‘Holocaust by bullets’ to be memorialized in Eastern Europe

Upon the 78th anniversary of Babi Yar: It was a poet’s pen rather than a soldier’s bayonet that first punctured the Iron Curtain.

BABI YAR, from the German archives. (photo credit: BEV SYKES/FLICKR)
BABI YAR, from the German archives.
(photo credit: BEV SYKES/FLICKR)
Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a gentile, was 28 when he wrote and published his 1961 poem Babi Yar. It rattled many and, most importantly, brought into the public discourse a hushed-up massacre considered to be the largest to have taken place in a single location in the history of World War II at that time.
When a human atrocity takes place in your figurative backyard, it is hard – if not impossible – to let go of that memory. The events which took place at Babi Yar were first obliterated physically, with cremation pyres manned by adjacent concentration camp prisoners – Jews and non-Jews – followed by other attempts to hide and disguise the site, including construction there during the Soviet era.
Yevtushenko was acquainted with the Russian-language writer Anatoly Kuznetsov, who would later write Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, and Yevtushenko asked him to take him to the site. Yevtushenko recalled to the BBC World Service on the 70th anniversary of the massacre: “What I saw was absolutely terrible – there were lots of trucks and they were unloading stinking garbage on the tens of thousands of people who were killed. I did not expect that.” He went back to his hotel and wrote the poem in under five hours.
Babi Yar – ‘grandmother’s gully’ in Ukrainian – is, surprisingly, not a remote location. It is a natural ravine in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, then the city’s outskirts near the medieval monastery of St. Cyril.
The Babi Yar atrocities followed Germany’s surprise invasion of its ally, the Soviet Union, in June 1941. Some 160,000 Jews resided in Kiev, comprising around 20% of the city’s population. German forces entered Kiev on September 19, 1941.
DURING THE first week of the German occupation, on September 24, two major explosions occurred, thought to be set off by Soviet military engineers, blasting the German headquarters. The sabotage was deemed by the Nazi commandant to be the responsibility of the Jews, and this became the pretext for retribution to murder the remaining Jews of Kiev. It also roused enormous animosity on the part of Ukrainians towards their Jewish neighbors.
According to Yad Vashem, there were still about 60,000-70,000 Jews living in the city, mostly those who could not flee: women, children, the elderly and the sick.
Within seven days of entering the city, the Nazis published notices ordering the Jews to assemble, ostensibly packed for travel to a resettlement site. Rumors flew through the city; Kiev was crowded, they would be moved to a more rural place; or, some thought, they were being sent to Palestine. They were to bring warm clothing, cash, valuables and documents; their homes were to be secured.
On September 29, Jews were directed to the city’s outskirts, where they were efficiently forced to hand over their possessions at designated stations, one type at a time: first luggage, then coats, followed by shoes, outerwear and also underwear, each item separately, with another spot for valuables. The hesitant or resistant were beaten by Ukrainian helpers. Once naked, they were lead into the deep ravine where they were ordered to lay on top of the just-killed Jewish bodies. A marksman walking across the dead with a submachine gun would shoot each newly arrived Jew, adding another layer to the pile. This is how a truck driver named Hofer described it, as related by historian Michael Berenbaum in his 1997 book, Witness to the Holocaust.
In a letter dated May 17, 1965, Kuznetsov wrote to Israeli journalist and translator Shlomo Even-Shoshan, describing what he saw through his 14-year-old eyes: “They published an order for all the Jews in the city to gather in the vicinity of the freight yard with their belongings and valuables. Then they surrounded them and began shooting them. Countless Russians, Ukrainians and other people, who had come to see their relatives and friends ‘off to the train,’ died in the swarm. They didn’t shoot children but buried them alive, and didn’t finish off the wounded. The fresh earth over the mass graves was alive with movement.” Kuznetsov defected to England in 1969.
Dr. Arkadi Zeltser, director of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union: International Institute for Holocaust Research, says there were slight arbitrary variations in methodology that took place in these massacres across Eastern Europe. He points out that, like the one in Kiev, they occurred in the populated areas where Jews lived, not in remote areas. “The neighbors saw what happened; the knowledge of what occurred was high,” he confirmed.
