Memories of Kiev's Babyn Yar massacre during the Holocaust

It is all too easy to turn the cyclopean amount of victims of the Holocaust by bullets during World War II into mere numbers, behind which the meaning of each individual’s fate is lost.

A boy visits a monmument commemorating the victims of Babi Yar in September. (photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
A boy visits a monmument commemorating the victims of Babi Yar in September.
Weapons don’t kill, people do. When a man shoots, he makes a choice. On September 29 and 30, 1941, more than 30,000 such choices were made in Kyiv’s Babyn Yar.
The past often feels further away than it really is. Physics has proven that space and time are not linear, and furthermore that the past, present and future exist simultaneously. Given the linear nature of our everyday lives, this concept is difficult to grasp. As the past fades from view in the fog of the present, there can be a misleading sense that it does not exist. It vanishes from memory. Forgetfulness allows us to repeat the same horrific mistakes.
Man should feel a moral duty to “repair the world,” to strive continuously to fix himself and everything around him. History should not horrify, but rather provide a grounding anchor.
The horrors of the past can even protect our future, as long as knowledge of them is preserved rather than denied.
What is the Soviet mindset? “I do not remember, and therefore it never happened,” “It happened, but in an entirely different way” or “It did happen, but to a lesser extent.” Amnesia is one of the gravest diseases. It is not merely the inability to remember the past, but something much greater; it is the inability to plan anything or to remember the future. This is the Soviet amnesia around everything beyond the imposed worldview.
The Holocaust should be experienced as something that is happening to us in the present. It is a permanent and perpetually bleeding wound for the human race. For Ukraine, having endured the suffering of a century of war, genocide, famine and dictatorship, it is a
particularly pertinent issue. The land is drenched in blood, as fittingly described by historian and writer Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands.
However, it is all too easy to turn the cyclopean amount of victims of the Holocaust by bullets during World War II into mere numbers, behind which the meaning of each individual’s fate is lost. A Nazi report on the Babyn Yar executions numbers the victims at “33,771 people, not counting children under three years old.” But who were these people?
First of all, the mission of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is to restore the memory of specific people, their names and stories, with the help of modern technologies and the expressive language of art. When collected together, personal stories, sometimes ordinary and lacking in eloquence, speak of a world that has vanished forever. To remember and recreate the reality of that world through details and sensations is a major part of our mission.
Millions of visitors to the future Memorial Center will pass through this world themselves.
As such, the accuracy and authenticity of historical facts is fundamental to this project. The Holocaust in Ukraine is characterized by an extensive erasing of memory through lack of documentation. There are significantly less sources of information about the mass executions in Ukraine than there are about the death camps. Ahead of us lies the colossal work of collection and systemization of fragments of remaining knowledge, requiring original technological and methodological approaches.
WE MUST act with lightning speed. Living memory diminishes with each passing day as those who carry it pass away, with many things forgotten forever. That being said, there is still much hidden that is within our reach. By chance, when examining the Babyn Yar
territory and the adjacent necropolis, we met the keeper of the existing cemetery. It transpired that she had, for many years, hidden from the KGB unique documents listing the people buried at the now erased Jewish cemetery. This is just one of many similar discoveries.
The data we collect will help us to restore to memory the names of people and the places where they lived. Following the example of stumbling stones found in other European cities, we intend to record stories in stone on memorial tablets, installed across Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine. We would like to create them for everyone. A quarter of Kyiv’s pre-war population was Jewish, and it was not only the Jews who suffered the consequences of the Holocaust. Perhaps every old building in Kyiv will display such a tablet, forging a connection with its present occupants.
Fundamental to our work is transparency in all activity, creative solutions, work plans and financial transactions. This will ensure that we fully appreciate our responsibility to ensure the verity and impartiality of the results of our work. Transparency will help us to prevent distortion of our own memories, and it will enable us to reflect on reality and our own actions. It will make the project more comprehensible for wider society, and will enable immediate feedback from the residents of Kyiv and those for who this is an important subject.
