‘Holo­caust by bul­lets’ to be memo­ri­al­ized

Upon the 78th an­niver­sary of Babi Yar: It was a poet’s pen rather than a sol­dier’s bay­o­net that first punc­tured the Iron Cur­tain

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By HEDDY BREUER ABRAMOWITZ

Yevgeny Yev­tushenko, a gen­tile, was 28 when he wrote and pub­lished his 1961 poem Babi Yar. It rat­tled many and, most im­por­tantly, brought into the pub­lic dis­course a hushed-up mas­sacre con­sid­ered to be the largest to have taken place in a sin­gle lo­ca­tion in the his­tory of World War II at that time.

When a hu­man atroc­ity takes place in your fig­u­ra­tive back­yard, it is hard – if not im­pos­si­ble – to let go of that mem­ory. The events which took place at Babi Yar were first oblit­er­ated phys­i­cally, with cre­ma­tion pyres manned by ad­ja­cent con­cen­tra­tion camp pris­on­ers – Jews and non-Jews – fol­lowed by other at­tempts to hide and dis­guise the site, in­clud­ing con­struc­tion there dur­ing the Soviet era.

Yev­tushenko was ac­quainted with the Rus­sian-lan­guage writer Ana­toly Kuznetsov, who would later write Babi Yar: A Doc­u­ment in the Form of a Novel, and Yev­tushenko asked him to take him to the site. Yev­tushenko re­called to the BBC World Ser­vice on the 70th an­niver­sary of the mas­sacre: “What I saw was ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble – there were lots of trucks and they were un­load­ing stink­ing garbage on the tens of thou­sands of peo­ple who were killed. I did not ex­pect that.” He went back to his ho­tel and

wrote the poem in un­der five hours.

Babi Yar – ‘grand­mother’s gully’ in Ukrainian – is, sur­pris­ingly, not a re­mote lo­ca­tion. It is a nat­u­ral ravine in Kiev, the cap­i­tal of Ukraine, then the city’s out­skirts near the me­dieval monastery of St. Cyril.

The Babi Yar atroc­i­ties fol­lowed Ger­many’s sur­prise in­va­sion of its ally, the Soviet Union, in June 1941. Some 160,000 Jews resided in Kiev, com­pris­ing around 20% of the city’s pop­u­la­tion. Ger­man forces en­tered Kiev on Septem­ber 19, 1941.

DUR­ING THE first week of the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion, on Septem­ber 24, two ma­jor ex­plo­sions oc­curred, thought to be set off by Soviet mil­i­tary en­gi­neers, blast­ing the Ger­man head­quar­ters. The sab­o­tage was deemed by the Nazi com­man­dant to be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Jews, and this be­came the pre­text for ret­ri­bu­tion to mur­der the re­main­ing Jews of Kiev. It also roused enor­mous an­i­mos­ity on the part of Ukraini­ans to­wards their Jewish neigh­bors.

Ac­cord­ing to Yad Vashem, there were still about 60,000-70,000 Jews liv­ing in the city, mostly those who could not flee: women, chil­dren, the elderly and the sick.

Within seven days of en­ter­ing the city, the Nazis pub­lished no­tices or­der­ing the Jews to assem­ble, os­ten­si­bly packed for travel to a re­set­tle­ment site. Ru­mors flew through the city; Kiev was crowded, they would be moved to a more ru­ral place; or, some thought, they were be­ing sent to Pales­tine. They were to bring warm cloth­ing, cash, valu­ables and doc­u­ments; their homes were to be se­cured.