By nightfall of the 30th of September, some 33,771 Jews had been shot and killed at Babi Yar. That evening was the 9th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei: Kol Nidre night of Yom Kippur.
The Nazis would choose significant dates for their actions, though they were unlikely aware of the significance from a Jewish religious perspective.
THE JEWS of Kiev, assigned blame for sabotage, were placed in the classic position of scapegoats – defined as those who bear the blame for others, and the object of irrational hostility.
The primary usage of scapegoat is recalled in the Talmudic story of ancient Judaism’s ceremony on Yom Kippur, performed by the High Priest in preparation for his annual entry into the Holy of Holies. After ritually confessing the sins of the people of Israel, he would take a pair of goats and, by lots, designate them: one to be sacrificed to God in the Temple, the other – the Azazel scapegoat – to have the people’s sins symbolically placed on its head. It would “take their sins” out to the wilderness as a symbol of relieving the people of their burdens. The unfortunate goat was thrown off of a high cliff to its death.
Perhaps this was a mystical divine message to be gleaned as a foil to the added layer of sadistic timing for the massacre.
The shootings continued and subsequently included more Jews, who were turned in or tracked down, as well as other enemies of the Nazis, who were added to the ravine of corpses over two years: Soviet POWs, partisans, resistance members, communists, Roma-gypsies and – in a turn-around – 600 Ukrainian nationalists, until the pits of Babi Yar were estimated to contain 70,000 to 100,000 corpses, according to Yad Vashem.
Kiev was liberated by the Red Army on November 6, 1943.
Zeltser says that, “it is impossible to be precise about the numbers, since the Nazis tried to cover their crimes by cremating the corpses, and other factors.”
He adds that he doubts any special significance to the timing of the massacre, since it extended to September 30. It was only due to technical reasons that the Nazis were prevented from completing the task in one day. “Nonetheless, there is a strong association between Yom Kippur and Babi Yar in the collective memory of the Jews,” he says. Soviet Jews, many of whom had relatives who were murdered in Babi Yar, gathered there in the hundreds for the first yahrzeit in 1944 – while the war was still being fought. The tradition to do so continued over the years.
THOUGH YEVTUSHENKO’S Babi Yar poem was the best known, there were other writers and authors who wrote about the massacre. Early literature included a long poem by Ilya Selvinsky, a Jewish-Soviet writer who penned I Saw It! She didn’t mention Babi Yar outright, but it was widely understood as the subject. Due to Soviet oppression, early writings could only obliquely describe the events in coded language.
Possibly the earliest known poem called Babi Yar was written the same year it happened by an eye witness, Liudmila Titova, a Ukrainian poet from Kiev. That poem, written at age 17, was discovered in the 1990s. She continued to write sporadically on a minor level and, according to Zeltser, she disappeared into literary obscurity.
Soviet-Ukrainian writer Mykola Bazhan penned a poem called Babi Yar in 1943, explicitly depicting the massacres in the ravine. He was a highly prominent and decorated public figure in the Soviet Union. Bazhan was nominated for the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature, but was forced by the Communists to decline his candidacy.
A number of other poems on Babi Yar were written in Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish.
The massacre was officially suppressed by Soviet ideology, which would not permit distinguishing the Jewish nature of the persecution and deaths from others who fell in the war, but saw them all as Soviets who had died in The Great Patriotic War. Nor would Soviet policy allow any implication of the Ukrainians or local police in the events.
The tragedy at Babi Yar became a symbol of anti-Jewish policy by the Nazi regime and the extermination of the Ukrainian Jews – but more widely, it was a symbol for all Soviet Jews who lived under the oppressive regime.
After Nikita Khrushchev became premier of the Soviet Union following the extreme Stalin years, there was a “thawing” of attitudes regarding some freedoms. Natan Sharansky, a refusenik, human rights activist and former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, recalls that intellectuals were “testing” the limits of freedom, to see just where the new boundaries lay. It was during this time that Yetvtushenko’s poem was published. Sharansky observed: “How could he have dared? Khrushchev pushed back. After a few short weeks, the window on free speech to discuss Babi Yar was again shut. After that, talking about Babi Yar went back underground.”
