New Holocaust center shows the time has come to commemorate Babyn Yar

It is perhaps not surprising that a fitting museum has not yet been constructed in Babyn Yar, because the story of Babyn Yar has been somewhat neglected for many years

KYIV 2020: Babyn Yar today (photo credit: VALERIY MILOSERDOV / BYHMC)
KYIV 2020: Babyn Yar today
‘We need to find a language to speak to them,” says Ilya Khrzanovskiy, referring to a generation that has grown up in Ukraine with little knowledge of the Holocaust. “People in Ukraine don’t know much about Jewish culture.” Khrzanovskiy, artistic director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, has the difficult task of creating and developing a museum commemorating events that occurred almost eighty years ago in Ukraine.
Unlike most Holocaust museums and memorials, which were constructed when the memory of the tragic events was fresh in the minds of both survivors and perpetrators, the Babyn Yar Center is not slated to be officially completed until 2021, eighty years after almost 34,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis at Babyn Yar, a ravine near Kyiv, on September 29-30, 1941.
On September 28th, 1941, nine days after the Germans occupied Kyiv, the capital of the 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.
In 2016, on the 75th anniversary of the murders at Babyn Yar, members of an international coalition announced the intent to create a new memorial and educational center in Ukraine. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center has listed a number of ambitious goals – paying tribute to the victims of Babyn Yar, telling the story of the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in Kyiv and the Ukraine, acting as a research center for the Holocaust crimes in the geographies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe; developing an educational platform to discuss the Holocaust, in particular, and Human Rights overall; tracing the dangers of totalitarian, extremist nationalist and racist ideologies and illustrating the value of heritage and memory in building a democratic Ukraine and peaceful future. The narrative, as told by the Center, will not limit itself to the killings of Jews exclusively, but will provide information about the murder of non-Jewish victims as well.
KYIV, SEPTEMBER 1991, opening of Menorah monument at the 40th anniversary of the tragedy of Babyn Yar (Photo Credit: Valeriy Miloserdov / BYHMC)
KYIV, SEPTEMBER 1991, opening of Menorah monument at the 40th anniversary of the tragedy of Babyn Yar (Photo Credit: Valeriy Miloserdov / BYHMC)
It is perhaps not surprising that a fitting museum has not yet been constructed in Babyn Yar, because the story of Babyn Yar has been somewhat neglected for many years. Beginning in June 1942, the Germans began a secret operation to destroy the evidence of the mass murder of the Jews, including the murders at Babyn Yar. While details of the Babyn Yar massacres were known in the USSR, for many years Soviet authorities did not acknowledge that the mass murder of the Jews committed there was a part of the Holocaust. In 1961 Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his poem Babi Yar, in which he protested the USSR’s refusal to recognize Babyn Yar as a Holocaust site.
The fact, says Khrzanovskiy, is that 1.5 million Jews were killed in Ukraine during the Holocaust, yet no major Holocaust museum has been built in the area is significant. “People are not ready to talk about the past. This is a famous Soviet sickness, known as amnesia,” he says. “Even in the past thirty years of freedom, since Ukraine became independent, they didn’t manage to build anything.” That’s why having a private initiative from an international group of donors is a very important thing, he says. The proposed Holocaust Memorial Center is a non-governmental organization, and has a supervisory board headed by Natan Sharansky, a former Prisoner of Zion, who served in the Knesset and was most recently head of the Jewish Agency from 2009-2018. Among some of the other distinguished members of the board are Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, former US Senator Joseph I. Lieberman and Joschka Fischer, former German foreign minister.
Khrzanovskiy explains that the museum will be the first Holocaust museum intended primarily for the generation that was born at the end of the 20th century, and the beginning of the 21st century. “We are talking about people with different mindsets,” he says. Those who live in contemporary Ukraine, Belarus or Latvia, are living in a completely different world than Kyiv of the 1930s. The task, he explains, is not retelling the notorious events of Babyn Yar, but in retelling what Jewish life in Kyiv was like beforehand. “Before World War II, every fourth family in Kyiv was Jewish. When the Nazis came to Kyiv, there were 220,000 people left in the city, 40,000 of whom were Jews,” he says. “Imagine what kind of culture, smells, lessons, books, knowledge, what kind of traditions were just killed, and taken out from the mental picture and from the mentality of the time.” In 10 or 20 years, he adds, all of the Holocaust survivors will no longer be alive, and the retelling of the Holocaust will change.
To illustrate the lack of historical perspective in Kyiv today, Khrzanovskiy mentions the fact that the underground subway station next to Babyn Yar, rather than being named Babyn Yar, was called Dorohozhychi, which is the general name of the entire area.
“Everyone knows it’s Babyn Yar,” he says, “but people say ‘We don’t want to remember this. We want to be in a positive mood.’” Khrzanovskiy adds that the advent of the corona pandemic has forced people to look at life more seriously instead of thinking of it exclusively as a pleasure-filled journey. “In Babyn Yar, you can see human history through the story of the Jews.”
THE CORONA pandemic has also changed Khrzanovskiy’s timetable for planning and opening the museum. The museum has shifted much of its emphasis to online content and will be launching at the end of May. In addition, he says, by the end of the year, it will be offering the largest online library in Eastern Europe of Holocaust material. The actual physical opening of the museum will most likely be delayed beyond the projected 2021 date.
Khrzanovskiy explains that he will provide the new generation, which has little awareness of the Holocaust, who will visit the museum, with experiences of what happened at Babyn Yar, so that they “will experience the situation, what happened and the fear of the time.” In order to accomplish this difficult task, visitors to the museum will be matched with an ‘alter ego,’ chosen from the victims, who matches the age of the visitor. By doing this, Khrzanovskiy says that visitors will learn from the experiences and life of the victim what it was like to experience the Holocaust. In this way, the visit will become much more personal for the visitor. “It is a different experience for a 12-year-old girl, and a 40-year-old man and a 90-year-old woman,” he notes.
Khrzanovskiy explains that the members of the museum’s creative team are in their early 20s. “There are many interesting and creative people especially of the younger generation, who are interested in the project. They will build the museum and run it.
They look at the future and want to create something important.”
Khrzanovskiy plans on utilizing the most up-to-date technologies available, but points out that technology is just a technique and a means of communicating. “Today, the newest technology is VR [virtual reality], but in 20 years, we have no idea what it will be. We want to build a structure that will adapt to any kind of new media and new technology.” Khrzanovskiy says that the museum will also have historical artifacts from World War II that will convey the meaning of the time.
An award-winning filmmaker, Khrzanovskiy wants to tell the story of Babyn Yar to online visitors as well as those who will visit the physical structure when it is completed. What is the story that he wants to tell? When asked, he replies with the words of the famous poem No Man is an Island, penned by English metaphysical poet John Donne (1572-1631), who wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
The story of Babyn Yar, explains Khrzanovskiy, is more than the tragic events of two September days in 1941. It encompasses far more than the murder of the Jews by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. “It’s not only about some Jews were killed by evil Nazis, together with some bad Ukrainians. It’s about you – how things can happen in the world.
It’s a story about a universe that was killed. A Universe. If you see a killed universe, you see the Ukraine. In a beautiful place, hell can happen.”
This article was written in cooperation with the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.