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Visiting Babi Yar and Understanding the Holocaust in Ukraine 

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4 months ago

Babi Yar (or Babyn Yar in Ukranian) is one of the most haunting sites to visit in Europe. What may appear as a quiet park is in fact the most significant site of the Holocaust in Ukraine.

This killing field saw 33,000+ Jews and Roma murdered in the space of 48 hours – the highest concentration of killing during the entire Holocaust. In the months that followed, over 100,000 Jews were shot here.  

I will be honest, during my first visit to Babi Yar, I was left extremely disappointed by the lack of proper recognition of this site. You cannot understand the Holocaust in Ukraine without understanding Babi Yar.

However, the entire site was redone for the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar in 2017 and is now one of the top tourist attractions in Kyiv.  

On this trip, I found myself overwhelmed by the scale of the site and number of new memorials. To help you properly visit Babi Yar, I put together this short guide on how best to visit Babi Yar.  

Traveling to Ukraine in 2024 

A few years ago, I would have told you that Ukraine is a must-visit country which deserves a place on all Eastern Europe travel itineraries. However, at the time of writing, Kyiv still faces regular missile strikes and air raids.

4x4 covered in bullet holes due to war in ukraine
War-ravaged 4×4 on display in central Kyiv

Today, you need to will need to take precautions beyond a standard European travel and health insurance package. You need to make sure you’re fully prepared for travel during conflict periods, so make sure you read my guide to traveling to Ukraine in 2024.

painted missiles in bucha ukraine
Missiles that have been painted by children

Before you go: Babi Yar and the Holocaust in Ukraine

From the dark history of the pogroms to the explosion of Jewish intellectual centers in Odessa and Kyiv, the history of Jews in Ukraine is a story of both immense highs and tragic lows.

Babi Yar bears the weight of a dark chapter in human history. Before you visit Babi Yar in Kyiv, it’s crucial to grasp the historical significance of this solemn site.  

In September 1941, the Nazis massacred over 33,000 Jewish civilians in Babi Yar. This makes the events of Babi Yar one of the largest single massacres of the Holocaust. This tragic event was a stark example of the brutality and inhumanity of the Nazi regime. Only later months, it is estimated that over 100,000 Jews and thousands of Roma were murdered here.

Only 29 people survived Babi Yar – generally by hiding themselves under stacks of dead bodies.  

Today, visiting Babi Yar is one of the top things to do in Kyiv and often a quick stop on Kyiv tours. But it is important to remember that this site is more than just a tourist attraction. Babi Yar is a powerful place to pay homage to the memory of the victims and acknowledge the horrors of the Holocaust in Ukraine.  

Throughout your visit, keep in mind that this remains an important site to the Kyiv Jewish community. Please don’t play loud music, be disrespectful or treat this as an Instagram backdrop.  

Getting to Babi Yar 

Your tour of Babi Yar begins at Dorohozhychi metro station, which is on Metro Line 3 and an easy 30 minutes from central Kyiv (Independence Square). The Kyiv metro is one of the most magnificent (and deepest) in the former Soviet Union and I always encourage everyone to ride it!  

sunset at maidan square kyiv
Kyiv’s Maidan, or Independence, Square

But if you prefer a Kyiv taxi or Uber (always Uber, in my opinion), Dorohozhychi metro station is about a 15 minute drive from Independence Square. If you are planning on visiting after 4 pm, watch out for traffic – the metro can often be quicker than a car!

To arrange your Uber, you will need a local SIM in Ukraine. If, like me, you prefer to have this arranged beforehand, I highly recommend using airalo for your Ukraine eSIM.

Guide to Visiting Babi Yar 

Stop 1: Monument to Children at Babi Yar 

Begin your journey at the Monument to Children, a powerful tribute to the estimated 40,000 children murdered here.  

monument to children at Babi Yar in Kyiv Ukraine
Monument to Children at Babi Yar

The monument contains three statues:

(1) a startled child with open arms, warning others not to come;

(2) a broken toy symbolizing the loss of childhood and innocence; and

(3) a decapitated young Jewish boy.  

