Experiencing the hell of Babi Yar

Memories of a distant trip to the Soviet Union

 People attend the opening ceremony of a symbolic synagogue in the form of a collapsible wooden structure commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar (photo credit: GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS)
People attend the opening ceremony of a symbolic synagogue in the form of a collapsible wooden structure commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar

Kiev was the fourth of five cities in which my wife Rita and I visited refuseniks as “spies” in August 1988.

Like thieves in the night, we secretly left Israel a few days after our daughter’s wedding. Neither our three children nor my parents, who had come from the US for the nuptials, had been informed of our departure and where we might be going. 

In the previous nine months, we trained in a building in Tel Aviv and learned the tricks of the trade when you go as tourists to the former Soviet Union. Our fellow Jews in the Former Soviet Union had been enriched and enthused for 15-20 years by visitors from various countries. They so wanted to go to Israel, but they were not permitted. First we flew from Israel to London.

There we were met by someone who did not identify himself. We went to an office with him. He took our passports, American and Israeli. He took whatever we had identifying us as Israeli. “Here are your new American passports, your itinerary, rubels and something to drink. Be at the airport in time for your flight to Moscow. Be’hatzlacha.” 

Landing in one Moscow airport, we were then flown to the other. There we went through the rigors of entering the country. Fortunately, the authorities did not take anything of what we brought to distribute.

 Rabbi David Geffen (Left) and Rita Geffen (Right) (credit: Courtesy) Rabbi David Geffen (Left) and Rita Geffen (Right) (credit: Courtesy)

Three days after our arrival; by the time we reached Kiev, we had been christened by fire. Yes it had all begun. Rita and David Geffen, spies we thought, proud and afraid. 

On arrival in the former Soviet Union, we flew from Moscow to Kishinev, our first stop. There on a summer afternoon, we were awaiting a couple whom we contacted at a public pay telephone at the local post office using a special code to insure the number would not be forgotten. We had been instructed never use a hotel phone, all bugged. 

Rita spoke to the husband and arranged the meeting place and time in a public park the next afternoon.

Twenty-four hours later, we rode the tram from our hotel to the park. No one came; I assume they were suspicious. They had no idea who we were. Perhaps we were just leading them on. 

After a half-hour wait, we walked up a block to a church which had been transformed into a museum. I went inside and Rita stayed outside in a small garden, hoping that the people we were waiting for might still appear having watched us walk away from the original meeting site.

Waiting outside, Rita was approached by a woman KGB agent. Of course she did not identify herself, but started a conversation. Rita realized that this person was wearing a cross and Star of David around her neck.

The conversation began pleasantly and then became intense. “We know what you are doing here. Whoever you are, you are speaking to ‘our’ Jews. You are passing on Jewish material, which is illegal. Stop immediately.” 

Rita looked the woman straight in the eye, but otherwise did not react or reply. I walked up. Rita introduced her just as a friendly native speaking to a visitor. We turned and left; Rita, of blessed memory, would not be deterred and for the rest of our visit no one attempted to halt us or warn us. By the time we reached Kiev, three days later, we were capable of handling anything that might happen, being jailed or thrown out of the country. Kiev is an immense city, and now is the capital of Ukraine known as Kyiv.

At the hotel where we were booked, we were called and told: “Meet me downstairs.” 

It was twilight already, but he recognized us and came over to speak out on the wide sidewalk. He introduced himself, told us that tomorrow we would be going to Sholom Aleichem House and an old synagogue and in the evening meeting some couples at his apartment. 

Rita and I both reacted immediately: “What about Babi Yar?” 

“It is a long train ride from the heart of the city,” he emphasized. “If you go there, the government agents will recognize you as Jewish.” We protested. “We have studied about Babi Yar. We have read Yvushenko’s poem about the horrors. We are going.”

He saw that we were determined so he assured us that we would visit there tomorrow.

We went to sleep, awoke in the morning for a buffet breakfast. Like Israelis, took some rolls with us for the day. Our contact was waiting outside; off we went by bus to our initial two stops which he had described the day before. Sholom Aleichem House was bare, and in the old synagogue a lot of well worn volumes. After an hour or so, he said. “Off to the station to board the city train to Babi Yar.” He paid our fare, we maintained silence during the half-hour ride to the stop near Babi Yar. We exited; he pointed in the direction of the site and said goodbye – see you tonight. “Take this train back and walk to the hotel.” 

He gave us a card in Russian with the hotel name.

As we walked, we passed a few old buildings. We asked someone the way to Babi Yar,

He stammered, pointing the way. All of a sudden – there was an opening – in a sort of forest. Green grass, a statue, trash, and rubble,

With us, we had brought a 24-hour Yahrzeit candle from Israel, a Siddur, pictures drawn for us by Yaakov Kirschen (the Dry Bones cartoonist), especially for our trip, flowers and a few Stars of David.

No one was there at all, there were no automobile sounds because there was no road. The wind whipped up, sending filthy papers into the air. So this is Babi Yar, we wondered to ourselves, where 33,000 Jews were slaughtered and thrown into a ravine – who would ever know it?

We walked over to the statue, with my pack on my back. There were deep scratches on it; no identification at all of what it was.

We sat down on the grass and began to cry. Never at the remnants of a concentration camp, this was the closest we had ever been to the living hell of the victims. 

Still, we were alone; only sounds when we spoke to each other. We lit the yahrzeit candle, placing it at the foot of the statue. I took out my Siddur. Rita and I wailed together as I struggled through “El Maleh Rahamim.” We began to walk around completely alone. We actually picked up some trash, stuffing it in our bag and my pockets. We placed Stars of David in different places.

Still, three decades later, I recall how we placed the flowers at the foot of the statue, hoping they would not blow away or be stolen quickly. Rushing through our minds were some of the pictures we had seen of our brothers and sisters and children being herded toward the ravine-pit of death. Their faces embedded in our minds – from that October day in 1941. We tried to talk; the words barely could leave our mouths.

Our throats choked up. 

Here we were. We had to do more than just be at Babi Yar. Since we were alone, we could do whatever we wanted. Finally, an idea entered my mind. 

“Rita, we will lay down on the ground so we can ‘hear’ their voices, screaming in terror as they were shot. Perhaps we will feel their heartbeats all these years later.”

For the next half hour we laid on the grass of Babi Yar. We absorbed the murders of some 33,000 Jews. By osmosis. We knew that we had to make them a part of us, never permitting them to leave our souls. 

Neither Rita nor I ever went to a concentration camp site. We did not see the ovens; we viewed the valley of death. That imprint will be eternal. 

The writer is a Conservative rabbi who lives in Jerusalem. He says his wife Rita, who died in 2020, was the spirit which carried them through this moving experience.