Denver 101: A city park’s historic meaning tragically echoes today

Two years into World War II and just a few months after Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Nazi forces committed one of the largest single atrocities of a war that came to be known for unimaginable barbarism.

Babi Yar, a ravine in Kyiv, Ukraine, is the site of a Nazi massacre of tens of thousands of Jews on Sept. 29–30, 1941. It’s also the name of a 27-acre memorial park in Denver designed to commemorate the victims of this holocaust.

During the German occupation, Jews were herded to the site, stripped of their belongings and forced to lie face down, naked, in the gorge.

They were then, one by one, shot in the head: men, women, children. Over the course of two days, 33,771 Jews were slaughtered, their bodies falling on top of those shot just moments before.

The mass shootings were a bloody prelude to others. Over the next two years, at Babi Yar alone, nearly 70,000 others met the same fate. And over the course of the war—at extermination and concentration camps and via mass executions—the Nazis exterminated more than 6 million human beings, primarily Jews.

“It was hard work,” one Nazi on duty at Babi Yar complained years later, recalling his treks over the bodies to shoot each person in the neck.

The horrors at Babi Yar are commemorated in Kyiv. They are also remembered in Denver’s Babi Yar Memorial Park at 10451 E. Yale Ave., where people come to pray, to ponder man’s inhumanity to man or simply to absorb the history lesson on offer.

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate

In 1969, at the request of the Committee of Concern for Soviet Jewry, Denver Mayor William McNichols Jr. designated the land for a park to create “a place that would demonstrate a unified public protest.” The park opened in 1971 with a dedication by renowned Holocaust survivor and scholar Elie Wiesel. (He died in 2016 at age 87, uttering these final words: “Let terrorism stop, and we can have peace.”) A new design was installed at the Denver park in 1982. It was crafted by landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and Satoru Nishita, who knew how it felt to be a targeted minority. Nishita’s family was moved during World War II from their farm in California to a Japanese internment camp in Arizona. Design sketches and related materials reside in DU’s Beck Memorial Archives, which serve as a repository of Jewish culture and history in the Rocky Mountain region.

On one March bluebird day, a bouquet of yellow roses lay before an entryway memorial at Denver’s park, one of the few sites in the U.S. dedicated to the event.

It was not long after a Russian missile struck the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center site in Kyiv, some 6,000 miles from the Mile High City. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a press conference from Kyiv, Ukraine on April 23, 2022, where he once again, called for a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an effort to “put an end to the war”.

That March 1 assault prompted a tweet from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “To the world: what is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? At least five killed. History repeating …”

Denver’s park is meant to shatter such silence and ensure that such crimes against humanity be remembered. A Babi Yar visitor isn’t likely to forget.

Approach the park and push a button to hear the Babi Yar story retold. (Babyn Yar and Babi Yar mean “grandmother ravine.”)

Enter the park between two gleaming black monoliths etched with laments of the atrocities. Climb a path before descending into a wide bowl of an amphitheater where ceremonies and services are held.

Then ascend one spoke in the Star of David outline to a forest of 100 linden trees commemorating the loss of more than 100,000 lives in that faraway ravine.

Shade drenches a lone bench. A black granite fountain weeps. Sit a spell.

Heading west, rusted twists of metal strewn along a ditch evoke the Nazi trains that carried millions to concentration camps or killing centers.

Suddenly, a bifurcated monolith looms, and a sort of bridge traverses the ravine. It’s a narrow black rail car with high walls and small slots down low.

Travel back in time and picture it: Jampacked riders from long ago must have taken turns gasping for fresh air at the crude openings, perhaps hoping for a peek of blue sky, a shred of hope, an awakening from the worst nightmare. An inconceivable nightmare.

In Ukraine, after the atrocities, Nazis tried to eradicate evidence, and the Soviets later discouraged discussion of the events. But the whole world learned of the horrors when Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar” in 1961.

“There are no monuments over Babi Yar,” his poem begins.

But the monument in Denver certainly lives on. These days, work at Babi Yar by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation gets a boost from Larry Mizel (JD ’67), a business executive and philanthropist. Mizel, a University of Denver law school graduate, founded the Mizel Museum.

Each year, on the Sunday closest to Sept. 29, the museum conducts a remembrance ceremony to honor the victims of Babi Yar, as well as victims and survivors of the Holocaust.

This year, barring complications because of the pandemic, the memorial will be held Sept. 25.

Bring tissues.

Museum grounds photos courtesy of the Mizel Museum

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