babi yar memorial 298.88.
(photo credit: Jewishgen.org)
The Hebrew wail of a hazan reciting the mourner's kaddish pierced the blue sky and clear air of the Babi Yar forest in the Ukrainian capital Wednesday, as thousands of Holocaust survivors, international leaders, diplomats and students commemorated the massacre that ushered in the Nazis' "Final Solution."
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It was a shout of anguish at the pain of more than 33,000 Jewish lives stamped out in two days, but it was also an expression of victory at the survival of the Jewish people despite such tragedy, that their language and traditions still ring out even in this spot.
Only the sounds of suffering reverberated through the leafy ravine 65 years ago this week - sounds of women's cries and children's screams, of rattling gunfire, barking dogs and death.
Vasily Michailovsky remembers these noises well, though he was only four when he heard them.
By September 29, 1941, all of Michailovsky's family had either fled the Nazis or been killed by them. And on that day the cleaning lady, who had already cost his father his life by informing the authorities that he was Jewish, told Michailovsky's nanny to take her charge to Babi Yar.
At first, neither he nor his nanny had any idea what was happening.
"It was a beautiful day, like today. It was sunny, and I was in a good mood," recalled Michailovsky as he stood near the mass grave after Wednesday's ceremony.
As a child, he had been excited by all the crowds of people swirling around him, because he thought his nanny was taking him to a festival just like his father used to do.
But he began to feel that something was wrong: "I was wondering, where are all the balloons?" Then he heard the dogs and the people's panic, and felt himself and his nanny pressed forward in a narrow line towards the ravine, where in the end Jews were packed like sardines and shot.
His nanny began to wave her papers showing that she wasn't Jewish, and on the way Michailovsky stumbled and fell off the path. Someone grabbed the two of them and let them go, presumably because the Nazis thought they both weren't Jews.
"God saved us, because this line was impossible to escape, to break from," said Michailovsky, who stayed in Kiev and was later adopted by a Christian family.
The 69-year-old grandfather of two still has a scar on his forehead from his fall, but the wound in his chest is rawer. Before he could describe his feelings about returning to Babi Yar, he had to take out his handkerchief to wipe away his tears.
"My heart is tearing apart. My soul is tearing apart," he said. And yet he insisted it was important to return to the site of the massacre, so that people remember.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko led the ceremony, organized by the World Holocaust Forum. Yushchenko, President Moshe Katsav and other heads of state lay flowers and memorial candles at the commemoration site.
At a speech in honor of the event, Yushchenko noted that his own father had been held at Auschwitz as a Soviet prisoner of war.
"Time can heal wounds, but it should not erase them from our memory," he said. "May the memory of all those who perished live eternally."
Over the course of the war, well over 100,000 Jews and non-Jews are estimated to have been killed at the site, among them Soviet POWs.
Alongside the hazan's prayers, Ukrainian Orthodox priests chanted their own tribute to the victims, while other religious officials watched from the sidelines.
Among them was Father Patrick Desbois, who now heads a project to find the estimated 2,200 mass graves of Jews murdered by the Nazis on Soviet soil, "the Shoah without camps; the Shoah with bullets," as he called it.
So far 500 have been found, largely because Ukrainian witnesses feel more comfortable recounting what they saw to church officials rather than other investigators.
"People were killed like animals and have been buried like animals," he said. "We have to do what we can."
Desbois, one of many international guests, came from France to witness the ceremony. Participants from other European countries, the United States and Israel also attended.
Leonid Berenshtein, an 85-year-old decorated partisans commander, made the trip from Tel Aviv.
At first a soldier for the Red Army, he was wounded in the beginning of the war. Covered in mud and unconscious, he was left for dead by the Nazis. He woke up to find mice covering his injured leg.
"Usually mice only eat the men who are dead," he noted. Berenshtein crawled from the battle site to a house, where he asked for pliers and vodka. He removed the imbedded shrapnel from his body, then made his way to the nearby woods and eventually teamed up with the partisans.
He attacked the Nazis from behind their lines, he said, to distract them from their campaigns of killing Jews.
"I did everything in order to draw the attention of the Germans and the Ukrainian collaborators, so that a Babi Yar II, III and IV wouldn't happen," he said.
It was only after the war ended that he found out his own father had been killed in the massacre there.
On Wednesday, he was there to recite kaddish, to mourn, to remember and to go on.
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