In creating the largest Holocaust memorial center in Eastern Europe, we have a lot of work to do. For example, today it is almost impossible to find Anatoly Kuznetsov’s documentary novel Babyn Yar, the major book on this subject. Multilingual republication and
dissemination of this striking story, told through the eyes of a child, will help citizens of today’s world to gain a strong sense of the Babyn Yar tragedy. Even today, many people walking around Babyn Yar have no idea what this place represents. The mission of the center is to transform a place of oblivion into a place of memory.
The vast and manifold stories of the tragedy surrounding Babyn Yar make it a major symbol of the Holocaust in Ukraine. In reality, two crimes took place on the territory of Babyn Yar: the mass executions and the subsequent dissipation and oblivion of their memory. In addition to tens of thousands of Jews, all patients of the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were shot here, several Roma camping grounds disappeared without a trace, and in the neighboring Syrets concentration camp for prisoners of war, inmates were condemned to destroy evidence against the Nazis before facing their own death.
Following this, the Soviet authorities dismantled the remains of the Jewish cemetery located here, and attempted to fill the ravine itself with construction waste, resulting in the Kurenivka tragedy – a mudslide carrying effluents and bones from the old cemeteries onto residential houses. They tried to bury Babyn Yar. It was only thirty years later, following protests unprecedented in Soviet Kyiv, that a monument was erected, with just the inscription: “One hundred thousand Soviet citizens died here.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s full support for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center indicates a change of direction and is very important for us.
I ask myself the question: “How was this possible?” I think of the Holocaust by bullets, of the executioners who often looked into their victims’ eyes as they pulled the trigger, thus making an indisputable choice. This is how antisemitism grew out of a glossary term into the most horrifying of deeds. Many international organizations say that even today antisemitism is on the rise around the world. They are referring to things that are manifestly as tangible, and the peace remains fragile.
When the war began in the summer of 1941, my mother, Maria Neyman, along with her parents, fled to Tashkent from Vinnytsia, the Jewish population of which was later almost completely destroyed. Her grandparents stayed in the shtetl of Shargorod, which has a unique history. At the beginning of the war, it was occupied by Romanians and made part of Transnistria. A ghetto was established there, but nobody suffered until almost the end of the war. At the same time, the Jewish population of Odesa was destroyed, and in the villages of Bohdanivka and Domanivka, Mykolaiv Oblast, Romanians killed more than 115,000 Jews.
Transnistria itself became known as “Hell for Jews” due to the unbelievable cruelty of the Romanians.
All of these stories are as good as forgotten now, almost unknown to today’s Shargorod population or the inhabitants of Bohdanivka and Domanivka. However, it is precisely these stories that can give us the true picture of how the catastrophe of the Holocaust was possible, of how entirely different people and different nations suddenly became engaged in antisemitic hatred.
For more than 10 years, as part of the DAU film project, I dealt with the collective and individual trauma of people within a totalitarian regime. In DAU, it was the trauma of the totalitarian Soviet regime; in the Babyn Yar project, it is the trauma of Nazism.
Thanks to my mother’s escape from Vinnytsia, I had the opportunity to be born. It pains me to think of the massacre of Jews during the Second World War, to read eyewitness testimonies. I want to apply all of my knowledge so that visitors to Babyn Yar can experience the history of the tragedy as their own, so that this story can never be repeated in the future.
I have lived in Moscow, Kharkiv, Berlin, Paris and London, and in every place I have met people whose destinies were connected in one way or another to the Holocaust. These have included survivors, victims’ relatives, righteous people, indifferent neighbors and even those for whom the Holocaust is a shameful chapter. They held on to these stories throughout their lives and despite the pain passed them on to their offspring. The final epilogue to Babyn Yar should occupy the same space as the stories of victims, torturers and witnesses.
I believe that these memories are not mere pieces of information, but that they contain great knowledge of the fate of humanity. By comprehending collective experience as individual experience, the past becomes personal, and, consequently, becomes the present. Society is made up of individuals, and if society can change, perhaps such a tragedy will never be repeated.
The writer is artistic director of Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.