Clutching her two-week-old son in her bare arms, a young mother stared down into a ravine where a mass of naked corpses lay tangled together.
She stood among countless other Jewish women and children stretched along the edge of the gorge as far as the eye could see.
All had been forced to strip before being marched to this godforsaken place and they knew that in a few moments they would form part of the grotesque human collage below.
Recalling the scene years later, at his trial, one SS commander spoke of the ‘indescribable wailing’ echoing across the valley.
Between September 29 and 30, 1941, an estimated 33,771 Jews — almost all women, children, or elderly people — were herded to the canyon, 150 metres long, in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, where they were summarily slaughtered, then covered with soil and rubble
As a team of Nazi assassins moved along the line with their fast-action pistols, the mother was despatched with a single bullet to the back of her head.
We will never know whether her baby was murdered in the same way because, to save ammunition, the soldiers sometimes beat small children to death or left them to be crushed under the weight of fallen bodies.
What we do know, thanks to a meticulous investigation involving a former Scotland Yard war-crimes expert, is that this newborn innocent was the youngest victim of the Babyn Yar Massacre.
This month marks the 79th anniversary of that act of evil, one of World War II’s worst, yet shamefully forgotten, atrocities.
Between September 29 and 30, 1941, an estimated 33,771 Jews — almost all women, children, or elderly people — were herded to the canyon, 150 metres long, in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, where they were summarily slaughtered, then covered with soil and rubble. The wounded were buried alive.
Over the years, fragments of the story of this abomination have emerged. But until now they have never been fully pieced together.
A day later, Russian PoWs cover the bodies. Some historians believe it signalled the true start of the Final Solution, the plan devised by Heinrich Himmler and authorised by Hitler to exterminate the entire Jewish race
This major new investigation, details of which were revealed to me this week, has recreated events in graphic detail.
The mass execution was choreographed with chilling insouciance by SS commander Paul Blobel, who carried out his orders — to exterminate every Jew in the Nazi-occupied parts of the Soviet Union — with ill-disguised pleasure.
Driving past the scene with a superior officer a few weeks afterwards, he gestured towards the clumps of earth covering the bodies and nonchalantly remarked: ‘Here lie my 30,000 Jews.’
Although this monstrous man (who was eventually convicted at Nuremberg and hanged for crimes against humanity) had overseen massacres of lesser magnitude before, the scale of Babyn Yar was of a different order.
Some historians believe it signalled the true start of the Final Solution, the plan devised by Heinrich Himmler and authorised by Hitler to exterminate the entire Jewish race.
Before that, the Nazis had executed able-bodied Jewish men but largely spared their womenfolk and children. What happened at Babyn Yar sent out the message that no one was to be spared.
When Hitler heard how easy it had been to murder so many Jews without the outside world hearing of it, he was encouraged to accelerate the extermination plan.
As of September 1941, Babyn Yar was the largest Nazi mass-killing on the Eastern Front — but the very next month it was surpassed by the shooting and burning of 50,000 more Jews in the Black Sea port of Odessa.
Even today, many people remain unaware that the Holocaust began not in death camps such as Auschwitz but in a Ukrainian ravine, and that the Nazis first used machine-guns, not gas chambers, to exterminate Jews.
For in 1943, when the Germans were in retreat from Russia and their high command saw defeat was inevitable, they ordered Blobel to destroy evidence of the massacre by exhuming all the bodies and burning them on giant pyres.
As tens of thousands more had by then been murdered in the same place — not only Jews but Roma gipsies, Soviet prisoners of war and Ukrainian nationals — this task took a month to complete.
It was carried out by prisoners from forced labour camps — many of them Jews — who were themselves executed afterwards to preserve the secrecy of the operation.
To dispose of the bodies quickly, Blobel devised a method of piling them on iron frames in layers, interspersed with firewood.
After the war, Stalin and his Communist successors were reluctant to remember the annihilation of Jews during the war, preferring to glorify the heroic struggle of the Russian people. So they perpetuated the cover-up.
Pure evil: A mother, cradling her child, is shot. Even today, many people remain unaware that the Holocaust began not in death camps such as Auschwitz but in a Ukrainian ravine, and that the Nazis first used machine-guns, not gas chambers, to exterminate Jews
The ravine was filled in and landscaped to create a park where Kiev residents now play sports and have picnics, the younger ones quite unaware that beneath them lies one of the world’s biggest makeshift graveyards.
While some commemorative monuments have belatedly been sited at Babyn Yar since Ukraine gained its independence, none conveys the enormity of the massacre or its historical significance — and none is substantial enough to honour the victims’ memory.
This new project, funded by wealthy benefactors under the auspices of the Babyn Yar Memorial Center, will give the genocidal atrocity due prominence.
It draws heavily on the expertise of Cambridge-educated war-crimes sleuth Dr Martin Dean, a former consultant to the Metropolitan Police, who is helping to piece together the full story.
He has discovered details such as the route the victims took to Babyn Yar and the precise location of many shootings.
After almost 80 years, the investigation will also provide thousands of families with the missing details of how their relatives died.
Already the identities of some 18,000 Jews murdered over those two September days have been confirmed. Of these, the fate of 907 had previously been unknown.
But the team have uncovered more than just names. Much new biographical material has been found: the victims’ ancestry; where they lived and worked; how they struggled to survive after the Nazis stormed into Kiev.
This wealth of new material will be showcased in a museum to be built at Babyn Yar.
Gathering the information is a monumental task. Only a handful of people lived to tell of the massacre (one woman feigned death by jumping into the ravine a split second before the trigger was pulled and lay for hours amid bodies) and no survivors are alive today.
