In Kharkov, Jewish students keep memory of their massacred relatives alive

Local JCC sponsors short Holocaust memorial ceremony at Drobitsky Yar, where Nazis killed 30,000 Ukrainian Jews.

dabritsky yar 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dabritsky yar 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish college students from this northern Ukraine town stood sweating patiently in their costumes Sunday under the late afternoon sun. On the steps of the Drobitsky Yar Memorial, they would soon reenact in a short skit the massacre of 30,000 Jews who were machine-gunned to death in the winter of 1941. A crowd of about a hundred had gathered to see the skit and take part in a short Holocaust memorial ceremony organized by the local JCC, supported by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. There were about a dozen Holocaust survivors, men in polyester short sleeve shirts and women in summer skirts with hair dyed unnatural colors - pale blue, copper. There were also middle-aged participants - the second generation, or what Holocaust educators call the "hinge generation", the generation who had to confront the personal legacies of their parents. But the young Ukrainian Hillel students, dressed in overcoats and hats, carrying suitcases and baby dolls, were the third generation. They often had no significant contact with their grandparents who survived the Einsatzgruppen - Nazi mobile killing units who operated in Ukraine just behind the advancing German troops and other dangers to return to their hometowns. They began climbing the steps of the memorial, shedding their clothes and belongings as they went, just as the victims of the Drobitsky Yar massacre had been commanded to undress by the Nazis and their Ukraine collaborators. At the top of the memorial, an additional group of Kharkov students dressed in white waited to play the angels who would gather the victims and take them to heaven. On the eve of World War II 150,000 Jews lived in Kharkov. By the end of the war only 1,000 remained. Those who were not killed were transferred to forced labor camps in Germany or fled east. Today there are between 30,000 and 50,000 Jews in Kharkov, which has a total population of 1.5 million. Serge Volodaisik, 18, a sophomore at one of Kharkov's excellent universities and one of the actors in the skit, is a third generation Kharkov resident. His father, like many people in this country with extreme economic polarization, is unemployed and his mother is a schoolteacher. "I don't know whether I will stay here," said Volodasik in good English, still in costume as a Holocaust victim. "My brother is in America. And I have family in Israel." He smiled easily as he told of his life in Kharkov. There is no anti-Semitism, there are plenty of friends at the Hillel house and he feels at home in the town where he was born and raised. "If I do leave, it will be for economic reasons," he said. Rolling, verdant meadows and lush orchards surround the memorial. The bucolic calm of the place sharply contrasts with its brutal history as a killing field for Kharkov's Jews. Volodasik's youthfully exuberance also seems strangely out of place here. But perhaps Volodasik is a living example of the vitality and staying power of the Jewish people.