A Museum for Babi Yar

International parliamentarians issue a declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish heritage museum in Ukraine.

Babi Yar memorial DONT USE (photo credit: SERGEY VLADYKIU)
Babi Yar memorial DONT USE
(photo credit: SERGEY VLADYKIU)
The German Wehrmacht captured the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, on September 19, 1941. Ten days later, the Nazis turned their attention to the Jews, who were rounded up and taken to Babi Yar, a ravine on the northeast of the city. It took Einsatzgruppe C two days to shoot to death 33,771 men, women and children and dump their bodies into the ravine.
Seventy years later, a small orchestra played somber music at a ceremony marking the anniversary as the Chabad Chief Rabbi of Kiev, Moshe Reuven Asman, intoned Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, in front of a memorial menora at the site of the Babi Yar massacre. It was hard, on that bright late-summer afternoon, to comprehend the barbarism that had transformed what is now a tranquil park into a scene of inconceivable horror (during which people numbering more than the present population of Gibraltar were put to death in 48 hours).
Yet Babi Yar was not unique. The Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators massacred Jews in more than 600 killing sites throughout Ukraine, ultimately murdering 1,500,000 Jews – a quarter of those annihilated in the Holocaust.
The Ukrainian tragedy was the focus of a two-day International Consultation of Parliamentarians (ICP), held in the Ukrainian capital September 18-19. Dozens of delegates from Europe and the Caucasus discussed how to counter continuing anti- Semitic manifestations, especially in the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Despite the dimensions of the Holocaust on its soil, Ukraine has not dealt with it in any meaningful way. The Soviets had suppressed Holocaust commemoration, describing the Holocaust as atrocities against Soviet citizens, and avoided mentioning that the Jews had been specifically targeted. The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko penned his underground poem “Babi Yar” in 1961 and it opened with the words “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” The Soviet authorities finally relented and, in 1976, a heroic Soviet-style monument was erected, without mentioning that Jews were killed there. Only when Ukraine achieved independence in 1991 was the Holocaust allowed to be a topic of open discussion.
During the two years of the Nazi occupation of Kiev, it is estimated that between 100,000 to 150,000 Jews, Soviet POWs, communists, Gypsies, Ukrainian nationalists, civilian hostages, partisans, and others were murdered at Babi Yar.
Yet Ukraine, second only to Poland in the number of Jews killed, still lacks any national Jewish heritage museum. Oleksandr Feldman, the driving force behind the ICP meeting in Ukraine, has set the establishment of such a museum as his top priority. “I will get this Jewish heritage museum built. I will use my own money to build it and will welcome any partners willing to join the enterprise,” Feldman, a member of the Ukrainian Parliament and a successful businessman, whose wealth has been estimated at some $300 million, tells The Jerusalem Report during a break in the ICP discussions.
Ukrainian officials demonstrated the importance they attached to the ICP by holding the main discussions in Parliament, a huge, impressive structure in the neoclassical style. Ukrainians are apparently less concerned about terrorism than Israelis and the inspection of visitors’ bags was somewhat perfunctory.
Following deliberations in one of the large parliamentary committee rooms, the conference issued a joint declaration stating: “Educational efforts must be reinforced all over the globe to establish the Babi Yar massacre as not simply another event within the horrific scope of the Holocaust, but as a telling indicator of the breadth of Nazi evil.”
One of the delegates, Rufat Guliyev, a member of the Azerbaijan Parliament, learned for the first time of the enormity of the horrors perpetrated at Babi Yar during the ceremony at the site – despite the fact that he had been a student at the state university in Kiev in the late 1980s.
“I studied economics for five years in Kiev and have visited many times since and had never heard of the World War II atrocities carried out in the city,” he confides to The Report. “That was a black day for humanity, not only for Ukrainians and Jews, and the world needs to be reminded of it.”
Feldman, who is President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, notes that Babi Yar was a precursor of the Holocaust.
