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Ukraine Holocaust massacre presaged modern genocide

Sep 29, 2011, 2:58 a.m.
Raisa Maistrenko, one of few living survivors of the 1941 Babiy Yar massacre, stands in front of a monument at the site of the mass killings in Kiev, September 26, 2011. REUTERS/Alexandr Kosarev

By Olzhas Auyezov

KIEV (Reuters) - By the time they were close enough to hear gunshots there was no time to turn back. SS soldiers split them into small groups, took away their belongings and pushed them toward the edge of a ravine that would become their mass grave -- Babiy Yar.

The mass shootings, mainly by automatic gunfire, on the edge of the Ukrainian capital Kiev amounted one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust. A total of 33,771 Jewish men, women and children were killed in a single operation.

It was a precursor of country-wide Nazi ethnic purges and, in the words of researchers, became a grim "model" for modern-day mass killings.

Fewer than 30 people are known to have survived the Babiy Yar massacre that took place September 29-30, 1941, after German forces rolled into Kiev.

Only a handful are still alive.

Raisa Maistrenko had turned three just a few weeks before the Nazis passed leaflets around the city ordering "all Yids of Kiev" to show up at a street crossing near Babiy Yar with documents, money and valuables as well as warm clothes.

Tricked into thinking they would simply be resettled, tens of thousands of Kiev's Jews complied.

"Not going was not an option, a failure to show up was punishable by death," says Maistrenko, a lively 73-year-old pensioner who now runs a dancing school for children, recounting what she had learned from her grandparents years after the war.

"(Apartment block) janitors were required to report all Jews, otherwise they faced death themselves."

Her grandmother -- who was not Jewish -- decided to see off Raisa, her Jewish mother and in-laws as they joined the stream of people heading toward Babiy Yar -- toward what they thought was a train journey to a resettlement camp.

HIDING AMONG THE DEAD

Though she was only a toddler at the time, Raisa says she recalls one particular image.

"I saw old men in their underwear being escorted down the road, beaten up and bloodied. A woman ran up to one of them and hugged him and everyone started telling her off because she could anger the guards," Maistrenko said.

"My grandmother appealed to the crowd, saying 'This might be the last time they see each other'... As I learned later, those old men were the rabbis of Kiev."

Shortly after, Maistrenko's family reached a checkpoint where Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators stripped people of their belongings and then separated men from women.

"We could hear machine gun shots from where we were, it was terrible, people were screaming. My grandmother was waving her passport and shouting 'She is Russian!'," referring to her tiny grand-daughter, Maistrenko said.

"A polizei (Soviet name for collaborators) approached us, and swung the stock of his gun to smash my head but my grandmother covered me with her shoulder."

The blow knocked the woman to the ground but then a German soldier grabbed her and pushed her toward the crowd prompting her to scream in terror "I'm Russian!." People around her stepped aside and she saw an opening where she ran.

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