Restoring the voices of Babyn Yar’s victims

if the world had reacted to Babyn Yar, perhaps the Wannsee Conference, where, three months later, the Nazis decided on the “Final Solution,” would have reached a different conclusion.

Mirror Field Memorial at Babyn Yar (photo credit: DMITRIY STOIKOV)
Mirror Field Memorial at Babyn Yar
(photo credit: DMITRIY STOIKOV)
On September 29-30, 1941, the Jews of Kyiv were rounded up and marched to the wooded ravine of Babyn Yar, where they were stripped naked and shot dead by Nazi Einsatzgruppen execution squads and their willing Ukrainian collaborators, the bodies piled up in layers, one on top of the other. Over two days, 33,771 Jews were massacred.

It was, to that point, the largest single mass killing of the Holocaust. Others would follow: Tens of thousands of Jews were massacred by Nazi and Romanian troops in Odessa in a similar fashion over a two-day period in October of the same year. All told, over one and a half million Jews would be murdered throughout the Pale of Settlement in what has come to be known as the “Holocaust by Bullets.” 

As former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau reminds us, if the world had reacted to Babyn Yar, perhaps - just perhaps - the Wannsee Conference, where, three months later, the Nazis decided on the “Final Solution,” would have reached a different conclusion. 

Babyn Yar has become a symbol of the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ and the fate of Soviet Jews during the Nazi invasion, yet, to this day, there is no worthy memorial to an event of such horrific historical importance. 

Two crimes, it has been said, took place at Babyn Yar, the massacre and the blotting out of its memory.

It was the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who in 1961 first brought the world’s attention to the Soviet erasure of memory at the site with his poem “Babyn Yar,” which begins with the line: “No monument stands over Babyn Yar / A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone."

But even after Yevtushenko, it took another fifteen years before the Soviets erected a memorial to “Soviet Citizens and POWs” shot by the Nazi occupiers. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian authorities permitted the erection of a menorah to commemorate Jewish victims.

In 2016, with the support of then-President Petro Poroshenko, plans were drawn up for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, an ambitious museum, research, and education center currently scheduled to fully open in 2026 after several delays. Current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently said that the establishment of the memorial center is extremely important to the country and its history. 
Shmuel Rosenman. (Credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)Shmuel Rosenman. (Credit: YOSSI ZELIGER)

The museum should have been built a long time ago, and its importance increases with every day that passes. 

With antisemitism once again on the rise around the world, and with phenomena such as Holocaust denial and attempts to rewrite history, it is important to expose people to the horrors that occurred. With economic and political instability increasing and creating fertile ground for fascism and antisemitism, it is important to remember what led to the terrible events of World War II.
We are living in the last generation in which survivors can tell their own story of the Holocaust and therefore, we at the International March of the Living believe that without employing digital and other modern technologies, we won’t be able to preserve the memory for the young generation who will not have the opportunity to meet a living survivor. 

This is why we partnered a few years ago with the Shoah Foundation, and together we are building a living memory using new technologies to bring survivor testimonies to life.

Eva’s Story, an Instagram diary based on the real-life story of a Hungarian Jewish girl murdered in Auschwitz, is a successful example of the use of technology to preserve Holocaust memory.  It reached tens of millions of people around the world thanks to its use of 21st-century social media that brings the Holocaust to the young generation in a language it can relate to. 

This week, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center will open three outdoor audio and visual installations as it marks the 79th anniversary of the massacre. As they walk through the installations, visitors will hear the names of some 18,000 people murdered at Babyn Yar – collected as part of the Center’s Names Project – followed by El Malei Rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead. 

It is a welcome step on the road to finally restoring the voices and memory of Babyn Yar’s victims. 
Dr. Shmuel Rosenman is the chairman of the International March of The Living.