babi yar 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
It is wrenching to insert Babi Yar into any "good news" framework. Yet the fact is that the 65th anniversary of one of the first and bloodiest of World War II's Nazi massacres was commemorated last week as never before in a land which still bristles with anti-Semitism.
After decades of neglect, indeed for most of the time of willful obscuration, the commemoration was no longer a private Jewish affair but one in which the Ukrainian head of state and dignitaries from the world over - including Israel's president- attended. That perhaps can be seen as at least an incipiently hopeful sign in a world again given to Holocaust denial and delegitimization of Jewish self-determination.
Perhaps if anything demonstrates more poignantly the need for the Jews to take their fates into their own hands it is that incomprehensible slaughter on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1941.
Kiev's Jews were ordered to report for evacuation, with documents, valuables and even warm clothes and undergarments. The deception was perpetrated to the last, with small groupings led separately to the huge pit prepared in advance. Driven through a narrow corridor of Nazi Einsatzgruppen executioners with the assistance of local collaborators, they were brutally beaten, commanded to undress and then machine-gunned. In a mere two days of bestiality 33,771 Jews were murdered - more than all the casualties Israel has suffered in all its decades of struggle to survive.
To this day only 10% of Babi Yar's victims have been identified. Worse yet, Ukraine is scarred by many hundreds - perhaps thousands - of mass graves of Jews. Most such sites remain unidentified and unmarked. This August another mass grave - with the remains of some 2,000 Jews - was discovered near Lvov. Searches for mass graves are conducted privately and even at some risk, without cooperation from the Ukrainian population or authorities.
Babi Yar itself would have been just as forgotten were it not for Yevgeny Yevtushenko's 1961 epic poem. Yevtushenko shamed the Soviets into erecting a monument at the site, though it didn't mention Jews (a commemorative menorah was put up by Jewish groups in 1991). Previously the Soviets dammed and flooded the ravine with mud and runoffs from nearby quarries. Other eastern European killing fields remain largely out of mind because nobody immortalized them in verse.
Last week's memorial - though well attended by Ukrainian higher-ups - wasn't a local initiative. It was the brainchild of Russian Jewish businessman Moshe Kantor, who was appalled that so few of Babi Yar's neighbors admit to knowing what happened there, that youths play football over the mass grave, nowadays also a picnic ground.
Indeed no major government-sponsored commemoration took place there in the 15 years of Ukrainian independence. Responding to accusations about Ukrainian callousness, President Viktor Yuschenko announced that the massacre site would be turned into "a state historical and cultural reserve, which would include a museum dedicated to the Jewish victims." This wasn't an easy announcement in a country where it is still de rigueur to equate (if not justify) the Jewish bloodletting with the Stalin-instigated 1932-33 Ukrainian famine.
Anti-Semitism remains ever-virulent in Ukraine. The number of physical attacks on Jews is on the rise, as are anti-Semitic publications. If in 2001 160 anti-Jewish articles saw print, last year's figure rose to 660.
The Holocaust, tragically, put Ukraine and Eastern Europe on the sidelines of existential Jewish concerns. Today Nazism's torchbearers reside closer to home - among them Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad who denies the Holocaust, while in the same breath calling for its extension, i.e. wiping Israel off the map. He seeks nuclear firepower to enable him to implement genocidal schemes.
Nevertheless, again the world seems bent on appeasement and apathetic to the danger. Worse yet - Russia, heir to the USSR, now supplies Iran with nuclear reactors.
This is perhaps the time to reflect on what Kantor said moved him to organize the memorial: "The world's thundering silence in Babi Yar's wake crucially emboldened Nazi Germany to push ahead with more atrocities and industrialize mass-murder. The Holocaust was fueled by indifference to Jews."