Babi Yar will have ‘high scale emotional component’ but no role-playing

‘My main goal is to find and recollect personal details, and recreate the histories of the human suffering that took place there,’ says maverick artistic director

People place candles in 2016 and fly Israeli flags during a ceremony commemorating the victims of Babi Yar, one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust, next to Kiev (photo credit: REUTERS)
People place candles in 2016 and fly Israeli flags during a ceremony commemorating the victims of Babi Yar, one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Holocaust, next to Kiev
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center’s “emotional component” of the future will be “high scale,” but the site will not employ any form of immersive role-playing, the center’s artistic director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, told The Jerusalem Post.
Speaking through an interpreter, Khrzhanovsky discussed the multiple projects, including archival research, that are going into the memorial center, his personal passion for the initiative and the controversy that blew up around the planned Holocaust center in recent months.
The mass murder at Babi Yar in Ukraine was one of the worst single massacres during the Holocaust, in which more than 33,000 Jews were shot dead at the ravine outside Kyiv on September 29-30, 1941, after the Nazis conquered the region earlier that month.
In the following months, the Nazis shot and murdered tens of thousands of non-Jews at the same location, including Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet civilians, Roma and others, with 100,000 people perishing at the site during the two-year Nazi occupation of Kyiv.
In 2016, Jewish-Ukrainian billionaires Mikhail Fridman and German Khan initiated a project to create a memorial center for the Babi Yar massacres, and a center for “education, documentation and remembrance,” which will include research institutes, multimedia online platforms and educational projects.
They were joined by fellow Jewish-Ukrainian billionaires Pavel Fuks and Victor Pinchuk, who together have provided the project with a budget of $100 million.
But in recent months, controversy has sprung up around the project due to reports about the direction in which the artistic director was taking for the museum’s central exhibition.
Khrzhanovsky is best known for the controversial DAU film project, which used immersive methods to depict Soviet life during the Second World War and into the 1950s and ’60s, but which was criticized for the use of extreme methods in physically recreating the Communist totalitarian regime on a 1.2-hectare (3-acre) plot the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.
Concerns were raised by the direction of the Babi Yar memorial project when chief historian Karel Berkhoff quit, with speculation that Khrzhanovsky sought to have visitors to the center engage in immersive role-playing of Nazis and victims during the massacre.
In a recent conversation with the Post, Khrzhanovsky asserted emphatically that these allegations were false.
“What is critical is that no psychological experiments will be conducted with the viewer. No recreation of suffering will take place,” said the director.
Khrzhanovsky said the source of the speculation was a working document he drew up at the end of August and beginning of September, which was “a panoramic of all the possibilities for the exhibition.”
The director said this working document included any and all possibilities for what might be included, but the idea of an immersive experience was quickly discarded.
“There will be no role-playing,” he insisted.
Natan Sharansky
, chairman of the supervisory board of the planned museum, supported Khrzhanovsky’s assertions.
He said the artistic director “came with some ideas which he presented and how his films could be applied to the Babi Yar project,” but it was “never anything more than ideas on his papers,” which Khrzhanovsky discussed with the board.
“We said forget about it and dismissed it in the very early stages before he even became art director,” said Sharansky.
Regarding Berkoff’s resignation, Sharansky was more circumspect, saying merely that new professional leadership had joined the project and the historian had decided he did not want to work with them, and so resigned.
He insisted however that the historical narrative for the museum and memorial center was strictly adhering to that drawn up by Berkhoff.
Chief Rabbi of Ukraine Yaakov Bleich, who also sits on the supervisory board, made similar comments, saying  the notion of role-playing was “1,000% not going to be part of the exhibition.”
Both Sharansky and Bleich insisted that the supervisory board, which includes World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, former US senator Joe Liberman and former UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova, among others, will be responsible for approving the final concept.
Sharansky said one of the things that attracted him to the project was its goal of using technology and innovative methods to impart a strong experience for visitors.
“We are discussing how modern technology will be used to bring this information to the visitor. The concept, how the different projects of the center will together be combined into the exhibitions and how they will have maximum influence on the visitor, and how the visitors will connect with the surroundings, with the building, with the site itself, and how information changes from one room to another, it is our board which has to approve it.”
In the meantime, Khrzhanovsky has yet to complete the concept for the main exhibition of the museum, but says it will be finalized and presented to the board by the end of the year.
And he was keen to talk about the archival and research aspects of the initiative, which will make records, videos and documentation from the era that have not previously been seen available to the public.
One project, “Babyn Yar: Context,” will make available a large resource of video materials from Ukrainian, Russian and German state and private archives, from the period around the Babi Yar atrocities.
These video materials and testimonies will eventually be made into a feature-length documentary film, episodes of which will become part of a video installation in the museum’s permanent exposition.
Khrzhanovsky also talked of the memorial center’s archival research, which project officials say has successfully verified the identities of more than 3,000 victims of the Babi Yar massacre, 834 of whom were never previously identified as having been murdered there.
“We are working on multiple, multi-faceted projects, each of which systemizes the history of the place and the history of the victims, through the use of incredible human and other resources, studying the archives, and digitizing hundreds of thousands of documents,” he said. “This work is key, because it is a memorial to the people who died there.
Asked about his passion for the Babyn Yar memorial center project, Khrzhanovsky points out that he is Jewish, and that his mother and her family escaped the Holocaust after they fled to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, shortly before the Nazis occupied her hometown of Vinnytsia, in western Ukraine.
“The most important thing is to restore the memory of the people who were killed, which has been lost, and tell their story for future generations,” he says.