From here, continue up the tree-lined avenue: a serene atmosphere which provides a stark contrast to the history of Babi Yar. At the top of the tree-lined avenue, take a right. 

tree-lined street at babi yar
Tree-lined avenue at Babi Yar

Stop 2: Monument to the Roma 

The sculpture of a decorated wagon is a tribute to the Roma who were persecuted and killed at Babi Yar. The carriage is pointing upwards, perhaps suggesting that the final journey of the victims was towards heaven itself.  

holocaust monument to roma
Monument to the Roma

Continue walking straight until you reach the Menorah Monument. 

Stop 3: Menorah Monument 

The Menorah monument is one of the first Babi Yar monuments placed here after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Menorah is a symbol of Jewish heritage and continuity, a candelabra lit as a sign of hope.  

menorah monument at babi yar

New speakers behind the memorial play solemn Jewish songs, leading this to become a powerful place of reflection and commemoration.  

Stop 4: Symbolic Synagogue 

This large memorial is a symbolic synagogue designed in the shape of a book which opens and closes using special techniques.  

synagogue wooden ukranian style babi yar
The painted walls of the symbolic synagogue in typical pre-Holocaust Ukrainian Jewish style

At 11 meters tall, this memorial is made from the wood of derelict and abandoned Jewish buildings from across Ukraine.  

colorful wooden synagogue in eastern Ukrainian style

The Holocaust in Ukraine also resulted in the murder of a unique culture. The walls of the symbolic synagogue are graced with exquisite patterns and verses of prayer. These hand-painted designs reflect the traditional decoration of ancient synagogues across Ukraine – also destroyed by the Nazis.  

Travel tip: Look up to the ceiling, where a map of the Northern Sky recreates the position of the stars on September 29, 1941, the day the mass shootings at Babi Yar began.

Stop 5: The Ravines 

Throughout your time at Babi Yar, you will be passing mounds of different size and ravines of earth. Each dip in the earth is a stark reminder of the murders which took place here.  

Alongside the symbolic synagogue, you will see some of the deepest ravines at Babi Yar. While the forest may be one of the great beauties of Ukraine, at Babi Yar the trees tell a different story.  

trees in ravine at babi yar
Local legend suggests there were no trees at Babi Yar before the mass burial of hundreds of thousands of innocents here

Take a moment to walk away from the crowds and reflect on the enormity of the ravines, a sobering testament to the scale of tragedy.  

Stop 6: Crystal Wall of Crying by Marina Abramović 

If you draw a straight line between Jerusalem’s Western Wall and Kyiv, the line will pass through this exact spot in Babi Yar. 

Marina Abramović’s powerful memorial attempts to create a symbolic extension of the Western Wall out of rock quartz and crystals. The wall has crystals coming out of it at different levels: head, chest and stomach.  

marina abramovic's crystal wall of crying

Try to find a crystal set which matches up with your own head, chest and stomach. As you lean on the natural quartz crystals, the memorial aims to connect with your private reflections and link them with the collective memory of humanity.

From the Crystal Wall of Crying, turn around and head towards the Kyiv TV Tower towards the large silver poles.  

Stop 7: Mirror Field 

Our tour ends at the Mirror Field, the most powerful of Babi Yar’s monuments.  

mirror field at babi yar

At the heart of the monument is the notion of the tree of life, a powerful Jewish symbol also found across other cultures and mythologies.  

With each broken pillar, the monument symbolizes how easily the tree of life can be broken. The columns are also full of bullet holes. This design reflects the fate of the hundreds of thousands of victims of Babi Yar.  

mirror field babi yar

Local tip: On the edge of the mirrored floor, you will see cut outs of human figures. Do not miss these statues! Each statue has its own little screen for you to stare directly into the eyes of the victims of Babi Yar.  

The sound installation translates the names of those murdered into sounds made by a unique algorithm based on the Jewish principle of gematria. This principle gives each Hebrew letter a corresponding number (a bit like Roman numerals). As each name is translated into a number, the recording reproduces the pitch of that sound.  

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