Inspecting the site is of little use, either, as it has been so completely concealed that it is impossible to tell the 45ft-deep ravine, once the site of a sand quarry, ever existed.
But by sifting through archive documents and maps, and studying unpublished pictures taken by Nazi propaganda photographers, the investigative team have found out what happened.
The photographs, some taken just a day after the massacre as Soviet prisoners of war were shovelling earth over the corpses, others captured from a plane flying over the site at around the time of the exhumation in 1943, have proved particularly useful.
Matching them against a 1924 geographical survey of the ravine, experts have used 3D imaging to create an eerie timelapse video.
It shows how the Valley of Death’s entire contour changed after the thousands of bodies were buried.
The haunting film also reveals precisely where most executions were carried out, at the western spur of the ravine, and depicts the victims’ discarded clothing and belongings strewn in the sand quarry where they were stripped.
By analysing shadows on the grainy black-and-white pictures, the team have even established the times of day they were taken.
Dr Dean’s reputation as one of Britain’s most formidable war-crimes investigators was enhanced in 1999, when he acted as chief historian in the prosecution of Anthony Sawoniuk, the only person convicted under the UK’s War Crimes Act.
Having settled in London after the war, posing as a Polish refugee, Sawoniuk was unmasked in his 70s as a Nazi collaborator who shot at least 18 Jews. Convicted of two specimen murder charges, he was sent to prison for life.
Dr Dean has taken on the task of investigating Babyn Yar ‘because it is the right thing to do’.
He says: ‘For many years it was a scandal that there was no memorial at all. Then, when the Soviet Union put one up, they put it in the wrong place and it didn’t even mention Jews. They just said it was a crime against the Soviet Union. They didn’t want the Jews to have special status as victims.’
The horrors of Babyn Yar began with a cynical ploy.
On September 26, 1941, the Nazis posted an edict on Kiev’s streets ordering all Jews living in and around the city to assemble at a meeting point, bringing their documents, valuables and warm clothing. Anyone failing to obey would be shot.
Although Blobel expected only five or six thousand to fall into his trap, more than 30,000 turned up. The Jews of Eastern Europe were long accustomed to such edicts, which usually presaged their forced resettlement.
‘I think they were expecting to be sent somewhere by train. There is a freight railway station not far from the route they took to the site of the shooting,’ says Dr Dean.
Once rounded up, the throng were formed into columns and began the three-mile trudge to the ravine, passing a checkpoint where they were ordered to leave their heavy baggage, horses and carts.
Even then they remained oblivious to their fate. One witness described how Blobel reprimanded a German policeman for beating some of the Jews, as he wanted them to believe they would be given safe passage.
It was only as they neared the sand quarry that cold realisation dawned and word of the slaughter unfolding ahead was passed back.
Some tried to turn back but they had been channelled into a narrow funnel of soldiers and policemen, who flayed them with sticks to keep them moving along.
Once they had been stripped, they were jabbed towards the cliff-top where the killers of Sonderkommando 4A were waiting.
By the second day, the bodies were piled seven deep.
It took about 1,000 men to carry out so many murders. Some must have felt remorse — yet many members of the death squad took lunch and dinner breaks. Then, after their mission was completed, SS high command in Kiev held a raucous celebratory banquet.
Yet even amid such mind-numbing, calculated cruelty and sheer evil, the project’s researchers have found a few uplifting stories.
One is that of Olga Kobets, who was only seven when the massacre happened but managed to save the life of her best friend Ilya Mitelman, then aged eight.
This week, via Zoom-link to the Ukraine, Mrs Kobets, now 86, told me what happened. Although she is an Orthodox Christian and Ilya was Jewish, they were neighbours and their families were close.
Ilya’s father Noah and his brother Borya were not among the thousands duped into turning up at the assembly point on September 29.
Sensing danger, they decided to defy the order and go into hiding, leaving Ilya in the care of his mother Sara, who, as only one of her parents was Jewish, had obtained documents stating that she was a Ukrainian gentile.
Yet even amid such mind-numbing, calculated cruelty and sheer evil, the project’s researchers have found a few uplifting stories. One is that of Olga Kobets, who was only seven when the massacre happened but managed to save the life of her best friend Ilya Mitelman, then aged eight. Olga (centre) saved the life of her Jewish friend Ilya, left
But before they could make their escape, the two men went to buy food at the market. They were never heard of again. ‘We were told later that they were taken to Babyn Yar,’ said Mrs Kobets.
In the ensuing months and years, she and her family protected Sara (who changed her name to Maria) and Ilya.
Concealing the little boy’s religion wasn’t easy, even though his mother had him baptised as a Christian and hung a cross around his neck. For he looked distinctly Jewish and, to curry favour with the Nazis, an informer betrayed his true identity.
Ilya had to hide in the cellar whenever the Germans did their rounds of the neighbourhood
‘He was afraid to be locked away there on his own. It was freezing cold and dark and there were rats, so I would go down there with him,’ she told me.
‘We were both afraid. We would hold hands and pray together. It didn’t matter to us that our religions were different. We had the same God; a children’s God.’
When heavy jackboots made the floorboards creak above them and they heard German voices, they feared Ilya would be caught. But they never did find him.
Ilya lived to become a successful engineer and, although he moved to Germany in later life, he and Mrs Kobets remained friends until he died, aged 82, in 2015.
Fate dealt a different hand to the two-week-old baby who died in his mother’s arms and the more than 33,000 others who walked into the Valley of Death. At least now they will be remembered.