German project honors memory of Ukrainian Jews killed in Holocaust
The order was stark: All Jews in the city of Dnipro, eastern Ukraine, must gather in the city center. Those who disobey will be executed.
It was October 1941, and Dnipro was occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany.
Nelly Tsypina was 10 years old. She and her grandparents obeyed the order and left the house immediately.
“When we came there, I saw thousands of exhausted faces,” Tsypina recalls. “Some people were in wheelchairs, most came with their children.”
It was a sunny day, she recalls. Nazi soldiers rounded up the Jews and marched them in the direction of a train station. Many hoped they were to be deported to Palestine, their long-remembered Promised Land.
But when they were marched past the train station and headed to the city outskirts, the prisoners started realize that something was very wrong.
The Jews were being taken by the Nazis to a large ravine near the city’s botanical gardens. There, they were mown down by machine gun fire by Nazi extermination units, helped by Ukrainian police auxiliaries. The bodies of the dead and injured fell into the ravine, and then the Jews were buried, some still alive.
“We were moving towards slaughter,” Tsypina says. “And we were forced to stand in line all night long waiting for our turn to be killed.”
By the next morning, thousands of Jews had been massacred. Tsypina is presumed to be one of only a handful to escape being murdered by the Nazis.
“My grandfather saved me,” Tsypina says. “When the soldiers lined us up in front of the machine guns and started shooting, he pushed me down to the ground and covered me with his body.”
Tsypina’s story is part of a project titled Erinnerung Lernen (Learning to Remember) — a German-Ukrainian cultural initiative working to educate people about the Holocaust.
The idea for the Erinnerung Lernen came from its project director, German historian Matthias Andre Richter, who in September 2014 came to Ukraine for the first time to honor the victims of Babyn Yar.
Babyn Yar is the site of a mass shooting of Jewish people in Kyiv. Historians estimate that the number of the Babyn Yar victims ranges between 70,000 to 120,000 people. According to German documents, over only two days on Sept. 29–30, 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were shot there.
“When I came to Babyn Yar — I literally couldn’t breathe, I was so overwhelmed,” Richter says. “Standing there, I decided that more people should know about that place.”
So he did. And on Sept. 29–30, on the 77th anniversary of the Babyn Yar atrocity, Richter’s Erinnerung Lernen initiative will celebrate its second birthday.
The project itself started with a short message in a newspaper. It was published in a Jewish newspaper in Dusseldorf, western Germany, in September 2016: “If you have relatives or friends who were victims at Babyn Yar — let us know.”
Richter wrote the advert himself. He and a few other like-minded people wanted to know if there were any people in Germany personally connected to the tragedy. Within a few days, they received 16 replies.
“It was then that I saw clearly how many lives were influenced by what happened at Babyn Yar,” Richter says.
He started to plan the project, and soon found a sponsor to implement his ideas — the German embassy in Ukraine.
Daniel Lissner, the deputy head of the Department of Culture and Education at the embassy and Richter’s good friend, witnessed the beginning of the Erinnerung Lernen project.
“Germans are trying to take on the responsibility for their past,” Lissner says. “This project is another attempt to apologize for what was done.”
With the support of the German embassy, Erinnerung Lernen arranges museum exhibitions all over Ukraine, does presentations at universities, produces documentaries, and even created an illustrated novel for children on the Holocaust.
The team of the project has only a few full-time employees, but anyone can join the initiative via the Erinnerung Lernen website, www. erinnerung-lernen.de.
In Germany, the project’s activists record the memories of those who survived the Holocaust in Ukraine. Ukrainian filmmaker Kseniya Marchenko produced a documentary about one of these survivors — a German Jew named Herbert Rubinstein, who was born in Chernivtsi, now western Ukraine.
In the “I Was Here” documentary, Marchenko documented Rubinstein’s travels to three cities: Dusseldorf in Germany, where Rubinstein lives, Amsterdam in the Netherlands where he spent some time, and Chernivtsi, the town of his childhood, which he hasn't visited for over 70 years.
There is one moment in the documentary when, in Chernivtsi, he walks by the wall and sees daubed on it a Nazi symbol, which someone has crossed out.
“It’s bad that people are painting these symbols,” he says in the movie. “Yet it is good that someone crossed it out, and now it has the opposite meaning.”
Marchenko says that the documentary brought peace to Rubinstein’s family. Rubinstein didn’t very much to talk about the past, but his sincerity during the filming helped his daughter and wife understand him better.
“Herbert wasn’t that close to his daughter,” Marchenko says. “Yet after the trip to Ukraine he opened up and they started communicating at a much deeper level.”
In May, “I Was Here” was presented at the Jewish Film Festival in Dusseldorf and received positive feedback from the audience.
“It’s amazing how people both cried and laughed watching it,” Richter says.
Both in Ukraine and Germany, Richter keeps encouraging young people to join the project.
In Lviv, in western Ukraine, they presented a multimedia exhibition dedicated to the Jewish poet Debora Vogel, who died in the Lviv ghetto in 1942.
“The project is designed by two artists — Asya Gefter from London and Olesya Zdorovetska from Dublin,” Richter says. “They expressed their desire to do it, they contacted us, and they did it.”
Richter also is very proud of the audio tour about Jewish history in Kyiv. In cooperation with Arseniy Finberg, the founder and co-owner of Interesny Kyiv (Interesting Kyiv) tour services website, they developed the tour, which is now available through the Kyiv City Guide mobile application.
“So many internationally known Jews were born and grew up in Kyiv,” Finberg says. “Jewish history is part of Kyiv’s history, and we wanted to show that.”
Despite having already been much, Richter isn’t satisfied yet. His next goal is the publish an illustrated book for children about the Holocaust.
First copies have already been printed. The plot is based on the memories of concentration camps survivors. Through the eyes of the two main characters — a boy and a girl both 10 years old — the readers find out about the dreadful events in Ukraine that happened less than a century ago.
“Every time I think of this book I can’t stop myself from shedding a tear,” Richter says. “It’s a breathtaking story.”
The novel was created by specialists of the Jewish museum in Chernivtsi and its director, Mykola Kushnir. Their next goal is to introduce the book to the educational programs of Ukrainian schools. Richter and his team are currently working on it.
The novel is for children between 11 and 13 years of age, because “by that time they are old enough to understand the importance of the topic,” Richter says. “However, they still haven’t formed their views on life, they don’t really know what’s good and what’s bad and, hopefully, this book will help them draw a few important conclusions.”
People lay flowers on Sept. 29, 2017 at the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial in Kyiv in honor of the tens of thousands of Jews who were murdered under German Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical rule during World War II. (Kostyantyn Chernichkin)