On Septem­ber 29, Jews were directed to the city’s out­skirts, where they were ef­fi­ciently forced to hand over their pos­ses­sions at des­ig­nated sta­tions, one type at a time: first lug­gage, then coats, fol­lowed by shoes, out­er­wear and also un­der­wear, each item separately, with an­other spot for valu­ables. The hes­i­tant or re­sis­tant were beaten by Ukrainian helpers. Once naked, they were lead into the deep ravine where they were or­dered to lay on top of the just-killed Jewish bod­ies. A marks­man walk­ing across the dead with a sub­ma­chine gun would shoot each newly ar­rived Jew, adding an­other layer to the pile. This is how a truck driver named Hofer de­scribed it, as re­lated by his­to­rian Michael Beren­baum in his 1997 book, Wit­ness to the Holo­caust.

In a let­ter dated May 17, 1965, Kuznetsov wrote to Is­raeli jour­nal­ist and trans­la­tor Shlomo Even-Shoshan, de­scrib­ing what he saw through his 14-year-old eyes:

By night­fall of the 30th of Septem­ber, 33,771 Jews had been shot and killed at Babi Yar. That evening was the 9th of the He­brew month of Tishrei, or Kol Nidre night of Yom Kip­pur

“They pub­lished an or­der for all the Jews in the city to gather in the vicin­ity of the freight yard with their be­long­ings and valu­ables. Then they sur­rounded them and be­gan shoot­ing them. Count­less Rus­sians, Ukraini­ans and other peo­ple, who had come to see their rel­a­tives and friends ‘off to the train,’ died in the swarm. They didn’t shoot chil­dren but buried them alive, and didn’t fin­ish off the wounded. The fresh earth over the mass graves was alive with move­ment.” Kuznetsov de­fected to Eng­land in 1969.

Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, di­rec­tor of the Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter for Re­search of the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union: In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Holo­caust Re­search, says there were slight ar­bi­trary vari­a­tions in method­ol­ogy that took place in these mas­sacres across East­ern Europe. He points out that, like the one in Kiev, they oc­curred in the pop­u­lated ar­eas where Jews lived, not in re­mote ar­eas. “The neigh­bors saw what hap­pened; the knowl­edge of what oc­curred was high,” he con­firmed.

By night­fall of the 30th of Septem­ber, some 33,771 Jews had been shot and killed at Babi Yar. That evening was the 9th of the He­brew month of Tishrei: Kol Nidre night of Yom Kip­pur.

The Nazis would choose sig­nif­i­cant dates for their ac­tions, though they were un­likely aware of the sig­nif­i­cance from a Jewish re­li­gious per­spec­tive.

THE JEWS of Kiev, as­signed blame for sab­o­tage, were placed in the clas­sic po­si­tion of scape­goats – de­fined as those who bear the blame for oth­ers, and the ob­ject of ir­ra­tional hos­til­ity.

The pri­mary us­age of scape­goat is re­called in the Tal­mu­dic story of an­cient Ju­daism’s cer­e­mony on Yom Kip­pur, per­formed by the High Priest in prepa­ra­tion for his an­nual en­try into the Holy of Holies. Af­ter rit­u­ally con­fess­ing the sins of the peo­ple of Is­rael, he would take a pair of goats and, by lots, des­ig­nate them: one to be sac­ri­ficed to God in the Tem­ple, the other – the Azazel scape­goat – to have the peo­ple’s sins sym­bol­i­cally placed on its head. It would “take their sins” out to the wilder­ness as a sym­bol of re­liev­ing the peo­ple of their bur­dens. The un­for­tu­nate goat was thrown off of a high cliff to its death.

Per­haps this was a mys­ti­cal di­vine mes­sage to be gleaned as a foil to the added layer of sadis­tic tim­ing for the mas­sacre.

The shoot­ings con­tin­ued and sub­se­quently in­cluded more Jews, who were turned in or tracked down, as well as other en­e­mies of the Nazis, who were added to the ravine of corpses over two years: Soviet POWs, par­ti­sans, re­sis­tance mem­bers, com­mu­nists, Roma-gyp­sies and – in a turn-around – 600 Ukrainian na­tion­al­ists, un­til the pits of Babi Yar were es­ti­mated to con­tain 70,000 to 100,000 corpses, ac­cord­ing to Yad Vashem.

