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Germany mourns at Babyn Yar, Ukraine

September 29, 2016

President Joachim Gauck has visited Babyn Yar, a 1941 Nazi massacre site in Ukraine, saying generations later Germany will continue owning up to its past. More than 33,000 Jews were murdered in a ravine outside Kyiv.

Ukraine Gedenken an Massaker von Babi Jar - Bundespräsident Joachim Gauck
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/W. Kumm

Gauck, who is close to ending his four-year term as German head of state, made his eighth foreign trip to past sites of Nazi atrocities on Thursday by visiting the ravine where Nazi troops, including SS commandos, shot dead 33,771 Jews, including children, in just two days.

He told an evening ceremony marking the 75th anniversary on the outskirts of Kyiv, that Germany's then-Wehrmacht army "played the largest role in this mass murder" that cause "inexpressible suffering."

On September 29 and 30, 1941 - just weeks after Hitler-ruled Germany began an disasterous invasion of Stalin's Soviet Union, German troops herded Kyiv Jewish residents to the ravine where they were shot dead, row after row.

Just 29 people escaped execution.

In the past, President Gauck (pictured center, to the left of Ukraine's President Petro Poroshenko) has visited Nazi atrocity sites in Italy and Greece.

'Unique scene of horror'

At Babyn Yar victims were forced to undress and then shot dead in pits, Gauck said, adding that the "unique scene of horror" was further used by Nazi forces until 1943 to also execute Sinti and Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, Ukrainian partisans, and the medically ill.

In memory of the victims, Gauck said coming to terms with guilt and failings was a generation-overarching process that continued to shape Germany and required a shared culture of remembrance 75 years later.

"Those of us who want to understand how it came to be that our fathers and grandfathers became murderers and victims are today reliant on each other," he said, adding that he was making a plea for modern research to establish the truth of what happened. 

"Answers to our questions will only be found jointly," he said,

Praise for Kyiv author 

Gauck praised a member of his delegation, prize-winning author Katja Petrowskaja from Kyiv, for her book "Perhaps Esther," describing it as "precious" because it recalled a name, a face and a personality - beyond statistics.

Berlin-based Petrowskaya's great-grandmother was shot dead by a German soldier in the middle of the road while being forcibly walked to Babyn Yar in an act that "broke a basic rule of civilization," Gauck said.

Unknown to many Ukrainians

Kyiv's mayor and former world champion boxer, Vitali Klitschko told the German magazine "Focus" that Babyn Yar was a "tragedy of global proportions" unknown to many Ukrainians because of past "Soviet propaganda."

A memorial erected in 1976 recalled war victims but did not mention Jews who in 1941 made up a quarter of Kyiv's population. In 1991, shortly after the end of the Soviet Union, Kyiv's Jewish community erected a seven-armed Menorah.

Ukraine Kiew Reuven Rivlin im ukrainischen Parlament anläßlich Gedenkfeier zu 75. Jahrestag vom Massenmord an Juden in Babi Jar
Ukrainians collaborated, says RivlinImage: DW/O. Sawytzky

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who cut short his visit to Kyiv due to the death of Israeli statesman Shimon Peres, told Ukrainian parliamentarians on Tuesday that Jews were also killed by local insurgents who collaborated with the Nazi invaders.

"The fighters of the UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) were especially prominent," said Rivlin. "They victimized the Jews, killed them, and in many cases reported them to the Nazis."

Grief understood, says Poroshenko

Ukrainian President Victor Poroshenko responded earlier on Thursday by insisting that "we Ukrainians, very well understand the grief of the Jews and take it as our own."

Ukraine Gedenken an Massaker von Babi Jar - Präsident Petro Poroschenko
Ukraine shares Jewish grief, says PoroshenkoImage: Reuters/V. Ogirenko

On Thursday, ahead of the evening ceremony, Poroshenko pledged to build a new memorial center due to be opened in 2021, on Babyn Yar's 80 anniversary.

"This genocide of Jews took place on our land, contrary to the will of Ukrainians, because Ukraine was one of the main theatres of the cruelest war in the history of mankind," Poroshenko wrote on his website.

Charlotte Knobloch, the former president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, said Babyn Yar like Auschwitz represented a "deep abyss of humanity."

Among Kyiv's current population of 2.8 million, some 100,000 are Jewish. Once widespread, Yiddish is seldom heard spoken on its streets and Babyn Yar is rarely mentioned by locals, according to correspondents.

ipj/kms (AFP, AP, dpa)