The German Wehrmacht captured the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on September 19,
1941. Ten days later, the Nazis turned their attention to the Jews, who
were rounded up and taken to Babi Yar, a ravine on the northeast of the city. It
took Einsatzgruppe C two days to shoot to death 33,771 men, women and children
and dump their bodies into the ravine.
Seventy years later, a small
orchestra played somber music at a ceremony marking the anniversary as the
Chabad Chief Rabbi of Kiev, Moshe Reuven Asman, intoned Kaddish, the prayer for
the dead, in front of a memorial menora at the site of the Babi Yar massacre. It
was hard, on that bright late-summer afternoon, to comprehend the barbarism that
had transformed what is now a tranquil park into a scene of inconceivable horror
(during which people numbering more than the present population of Gibraltar
were put to death in 48 hours).
Yet Babi Yar was not unique. The Nazis
and their Ukrainian collaborators massacred Jews in more than 600 killing sites
throughout Ukraine, ultimately murdering 1,500,000 Jews – a quarter of those
annihilated in the Holocaust.
The Ukrainian tragedy was the focus of a
two-day International Consultation of Parliamentarians (ICP), held in the
Ukrainian capital September 18-19. Dozens of delegates from Europe and the
Caucasus discussed how to counter continuing anti- Semitic manifestations,
especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
dimensions of the Holocaust on its soil, Ukraine has not dealt with it in any
meaningful way. The Soviets had suppressed Holocaust commemoration, describing
the Holocaust as atrocities against Soviet citizens, and avoided mentioning that
the Jews had been specifically targeted. The Russian poet Yevgeny
Yevtushenko penned his underground poem “Babi Yar” in 1961 and it opened with
the words “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” The Soviet authorities finally
relented and, in 1976, a heroic Soviet-style monument was erected, without
mentioning that Jews were killed there. Only when Ukraine achieved independence
in 1991 was the Holocaust allowed to be a topic of open
During the two years of the Nazi occupation of Kiev, it is
estimated that between 100,000 to 150,000 Jews, Soviet POWs, communists,
Gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists, civilian hostages, partisans, and others were
murdered at Babi Yar.
Yet Ukraine, second only to Poland in the number of
Jews killed, still lacks any national Jewish heritage museum. Oleksandr
Feldman, the driving force behind the ICP meeting in Ukraine, has set the
establishment of such a museum as his top priority. “I will get this Jewish
heritage museum built. I will use my own money to build it and will welcome any
partners willing to join the enterprise,” Feldman, a member of the Ukrainian
Parliament and a successful businessman, whose wealth has been estimated at some
$300 million, tells The Jerusalem Report during a break in the ICP
Ukrainian officials demonstrated the importance they
attached to the ICP by holding the main discussions in Parliament, a huge,
impressive structure in the neoclassical style. Ukrainians are apparently less
concerned about terrorism than Israelis and the inspection of visitors’ bags was
Following deliberations in one of the large
parliamentary committee rooms, the conference issued a joint declaration
stating: “Educational efforts must be reinforced all over the globe to establish
the Babi Yar massacre as not simply another event within the horrific scope of
the Holocaust, but as a telling indicator of the breadth of Nazi
One of the delegates, Rufat Guliyev, a member of the Azerbaijan
Parliament, learned for the first time of the enormity of the horrors
perpetrated at Babi Yar during the ceremony at the site – despite the fact that
he had been a student at the state university in Kiev in the late
“I studied economics for five years in Kiev and have visited many
times since and had never heard of the World War II atrocities carried out in
the city,” he confides to The Report. “That was a black day for humanity, not
only for Ukrainians and Jews, and the world needs to be reminded of
Feldman, who is President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, notes
that Babi Yar was a precursor of the Holocaust.
“If the world had reacted
forcefully to the massacre at Babi Yar, perhaps the Holocaust could have been
slowed down,” he argues. Instead, the world was silent and the Nazi leadership
went on to plan the “Final Solution” for the annihilation of the Jews at the
Wannsee Conference in January 1942, in Berlin.