Kiev was lib­er­ated by the Red Army on Novem­ber 6, 1943.

Zeltser says that, “it is im­pos­si­ble to be pre­cise about the num­bers, since the Nazis tried to cover their crimes by cre­mat­ing the corpses, and other fac­tors.”

He adds that he doubts any spe­cial sig­nif­i­cance to the tim­ing of the mas­sacre, since it ex­tended to Septem­ber 30. It was only due to tech­ni­cal rea­sons that the Nazis were pre­vented from com­plet­ing the task in one day. “None­the­less, there is a strong as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween Yom Kip­pur and Babi Yar in the col­lec­tive mem­ory of the Jews,” he says. Soviet Jews, many of whom had rel­a­tives who were mur­dered in Babi Yar, gath­ered there in the hun­dreds for the first yahrzeit in 1944 – while the war was still be­ing fought. The tra­di­tion to do so con­tin­ued over the years.

THOUGH YEV­TUSHENKO’S Babi Yar poem was the best known, there were other writ­ers and au­thors who wrote about the mas­sacre. Early lit­er­a­ture in­cluded a long poem by Ilya Selvin­sky, a Jewish-Soviet writer who penned I Saw It! She didn’t men­tion Babi Yar out­right,

but it was widely un­der­stood as the sub­ject. Due to Soviet op­pres­sion, early writ­ings could only obliquely de­scribe the events in coded lan­guage.

Pos­si­bly the ear­li­est known poem called Babi Yar was writ­ten the same year it hap­pened by an eye wit­ness, Li­ud­mila Ti­tova, a Ukrainian poet from Kiev. That poem, writ­ten at age 17, was dis­cov­ered in the 1990s. She con­tin­ued to write spo­rad­i­cally on a mi­nor level and, ac­cord­ing to Zeltser, she dis­ap­peared into lit­er­ary ob­scu­rity.

Soviet-Ukrainian writer Mykola Bazhan penned a poem called Babi Yar in 1943, ex­plic­itly de­pict­ing the mas­sacres in the ravine. He was a highly prom­i­nent and dec­o­rated pub­lic fig­ure in the Soviet Union. Bazhan was nom­i­nated for the 1970 No­bel Prize in Lit­er­a­ture, but was forced by the Com­mu­nists to de­cline his can­di­dacy.

A num­ber of other po­ems on Babi Yar were writ­ten in Ukrainian, Rus­sian and Yid­dish.

The mas­sacre was of­fi­cially sup­pressed by Soviet ide­ol­ogy, which would not per­mit distin­guish­ing the Jewish na­ture of the per­se­cu­tion and deaths from oth­ers who fell in the war, but saw them all as Sovi­ets who had died in The Great Pa­tri­otic War. Nor would Soviet pol­icy al­low any im­pli­ca­tion of the Ukraini­ans or lo­cal po­lice in the events.

The tragedy at Babi Yar be­came a sym­bol of anti-Jewish pol­icy by the Nazi regime and the ex­ter­mi­na­tion of the Ukrainian Jews – but more widely, it was a sym­bol for all Soviet Jews who lived un­der the op­pres­sive regime.

Af­ter Nikita Khrushchev be­came pre­mier of the Soviet Union fol­low­ing the ex­treme Stalin years, there was a “thaw­ing” of at­ti­tudes re­gard­ing some free­doms. Natan Sha­ran­sky, a re­fusenik, hu­man rights ac­tivist and for­mer chair­man of the Jewish Agency for Is­rael, re­calls that in­tel­lec­tu­als were “test­ing” the lim­its of free­dom, to see just where the new bound­aries lay. It was dur­ing this time that Yetv­tushenko’s poem was pub­lished. Sha­ran­sky ob­served: “How could he have dared? Khrushchev pushed back. Af­ter a few short weeks, the win­dow on free speech to dis­cuss Babi Yar was again shut. Af­ter that, talk­ing about Babi Yar went back un­der­ground.”

