Building a unique Holocaust museum at Babyn Yar

Despite its notoriety, no museum or substantive memorial exists to mark Babyn Yar.

‘A GLIMPSE into the Past’ monument, unveiled this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Babyn Yar.  (photo credit: BYHMC)
‘A GLIMPSE into the Past’ monument, unveiled this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day at Babyn Yar.
(photo credit: BYHMC)
It is the site of one of the most infamous massacres of World War II, yet the precise location of the murders remained hidden until recently. Almost 80 years have passed since the sunny September day when thousands of Jews were ordered to a ravine near Kyiv with their belongings. Yet, despite its notoriety, no museum or substantive memorial exists to mark the scene. Its name is Babyn Yar, but soon, a vast museum complex will begin to rise in its place. The complex will include a dozen buildings in memory of the Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the massacre and the estimated 1.5 million Jews murdered in similar Nazi mass shootings across Ukraine and Eastern Europe. 
On September 28, 1941, three days before Yom Kippur and nine days after the Germans occupied Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the Nazis ordered all of the city’s Jews to gather on the following day, together with their money, documents, and valuables, near the city’s cemetery. The local police escorted the Jews to the Babyn Yar ravine, where they were machine-gunned to death over two days. In total, more than 100,000 people were murdered on the site during World War II, including thousands of Roma (Gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war and Soviet civilians, along with most of Kyiv’s Jewish community. 
Prior to the observance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month on January 27, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) officially unveiled its plans for the construction of the complex. The Center will include a museum that will commemorate the Babyn Yar massacre; a museum to commemorate the Holocaust of Ukrainian and Eastern European Jewry as a whole; a structure depicting the names of the victims; a religious/spiritual center including a synagogue, church and mosque; an educational and scientific research center; a multimedia center; a learning and recreational space for children; an information and conference center and more. 
The artistic concept for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Museum is led by Ilya Khrzhanovsky, an award-winning film director, in cooperation with a team of authorities from Ukraine and around the world expert in the area of museum development. The Jerusalem Post met with Khrzhanovsky and leading members of his artistic team in a wide-ranging Zoom discussion to discuss the unique nature of the upcoming museum and what will set it apart from others of the genre.
Participating in the discussion were University of Waterloo Prof. Robert Jan van Pelt, a renowned Holocaust researcher; Columbia University Prof. Troy Conrad Therrien, chief curator of Architecture and Digital Initiatives at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Anna Kamyshan, head manager of the BYHMC Architectural and Design Department; and Inna Schorr, director of International Communications for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Museum.
VAN PELT, who is one of the world’s leading experts on Auschwitz and who chaired the working group that created the master plan for the future Auschwitz Museum, pointed out that unlike other well-known Holocaust museums, such as Yad Vashem and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that are not located on sites that are directly related to the Holocaust, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center will sit on the site where the atrocities were committed. 
“The key word in this case,” says Van Pelt, “is attunement. How do you attune visitors to actually start to look at the place like this, whose appearance has changed since 1941, so that they start to understand what’s below them?” He adds that the Babyn Yar museum complex will be intended to not only commemorate how the Jews perished, but how they lived before the Holocaust. 
“The ambition in Babyn Yar is that it is going to be a Holocaust museum that both deals with the site and what happened at the site, but also with a larger issue – the history of East European Jewry, as it existed in the Pale of Settlement which was of course, in some way, the core of Judaism as it survived through the early modern time into the modern age. I think that the combination of both a large international and probably a continent-wide perspective in Babyn Yar, together with the location at a very particular site that is notorious in the history of the Holocaust because it’s the largest or second-largest single massacre in September 1941, combined with the attempt also to address what was that culture that was destroyed, makes it that makes it really unique and I think, a very complex enterprise.”
Anna Kamyshan says that since the museum will be located at the site of the murders, it is important to show proper respect for the location during the construction. 
“We need to find a way to not disturb the earth, so as not to penetrate the earth.”
Another additional unique aspect to the development of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is that it is the first major Holocaust museum to be developed without the impact of the generation of survivors, who were present during the creation of the major Holocaust museums. 
“It’s not only Yad Vashem, but especially also the Ghetto Fighters Museum (located in Kibbutz Lohamei HaGeta’ot in Israel) which clearly identifies with that group,” says Van Pelt. “It was all survivor-led, and in some way, the survivors and the idea of testimony were very important. That is going to be absent here. We are, in that sense, too late. Whatever we are doing in Babyn Yar is in some way the first kind of memorial museum of the post-survivor age.”
ILYA KHRZHANOVSKY, artistic director for the museum, agrees that creating a museum as the generation of survivors disappears is challenging. 
“It’s an important challenge in general for Holocaust commemoration – how we can build this bridge from the past where we can touch this past through people who are still alive to the past, when you don’t have any real connection to them – how we can keep this connection and keep this emotion. You should have something where you can feel it like something real – something that exists now, something that is connected with you, regardless of nationality or gender, of what country you are coming from – not only for the Jewish people but for the entire world.” 
Troy Conrad Therrien says that he was amazed to learn that the educational system in Ukraine spends very little time teaching the Holocaust itself. 
“It seems to me,” he says, that we are dealing with a culture that has yet to fully reckon with the Holocaust.”
Recent surveys conducted in Ukraine support his position and underscore the need for creating a memorial to the tragic events that took place on the site and throughout eastern Europe. Some 68% of respondents polled said that the memory of 20th-century genocides such as the Holocaust is fading from the public’s consciousness, and just 16% of the residents were aware that more than one million Jews were shot dead in their homes during the Holocaust. 
Inna Schorr, director of International Communications for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Museum, added that another important aspect of the museum will be dealing with the psychological trauma caused by Babyn Yar and the Holocaust in general. An initiative that is being discussed is a collaboration with the local mental hospital in the area – whose patients were murdered at Babyn Yar in 1941 – to treat the traumas caused by the Holocaust on survivors and their descendants. 
“The healing of the traumas which the Holocaust created for survivors, for the second generation and even for the third generation, is something that was never dealt with,” she says.
Ilya Khrzhanovsky expects that the synagogue will be open within the next several months and that one exhibition space will open by September. Within the next three years, the museum will be fully operational, and he adds, “we will keep changing and developing all the time.”
“How we bury our dead reflects what we think about life,” says Troy Conrad Therrien and adds that the way that humans of all faiths bury their dead allows the living to carry on in peace and harmony. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, adds Robert Jan van Pelt, will be, in a sense, a collective site of re-burial, because of the systematic attempts of the Germans and the Soviets to remove the remains of the victims. 
“In recreating this site, we are burying the dead in the tradition of Eastern European Jewry.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.