KIEV, Ukraine (AFP) — “We were gathered here, and sent along ‘the path to death,'” says Raisa Maistrenko, pointing to a Kiev ravine that 75 years ago witnessed one of the worst atrocities of World War II.
Maistrenko was only three when the Nazis, helped by local collaborators, slaughtered 34,000 Jews — mostly elderly, women and children — on September 29-30, 1941, as Hitler’s forces advanced toward Moscow on the eastern front.
Maistrenko is the Ukrainian capital’s last survivor of the 29 people who managed to escape execution, either by falling into the ravine before they were shot in the back, to lie on top of thousands of corpses and later flee, or wearing crosses to hide their true religion.
The 78-year-old’s 18 relatives never returned from Babi Yar — a site that unnervingly stands next to Kiev’s main TV tower and is rarely mentioned by modern locals.
Cart in hand
After entering Kiev, Nazi troops told the nearly 200,000 Jews who made up a quarter of the city’s population to pack up their documents, money and warm clothes and go to the ravine or face death.
“All the Jews decided to go because they thought they would be evacuated by train as the railway station was nearby. Nobody could possibly assume there would be a mass execution,” Maistrenko says in slow, hushed tones.
Her father had been drafted into the Soviet army and she lived with her mother in her grandparents’ apartment.
Her grandfather Meer decided that the family should follow the Nazis’ orders and led the death march to Babi Yar with his old cart packed with belongings in hand.
Maistrenko’s non-Jewish grandmother Tanya volunteered to accompany her granddaughter — and eventually saved her life.
Noise and horrible screams could be heard as the mournful procession approached the grave site that was tightly-cordoned by Nazi soldiers — after getting in, there was no way out.
Perhaps already knowing their fate in advance, “my mom and her sister still kept their mother going because she had sore legs,” Maistrenko says.
“But my granny, she held me firmly in her arms and did not let go,” Maistrenko recalled next to the Babi Yar Menorah, a sacred Jewish candelabrum that was installed at the site of executions.
‘Don’t look back’
“At some point, we found ourselves separated from the rest of the family. The troops were beating us with batons to drive us to the place where the shots were being fired,” Maistrenko says, her eyes welling with tears.
Furious and struck with horror, grandmother Tanya began shouting “I am Russian!” and clinging Maistrenko with both hands.
“A soldier tried to hit me with a rifle butt, but my granny shielded me with her shoulder and fell to the ground together with me,” Maistrenko recalls.
The grandmother then stood up, kept crossing herself and shouting “I am Russian” while pushing through the flood of future victims and the armed Nazis troops and Ukrainian auxiliaries.
“We heard the shooting behind us, but granny — she kept holding me — did not look back and kept running until she fell exhausted among the graves in a nearby cemetery.”
Maistrenko said they hid there until sunset before finding their way back home under the cover of darkness.
There, to their relief and eventual survival, no one reported them to the Nazis.
“There were two big houses in our courtyard filled with multi-national families, but all were very friendly to each other,” Maistrenko said.
“When the raids occurred, we took shelter in the basement,” she added, until the Soviet army retook Kiev in November 1943.
As part of events marking 75 years since the mass murders, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will meet his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko at the administration building Tuesday, ahead of an official memorial at the site Thursday.
“Over this visit we will commemorate the past, but we will look to the future,” Rivlin said before departing on Monday.
Others attending will include the presidents of Germany, Hungary and the European Union’s Donald Tusk, as well as a 100-strong delegation from the World Jewish Congress in New York.
Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.