“If the world had reacted forcefully to the massacre at Babi Yar, perhaps the Holocaust could have been slowed down,” he argues. Instead, the world was silent and the Nazi leadership went on to plan the “Final Solution” for the annihilation of the Jews at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, in Berlin.
Rafi Hovannisian, a former foreign minister of Armenia and now leader of the opposition Heritage Party, echoes this sentiment by telling The Report that if the world had acted forcefully against the genocide of the Armenians, carried out by the Turks in 1915, the Germans might have been more cautious about perpetrating the Holocaust.
Hovannisian, suave and elegant, speaks excellent English, which is not surprising since he grew up in the US and made “aliya” to Armenia 25 years ago. He slams the “hypocrisy of the Turkish deniers of genocide, who pitch concepts of freedom, human rights and international law” and condemn Israeli actions against Palestinians, while carrying out heavyhanded military actions against the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The Turkish Air Force has bombed bases in northern Iraq of the Kurdish Workers’ Party, known as the PKK, killing around 200 people in scores of recent raids.
Vice President Petra Pau of the German Bundestag noted that since she was born in 1963, she bore no direct guilt for the Shoah (using the Hebrew word for Holocaust), but did bear the responsibility to ensure that “a shoah would not happen again.” Along with the Ukrainian representatives, lawmakers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Germany, Gibraltar, Israel, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Turkey and the United Kingdom were represented at the conference.
The dynamic Feldman hammers the point that a heritage museum is essential to pay homage to the 1,000-year history of Ukrainian Jewry and the horrible destruction wreaked upon it by the Nazis. At the end of the gathering, participants issued a second declaration calling for the establishment of a Jewish museum in Kiev. Feldman’s wishes gained a significant boost a few hours later when the Ukrainian Minister of Culture, Mykhailo Kulyniak, announced, at the ICP’s closing reception, that his country would support such an enterprise and the authorities would allocate land for the site.
The need for a museum to focus on the Jews of Ukraine and their destruction was brought home during a visit to a powerful exhibit entitled “Shoah by Bullets: Mass Shootings of Jews in Ukraine 1941-1944.” After the ICP deliberations ended, I visited the exhibit, which opened at the Ukrainian House in the center of Kiev on September 8.
The exhibition is housed with little fanfare in one of the side rooms of Ukrainian House, formerly The Lenin Center, a huge cavernous structure. The somber exhibit features photographs of the murders being carried out and a display of Nazi weapons and bullets. Visitors can listen to the harrowing filmed testimony of the last remaining Ukrainians, who witnessed their Jewish neighbors being executed by Nazi gangs.
The exhibit is based on material collected by French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois, whose grandfather was a French POW who witnessed the murder of Jews when he was sent by the Germans to Rawa-Ruska on the Polish-Ukrainian border. After studying the history of the Holocaust, Desbois became determined to track down the lost mass graves of murdered victims of the Nazis (see “Father Patrick and His Elder Brothers,” The Jerusalem Report; October 15, 2007).
Execution by shooting of Jews in Soviet Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Russia was the opening phase of Hitler’s Final Solution. But the Nazi bureaucrats of death came to the conclusion that shooting was too inefficient and they consequently developed exterminations camps in Auschwitz and other sites in Nazi-occupied Poland.
More than half of Ukraine’s 2.4 million Jews were shot, starved to death or died of disease during the Holocaust. In some instances the Nazis, prior to their defeat, attempted to obliterate the evidence of their murderous handiwork. Most mass graves of the Jews and others remain unmarked and ignored, only being uncovered during construction work or road building.
Desbois’s Yahad-In Unum (yahad means “together” in Hebrew while in unum means the same thing in Latin) is the group he created to scour the killing fields of Ukraine. Desbois has crisscrossed Ukraine at the head of search teams. Since 2004, the teams uncovered more than 500 mass Jewish graves and 48 extermination sites for Gypsies. Desbois has organized similar exhibitions in Paris, New York and other cities.
“People talk a lot about the Shoah, but few act to make sure it is not forgotten. I decided to make it my task to find out what had happened in Ukraine,” he told The Report in a previous interview.