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.”

Project idea

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.

In­trigu­ing ad­vert

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-ler­

Bring­ing peace

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.”

Jewish Kyiv

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)

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