Sha­ran­sky, born in 1948 in Donetsk (then called Stal­ino), Ukraine, re­calls his child­hood as “liv­ing in the killing fields of the Holo­caust. We played in ar­eas where hor­rors took place. There was a 363-me­ter-deep coal mine filled with the bod­ies of 75,000 Jews. And we couldn’t talk about it.” He says, “The Soviet Union erased the truth of the his­tor­i­cal mem­ory of the Shoah – as if we were un­der­ground.” His per­sonal fam­ily losses in those years were largely in Odessa and Donetsk.

Yev­tushenko’s poem clearly iden­ti­fied the over­whelm­ingly Jewish vic­tims as be­ing dou­bly vic­tim­ized: by the Nazis and by the Soviet gov­ern­ment. His poem came to the fore at the height of the Cold War and in the mid­dle of the short Camelot years of the Kennedy pres­i­dency. He was wildly pop­u­lar as a po­etry reader, fill­ing huge halls with au­di­ences.

In the 1960s, small groups of Jewish ac­tivists be­gan gath­er­ing with­out per­mis­sion at the ravine site to keep the mem­ory of the atroc­ity alive.

What con­firmed and widened the aware­ness of Yev­tushenko and Babi Yar was the re­quest from Rus­sian com­poser Dmitri Shostakovi­ch to put his poem to mu­sic, com­pos­ing his 13th Sym­phony in 1962 as a com­mem­o­ra­tion to Babi Yar.

Yev­tushenko cred­its this with be­ing the sec­ond punch to of­fi­cial­dom. This act built such wide recog­ni­tion of the Babi Yar atroc­ity that it forced the Ukrainian party bu­reau­cracy to build a memo­rial. He “was the moral ar­chi­tect of this memo­rial,” he said to the BBC. In 1976, a memo­rial com­mem­o­rat­ing all vic­tims of the Nazi regime at Babi Yar was erected, with­out mak­ing spe­cific men­tion of Jewish vic­tims. The cen­tral fig­ure of the mon­u­ment is a Soviet sol­dier.

It was only af­ter the Soviet Union was dis­solved in 1991, that the Ukrainian gov­ern­ment per­mit­ted the erec­tion of a memo­rial at Babi Yar rec­og­niz­ing Jewish vic­tims. It was built in the shape of a meno­rah, fifty years af­ter the mas­sacre.

ABOUT THREE-AND-A-HALF years ago, at the time of the 75th an­niver­sary of Babi Yar, Sha­ran­sky was ap­proached by prom­i­nent fig­ures in the Jewish world, who met with him at his Jewish Agency of­fice in Jerusalem. They sought his sup­port to build an in­ter­na­tional team to de­vise a com­pre­hen­sive plan to achieve a memo­rial cen­ter at Babi Yar, which would com­bine com­mem­o­ra­tion, ed­u­ca­tion and also be a re­search cen­ter. With the back­ing of Kiev’s mayor Vi­tali Kl­itschko and other well-known fig­ures, Sha­ran­sky agreed to take on the role of chair­man of the Su­per­vi­sory Board for the com­mem­o­ra­tion of a Babi Yar memo­rial.

This group took on over­com­ing multi-pronged ob­sta­cles to achieve their goal. They first needed a con­sor­tium of po­lit­i­cal sup­port on an in­ter­na­tional level; fi­nan­cial back­ing from both pub­lic and pri­vate sources; the search for an ap­pro­pri­ate real es­tate prop­erty to house the cen­ter; the agree­ment of rab­bini­cal fig­ures as to re­li­gious ques­tions re­gard­ing per­mis­si­ble lo­ca­tions to con­struct such a site; an ar­chi­tec­tural plan on an in­ter­na­tional stan­dard; and con­sen­sus as to what the con­tent of the fu­ture mu­seum might be.