Sharansky, born in 1948 in Donetsk (then called Stalino), Ukraine, recalls his childhood as “living in the killing fields of the Holocaust. We played in areas where horrors took place. There was a 363-meter-deep coal mine filled with the bodies of 75,000 Jews. And we couldn’t talk about it.” He says, “The Soviet Union erased the truth of the historical memory of the Shoah – as if we were underground.” His personal family losses in those years were largely in Odessa and Donetsk.
Yevtushenko’s poem clearly identified the overwhelmingly Jewish victims as being doubly victimized: by the Nazis and by the Soviet government. His poem came to the fore at the height of the Cold War and in the middle of the short Camelot years of the Kennedy presidency. He was wildly popular as a poetry reader, filling huge halls with audiences.
In the 1960s, small groups of Jewish activists began gathering without permission at the ravine site to keep the memory of the atrocity alive.
What confirmed and widened the awareness of Yevtushenko and Babi Yar was the request from Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich to put his poem to music, composing his 13th Symphony in 1962 as a commemoration to Babi Yar.
Yevtushenko credits this with being the second punch to officialdom. This act built such wide recognition of the Babi Yar atrocity that it forced the Ukrainian party bureaucracy to build a memorial. He “was the moral architect of this memorial,” he said to the BBC. In 1976, a memorial commemorating all victims of the Nazi regime at Babi Yar was erected, without making specific mention of Jewish victims. The central figure of the monument is a Soviet soldier.
It was only after the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991, that the Ukrainian government permitted the erection of a memorial at Babi Yar recognizing Jewish victims. It was built in the shape of a menorah, fifty years after the massacre.
ABOUT THREE-AND-A-HALF years ago, at the time of the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar, Sharansky was approached by prominent figures in the Jewish world, who met with him at his Jewish Agency office in Jerusalem. They sought his support to build an international team to devise a comprehensive plan to achieve a memorial center at Babi Yar, which would combine commemoration, education and also be a research center. With the backing of Kiev’s mayor Vitali Klitschko and other well-known figures, Sharansky agreed to take on the role of chairman of the Supervisory Board for the commemoration of a Babi Yar memorial.
This group took on overcoming multi-pronged obstacles to achieve their goal. They first needed a consortium of political support on an international level; financial backing from both public and private sources; the search for an appropriate real estate property to house the center; the agreement of rabbinical figures as to religious questions regarding permissible locations to construct such a site; an architectural plan on an international standard; and consensus as to what the content of the future museum might be.
This led to creating the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center foundation to address all of these significant elements. Sharansky said that no small part of the task would be dialog with the Ukrainian public. He said that he went to the Ukrainian Parliament to respond to questions as to what was planned for the museum. The foundation built a coalition of university heads to assess how the history would be written, facing the competing narratives straight on.
An international conference is planned for May 2020 in Tel Aviv, with speakers expected to discuss many aspects of the planned center.
In an international competition, BYHMC recently selected the Austrian architectural firm Querkraft Architekten to design and build the new center. The firm won the blind submission competition, which originally received 165 applications submitted from 36 countries.
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN (center) meets with Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Advisory Board chairman Natan Sharansky (second from left); Dr. Arkadi Zeltser (far right), director of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union: International Institute for Holocaus (Credit: PR)
PRESIDENT REUVEN RIVLIN (center) meets with Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Advisory Board chairman Natan Sharansky (second from left); Dr. Arkadi Zeltser (far right), director of the Moshe Mirilashvili Center for Research of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union: International Institute for Holocaus (Credit: PR)
Sharansky looks forward to restoring the collective memory of what he calls “the Holocaust by bullets which very nearly disappeared.” He said that, “it is important for the future. There is nothing to hide and we must speak the truth. The subject of Ukrainian helpers is still hard to talk about. Why did it happen? This is a big step for the Ukrainian people… this will be the first such memorial and, more importantly , [the first] Holocaust education center in Eastern Europe.”
Looking intensely through his pale blue eyes, he concluded: “This will return the historical memory of the Jewish people – and also give a chance for Ukraine to join the community of nations with respect.”