Rafi Hovannisian, a former
foreign minister of Armenia and now leader of the opposition Heritage Party,
echoes this sentiment by telling The Report that if the world had acted
forcefully against the genocide of the Armenians, carried out by the Turks in
1915, the Germans might have been more cautious about perpetrating the
Hovannisian, suave and elegant, speaks excellent English,
which is not surprising since he grew up in the US and made “aliya” to Armenia
25 years ago. He slams the “hypocrisy of the Turkish deniers of genocide, who
pitch concepts of freedom, human rights and international law” and condemn
Israeli actions against Palestinians, while carrying out heavyhanded military
actions against the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The Turkish Air Force has bombed bases in northern Iraq of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, known
as the PKK, killing around 200 people in scores of recent raids.
President Petra Pau of the German Bundestag noted that since she was born in
1963, she bore no direct guilt for the Shoah (using the Hebrew word for
Holocaust), but did bear the responsibility to ensure that “a shoah would not
happen again.” Along with the Ukrainian representatives, lawmakers from Armenia,
Azerbaijan, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar, Israel, Hungary, Romania, Serbia,
Turkey and the United Kingdom were represented at the conference.
The dynamic Feldman hammers the point that a heritage museum is essential to pay
homage to the 1,000-year history of Ukrainian Jewry and the horrible destruction
wreaked upon it by the Nazis. At the end of the gathering, participants issued a
second declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish museum in Kiev.
Feldman’s wishes gained a significant boost a few hours later when the Ukrainian
Minister of Culture, Mykhailo Kulyniak, announced, at the ICP’s closing
reception, that his country would support such an enterprise and the authorities
would allocate land for the site.
The need for a museum to focus on the
Jews of Ukraine and their destruction was brought home during a visit to a
powerful exhibit entitled “Shoah by Bullets: Mass Shootings of Jews in Ukraine
1941-1944.” After the ICP deliberations ended, I visited the exhibit,
which opened at the Ukrainian House in the center of Kiev on September
The exhibition is housed with little fanfare in one of the side rooms
of Ukrainian House, formerly The Lenin Center, a huge cavernous structure. The
somber exhibit features photographs of the murders being carried out and a
display of Nazi weapons and bullets. Visitors can listen to the harrowing filmed
testimony of the last remaining Ukrainians, who witnessed their Jewish neighbors
being executed by Nazi gangs.
The exhibit is based on material collected
by French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois, whose grandfather was a French POW
who witnessed the murder of Jews when he was sent by the Germans to Rawa-Ruska
on the Polish-Ukrainian border. After studying the history of the Holocaust,
Desbois became determined to track down the lost mass graves of murdered victims
of the Nazis (see “Father Patrick and His Elder Brothers,” The Jerusalem Report;
October 15, 2007).
Execution by shooting of Jews in Soviet Ukraine,
Belarus, Moldova and Russia was the opening phase of Hitler’s Final Solution.
But the Nazi bureaucrats of death came to the conclusion that shooting was too
inefficient and they consequently developed exterminations camps in Auschwitz
and other sites in Nazi-occupied Poland.
More than half of Ukraine’s 2.4 million Jews
were shot, starved to death or died of disease during the Holocaust. In
some instances the Nazis, prior to their defeat, attempted to obliterate the
evidence of their murderous handiwork. Most mass graves of the Jews and
others remain unmarked and ignored, only being uncovered during construction
work or road building.
Desbois’s Yahad-In Unum (yahad means “together” in
Hebrew while in unum means the same thing in Latin) is the group he created to
scour the killing fields of Ukraine. Desbois has crisscrossed Ukraine at the
head of search teams. Since 2004, the teams uncovered more than 500 mass Jewish
graves and 48 extermination sites for Gypsies. Desbois has organized similar
exhibitions in Paris, New York and other cities.
“People talk a lot about
the Shoah, but few act to make sure it is not forgotten. I decided to
make it my task to find out what had happened in Ukraine,” he told The Report in
a previous interview.