From ravine of oblivion to crucible of memory for the building of a nation

The Holocaust by bullets has this specific feature that the executioners saw the faces of their victims – men, women, children, babies and the elderly – before killing them at close range.

A monument commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar (Babi Yar), one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A monument commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar (Babi Yar), one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Babi Yar, the “ravine of old women” in Ukrainian – a place etched into history as the scene of one of the most terrifying massacres of the Second World War. On September 29, 1941, nearly 34,000 Ukrainian Jews were forced by the Nazis to walk from Kiev to Babi Yar, two kilometers away. Almost all of them died along this ravine, shot over a period of 48 hours by members of Einsatzgruppe C. In total, almost 100,000 people – Jews, Gypsies, Soviet POWs, political opponents (communists and Ukrainian nationalists), the mentally ill and others – died in Babi Yar prior to November 1943.
A victim of the Soviet reading of history, almost erased and then put aside, the memory of this place has nevertheless been passed down through the decades. Today, a project for a memorial center in honor of the victims seems finally to be about to pay proper tribute to the victims, and build a peaceful dialogue of memories.
Along with Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek, Babi Yar is a symbol of the Holocaust. In no other place did the Nazis kill so many in such a short time. While Babi Yar was an obvious place of remembrance, attempts to commemorate the victims have had a tumultuous history. Already in March 1945, two months before the end of the WWII in Europe, the government of Soviet Ukraine had decided to build a monument on the site of Babi Yar which was never erected, all efforts finally being devoted to the reconstruction of the war-torn city of Kiev.
From 1948 onwards, the Kremlin launched an openly antisemitic campaign throughout the Soviet Union to combat cosmopolitanism, which quashed any hopes that a monument would be built. In the mid-1950s, soil and liquid production waste from nearby brickworks began to be dumped into the Babi Yar ravine. Projects followed: highways, housing, garages, sports complexes. Part of it was even transformed into a park and square.
In March 1961, Babi Yar returned to the spotlight when, according to unofficial sources, a large mud flow caused 1,500 deaths. The inhabitants of Kiev said that those who had been shot were taking revenge for the shameful behavior of the living. This tragedy did not put a stop to the government’s plans, and they continued to build on the site of the massacre. In this way, everything was done to erase the traces of the terrible tragedy of autumn 1941.
However, despite the efforts by the authorities, the population continued to remember – their relatives, loved ones, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, as well as strangers. After the war, the Jewish community in Kiev was renewed, in part by families returning from evacuation zones. Commemorations were still clandestine: the Soviet government persistently refused to recognize the Jewish character of the victims. Only the suffering of the “great Soviet people” was legitimate in their eyes.
Memories nonetheless remained vivid and in 1976, under public pressure, an official monument was erected at Babi Yar, dedicated, however, as the inscription testifies, “to Soviet civilians and prisoners of war who were shot.” No mention was made of the Jewish identity of the victims. Only in the context of perestroika and Ukrainian independence did it become possible to commemorate the Jewish victims of Babi Yar. A menorah monument was erected in 1991, and the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, publicly apologized for the persecution of the Jewish people on Ukrainian soil.
In the following years, the indifference of the state toward the commemoration of the victims of Babi Yar left the way open for various non-governmental organizations which sought only to honor “their” victims. Thus, in Babi Yar today there are about three dozen different monuments, unrelated and lacking overall coherence. At the same time, the buildings continued to be erected on the site of the memorial, both at the ravine itself – a metro station was erected on the site of the shooting in 2000 – and on the former pre-war Jewish cemetery adjacent to it.
Today, Babi Yar is sorely lacking a place of shared remembering, a place that would unite all the isolated monuments and the memories that they embody, and which would thus become the heart of the protected memorial zone. In 2001, 2005 and 2011, campaigners and citizen activists tried without success to push for the building of such a space. Only a few commemorative stones, inaugurated with great pomp by the Ukrainian authorities, silently testify to these efforts.
From these unsuccessful attempts a project was born. A modern space combining a memorial, a museum, as well as an educational and research institution. This is the aim of the initiative launched by the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko: the creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.
Personalities from the political, religious, artistic, sports and business worlds joined him: Viktor Pintchouk, Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, Pavell Fuks, Joschka Fischer, Aleksander Kwasniewski, Natan Sharansky, Joseph Lieberman, Yaakov Dov Bleich, Wladimir Klitschko, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. In September 2016, at the signing ceremony for the “Declaration of Intent to Create a Place of Remembrance,” Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko urged the Ukrainian and international community to join in this initiative. He expressed his conviction that the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, to be completed in 2021 on the 80th anniversary of the tragedy, would become a symbol of Ukrainian unity and of great importance to the whole world.
To date, no museum and research center in the world has been created in close proximity to the scene of a mass shooting of Jews and citizens of other nationalities.
And above all, there is no international memorial, museum or research center for the “Holocaust by bullets.”
The Holocaust by bullets has this specific feature that the executioners saw the faces of their victims – men, women, children, babies and the elderly – before killing them at close range. This crime took place on a very large scale in abominable conditions. In each village in the region, Jews were gathered, lined up, often called upon to dig their own trenches before being murdered in groups, under the eyes of the next row and falling on top of the previous one.
Unlike the death camps, the victims of this largescale crime were all shot, often near their own villages and in front of their neighbors. This is what Patrick Desbois, a French priest, has called the “Holocaust by bullets” (or Holocaust in the East), which led to the killing of more than 1.5 million people, mainly in Eastern Europe.
This project will also be the first of its kind in Eastern Europe, where 90% of Jewish victims perished under the Nazi yoke. It is precisely on these terrible events – concentrated in this specific geographical area where the destinies, traditions, cultures and languages of the different peoples were closely intertwined – that the future memorial of Babi Yar is focused. It is a unique site in the Ukrainian historical memory. This place, where various tragedies intertwine, also reminds us of the exploits of citizens who, despite the artificial barriers imposed by the Soviet government, managed to preserve the memory of the dead during the post-war period.
The Memorial Center commemorating the Holocaust in Babi Yar will examine history with sincerity, calm and perspective, without taboos or prohibitions, and will strive to overcome fears, suspicions and misconceptions. This is a major issue for Ukrainian society today. Finding a common language and opening a constructive dialogue to allow Babi Yar’s victims to be remembered with dignity is a vector of social cohesion and the source of a constructive public debate about history. Visiting this center will have to make it possible to ask fundamental questions: how did we arrive at such a tragedy? What can we do to ensure that it does not happen again and, on the contrary, to allow us to think in terms of a shared memory?
Today, it is our duty to ensure that antisemitism does not reappear, and we must be prepared to combat it in its new forms. We owe it to ourselves to do so, not only for the Jewish people, but also for those who have been or may be threatened with the same fate. Vigilance against any ideology based on hatred and exclusion is essential. Today, we are witnessing a resurgence of extremism, xenophobia and racism in the world, including in Eastern Europe. Ukrainian citizens are fighting today to defend the freedom and independence of their common homeland and have opted for democracy and for Europe.
The Memorial Center thus pursues the noble goal of contributing to the construction of a future of universal dignity and equality, of paying tribute to the victims of the Holocaust – Jews as well as members of other ethnic, religious and other groups – so that none of them will ever be forgotten and so that their memories can be woven together for a brighter future.

The author is a Ukrainian historian who is affiliated with the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv (chair of Central and Eastern European history and scholarly director of the Center for Genocides and Mass Atrocities Studies at the Faculty of History).

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