The em­pa­thy of Yev­tushenko

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - David Aaronovitch

SOME­TIME IN the mid-to­late six­ties, among the de Beau­voirs, Sartres and Hem­ing­ways, I came across a thin book of po­etry by a hand­some poet called Yevgeny Yev­tushenko. I might be wrong at this dis­tance (I wasn’t much more than 12 or 13) but I think the book was a pa­per­back, that the out­side de­sign was black or dark grey. And I’m pretty sure that the words “Babi Yar” — it­self just one short poem — ap­peared on the cover.

I must have opened the book ex­pect­ing some­thing else. My mother, a Rus­sophile, liked to tell fairy sto­ries con­cern­ing the ter­ri­fy­ing Rus­sian witch, Baba Yaga.

Liv­ing deep in the for­est in a mo­bile house stood on chicken legs, the bony Baba Yaga had iron teeth and trav­elled around in a large mor­tar, pro­pel­ling her­self with a pes­tle.

In­stead, I read some­thing that be­gan like this (I’m vague be­cause I can’t be sure which trans­la­tion the edi­tion was us­ing): No mon­u­ment stands over Babi Yar.

A drop sheer as a crude grave­stone.

I am afraid.

To­day I am as old in years as all the Jewish peo­ple.

Now I seem to be a Jew.

The poem was short but, if you didn’t know the his­tory, enig­matic. It wasn’t un­til 1970,, that a longer book, Babi Yar: A Doc­u­ment in the Form of a Novel by a Rus­sian author who called him­self A. Ana­toli (in re­al­ity Ana­toly Kuznetsov) joined Yev­tushenko in the book­shops and the li­braries and told the full story.

Up till read­ing this book, I had imag­ined — from TV pro­grammes and mag­a­zines — that the Jews of oc­cu­pied Europe had mostly per­ished in gas cham­bers sit­u­ated in­side con­cen­tra­tion camps. There were the pic­tures from Belsen of the bull­dozed bod­ies and of cre­ma­to­ria with their charred ribs.

Babi Yar spoke of some­thing dif­fer­ent. There, in a ravine, in the au­tumn of 1941, over the space of two days, more than 30,000 Jews from the city of Kiev were shot dead. They un­dressed at the top, were led down, forced to lie down on the bod­ies of those who had al­ready been killed, and shot. This was the tech­nique of the Ein­satz­gruppe — mostly Ger­mans and of­ten com­pris­ing po­lice bat­tal­ions — which were ac­tive through­out the East. It was the more in­ti­mate form of mass mur­der where, un­like in the death camps, the mur­derer saw each vic­tim. It was more direct (I al­most wrote “face to face” but the killers, judg­ing by the pho­to­graphs their com­rades took as sou­venirs, al­most al­ways re­quired their vic­tims to die with their backs to the guns). In that sense Babi Yar was the link be­tween Zyk­lon B and the more ran­dom bru­tal­ity of the pogrom.

And that was Yev­tushenko’s point. His poem, which was not un­cour­a­geous given the re­cent his­tory of his own coun­try (Stalin’s an­ti­semitic cam­paign ended only eight years be­fore the poem ap­peared), was aimed, not at the Nazis, but at Rus­sian an­ti­semitism. So Yev­tushenko not only wrote:

I am each old man here shot dead.

I am ev­ery child here shot dead

But also:

I seem to be then a young boy in Bi­a­lystok. Blood runs, spilling over the floors. The bar-room rab­ble-rousers give off a stench of vodka and onion.

Yev­tushenko’s poem led to Shostakovich be­gin­ning Sym­phony Num­ber 13 with the Ada­gio named af­ter Babi Yar. Even­tu­ally, a mon­u­ment, in the shape of a stone meno­rah was built to stand over Babi Yar.

Babi Yar was not a dis­ap­pear­ance into a far-off and imag­in­able “re­set­tle­ment camp” but one of the big­gest of myr­iad mass-mur­ders car­ried out close to large conur­ba­tions in al­most full view of lo­cal pop­u­la­tions. If they didn’t see it, then they cer­tainly heard about it. Over the next two years, quite a few of them fol­lowed the Jews into the ravine.

I hardly need to add that you can eas­ily find a web­site, linked to by David Irv­ing’s own site, in which a Ukrainian-Amer­i­can author de­nies that the Babi Yar mas­sacre hap­pened at all. With foot­notes cit­ing spu­ri­ous sources and de­spite tes­ti­mony from sur­vivors, par­tic­i­pants and the Ein­satz­gruppe’s own records, the author pro­claims it was Com­mu­nist-Zion­ist pro­pa­ganda.

Yevgeny Yev­tushenko died at the week­end in the United States. His other po­etry de­serves our at­ten­tion. But, for now, in a week when a young asylum-seeker lies in hospi­tal beaten al­most to death in a Lon­don sub­urb, it seems right to re­call his em­pa­thy:

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.

In their cal­lous rage, all anti-Semites must hate me now as a Jew.

For that rea­son

I am a true Rus­sian.

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