This led to cre­at­ing the Babyn Yar Holo­caust Memo­rial Cen­ter foun­da­tion to ad­dress all of these sig­nif­i­cant el­e­ments. Sha­ran­sky said that no small part of the task would be dia­log with the Ukrainian pub­lic. He said that he went to the Ukrainian Par­lia­ment to re­spond to ques­tions as to what was planned for the mu­seum. The foun­da­tion built a coali­tion of univer­sity heads to as­sess how the his­tory would be writ­ten, fac­ing the com­pet­ing nar­ra­tives straight on.

An in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence is planned for May 2020 in Tel Aviv, with speak­ers ex­pected to dis­cuss many as­pects of the planned cen­ter.

In an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion, BYHMC re­cently se­lected the Aus­trian ar­chi­tec­tural firm Querkraft Ar­chitek­ten to de­sign and build the new cen­ter. The firm won the blind sub­mis­sion com­pe­ti­tion, which orig­i­nally re­ceived 165 ap­pli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted from 36 coun­tries.

Sha­ran­sky looks for­ward to restor­ing the col­lec­tive mem­ory of what he calls “the Holo­caust by bul­lets which very nearly dis­ap­peared.” He said that, “it is im­por­tant for the fu­ture. There is noth­ing to hide and we must speak the truth. The sub­ject of Ukrainian helpers is still hard to talk about. Why did it hap­pen? This is a big step for the Ukrainian peo­ple… this will be the first such memo­rial and, more im­por­tantly , [the first] Holo­caust ed­u­ca­tion cen­ter in East­ern Europe.”

Look­ing in­tensely through his pale blue eyes, he con­cluded: “This will re­turn the his­tor­i­cal mem­ory of the Jewish peo­ple – and also give a chance for Ukraine to join the com­mu­nity of na­tions with re­spect.”

BABI YAR, from Ger­man archives. (Bev Sykes/Flickr)

(Wikimedia Com­mons)

MOMUMENT TO the chil­dren mur­dered at Babi Yar, opened in 2001.

THIS KIEV statue com­mem­o­rates the mas­sacre and pays trib­ute to Ana­toly Kuznetsov, a per­sec­tured Soviet au­thor who doc­u­mented the tragedy in his book ‘Babi Yar.’ It shows a 12-year-old boy, the main char­ac­ter of the novel, read­ing the an­nounce­ment or­der­ing all of Kiev’s Jews to re­port to the au­thor­i­ties.


PRES­I­DENT REU­VEN RIVLIN (cen­ter) meets with Babi Yar Holo­caust Memo­rial Cen­ter Ad­vi­sory Board chair­man Natan Sha­ran­sky (sec­ond from left); Dr. Arkadi Zeltser (far right), di­rec­tor of the Moshe Mir­i­lashvili Cen­ter for Re­search of the Holo­caust in the Soviet Union: In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Holo­caust Re­search; and Babi Yar Holo­caust Memo­rial Cen­ter ex­ec­u­tives, on Fe­bru­ary 8, 2018.

(Pho­tos: Jen­nifer Boyer/Flickr)

THE BOY (left) reads this an­nounce­ment: ‘All the Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicin­ity must ap­pear on Mon­day Septem­ber 29, 1941 by 8 a.m. at the cor­ner of Mel­nikova and Dokhterivs­kaya streets (next to the [Jewish] ceme­tery). Bring doc­u­ments, money and valu­ables, and also warm cloth­ing, bed linen etc. Any Yids who do not fol­low this or­der and are found else­where will be shot. Any civil­ians who en­ter the dwellings left by Yids and ap­pro­pri­ate the things in them will be shot.’

THE DEEP ravine houses the Mon­u­ment to Soviet cit­i­zens and POWs shot by the Nazi oc­cu­piers at Babi Yar, opened in 1976.

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