The Ukrainian government's official commemoration this week ofthe 50th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar formally recognizes for the first time that the atrocity's first and most numerous victims were Jewish. A triumph, however belated, for truth-telling? Yes, but there is more to it than that.
Although the Babi Yar massacre was only one of many mass murders committed by the Nazi mobile killing squads, the sheer scale and brutality of the event retain the power to shock. For before the Nazis discovered the efficacy of gas chambers and crematoria, they murdered people the old-fashioned way -- by shooting them.
On September 19, 1941, the advancing German army captured Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. Within days, Soviet secret police blew up a number of buildings; the occupying German army thus found the pretext to eliminate Kiev's substantial Jewish population. An order was posted that commanded all the Jews in Kiev to bring their money and possessions and gather at the Jewish cemetery on September 29 for deportation. When they )) arrived, there were no vehicles for transport; the Jews were marched to the Babi Yar ravine two miles away.
Men, women and children were stripped of their possessions, and then of their clothes. In groups of 10 they were marched to the edge of the ravine and machine-gunned so that their bodies would fall into the pit. In two days, more than 33,000 Jews were murdered at Babi Yar. In the months that followed, Babi Yar remained an execution site for Gypsies and Soviet prisoners-of-war. Soviet reports after the war speak of 100,000 dead in that ravine in the Ukraine. The true number of victims may never be known.
Why drag up this horror now, in a world that has seen so much atrocity? Perhaps because of the words of one Dina Pronitschewa, one of the handful of people the gunners missed, who crawled out of the charnel pit under cover of darkness. In a report to Soviet prosecutors in 1957, she recalled her reassuring words to her parents as they arrived at a place that looked nothing like a train station.
''There are many kinds of Germans,'' she said. ''But in general they are cultivated and respectable people.''
And, by the superficial standards that we still use to judge people's intentions, she was right. Germany was an advanced civilization; its people were among the best-educated in the world. Records show that the officers of the mobile killing squads were mostly middle-class and college-educated. How could even a downtrodden Ukrainian peasantry, or Jews familiar with local pogroms, foretell this horror?
When we open the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum adjacent to the National Mall in 1993, our visitors will understand that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were ordinary, once-respectable people, some sadists and lunatics nothwithstanding. The government that ordered these acts evolved from a democratic election. And the other governments, of other respectable democratic people, stood by and let it happen, until military victory brought surcease too late.
Babi Yar reminds us to question our judgment of respectability, of civilization, of the very essence of human behavior. It reminds us how easy it is for even an advanced society to decide that a group or groups of people are the ''other'' -- different, less-than-human -- who at best can be ignored and at worst machine-gunned. It reminds us -- at a time when the lands of the Holocaust are seething with social and political change -- that extreme nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are diseases for which we have not yet found a cure. And it reminds us, in the names of the Biafrans and Cambodians and Kurds and so many others who have perished by genocide since Babi Yar, that the horror of a crater filled with corpses was not enough to stop the horror from happening again and again.
The ancient Greeks understood that telling a lie is not necessary for burying the truth. The Greek word for truth was aletheia, the opposite of lethe -- forgetfulness. Truth, then, is what is remembered. Forgetting, or choosing not to think, about the painful truths of history will ensure that the agonies of Babi Yar will happen again, to some other people, in some other place, at some other time.
Harvey M. Meyerhoff is chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.