the victims on every wall. The list, however, is only partially complete and volunteers continue their work in identifying victims’ names. victims’ names are printed out and taped to walls.
“The removal from Ukraine of surplus agricultural products to provide the Reich with supplies is possible on condition that the internal consumption in Ukraine should be reduced to the minimum. This will be achieved through the following measures: 1. The destruction of the unnecessary mouths (Jews), and residents of big Ukrainian cities…”
Niurinbergskii protsess [Nuremberg trials]: Collected materials in 7 volumes – Vol. 1, p. 714.
On October 24, 1941, Nazi German forces captured Kharkov. Kharkov was the largest Soviet city occupied by Nazis during World War II. The city laid in ruins with no running water, electricity or food – everything was destroyed. The majority of Kharkov’s residents evacuated, but almost half a million people remained. Throughout the next two years of occupation residents of the city endured hunger and fear; some people died, others were killed. The fate of Jews was different – Kharkov’s Jewish population, the third largest ethnic group (after Ukrainians and Russians), ceased to exist.
On December 5th, 1941, Nazis began taking a population census of Kharkov. A special clause in the announcement made by Kharkov’s City Council required Jews to register by completing a separate yellow form. This is where the name “yellow lists” comes from.
Each form had a price: white forms, for the general public cost 1 ruble, and yellow forms for Jews cost 10 rubles. Additionally, Nazis required the superintendent of each building to complete a form, detailing the identities and nationalities of each tenant. This information was later matched and verified to the individual forms. All paperwork was required to be completed within 3 days. According to archive records 10,271 Jewish people registered. This number did not encompass the entirety of the Jewish population. Some Jews attempted to hide, some had no valid passports, some used bribery to register on the white list, and others bluntly risked their lives and did not comply with the order.
On December 14th, 1941, all of Kharkov’s Jews, including newborn children, were ordered to relocate to barracks located 15 kilometers from the city’s downtown at the site of Kharkov Tractor Plant (a large manufacturing factory). For three days a human river of freezing people moved to the eastern outskirts of the city. Some people froze to death along the way, many old and weak were shot on the spot. Those who survived were crowded into barracks.
The winter was very harsh – temperatures during the day remained steadily below negative 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). The barracks had no heat, no toilets, and doors and windows were broken.
Killings began immediately by special SS-units (killing squads) assisted by the local police.
People were taken in groups four kilometers away from the ghetto to a ravine known as Drobitsky Yar. Some were driven there by trucks while others were forced to walk in the bitter cold. For all of them the ravine was final destination. Many were stripped naked in search for valuables before been shot. By some accounts, kids were pushed over the cliff and buried alive. Those who could not move (old, ill and handicapped) were shot in the barracks. In January of 1942 it was all over. The Jewish ghetto ceased to exist. You can read more about the Tragedy here.
On August 23, 1943, the Soviet Army recaptured Kharkov. Soviets began to work to identify the victims and document the murders. One of the killing sites identified was Drobitsky Yar. Soviet military pathologists estimated the number of Drobytsly Yar victims to be 16,000.
Shortly after the end of World War II the topic of Jewish genocide was marginalized and misrepresented in the Soviet Union. The subject became taboo and stayed that way for decades. The events that occurred in Drobytsky Yar and many other Yars were concealed from public.