The Human Spirit: Kinot from Ukraine

Spending Tisha Be'av at the site of the single largest massacre of the Holocaust.

1508-sofer.jpg (photo credit: Shlomi Ben Ami)
(photo credit: Shlomi Ben Ami)
No monument stands over Babi Yar. A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone. I am afraid. Today, I am as old as the entire Jewish race... So begins the extraordinary poem Babi Yar, published in 1961 by Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko. Dmitri Shostakovich set it to music in his Symphony No. 13 in 1962. In 1966, as a representative of Young Judaea, I recited an English translation on the steps of the State Capital in Hartford, among Jewish youth marching to urge our state representatives to fight for the release of persecuted Soviet Jews. Our Connecticut senator, Thomas Dodd, was among the staunch supporters of this successful struggle. In those days of the Iron Curtain, this was a poem about freeing Soviet Jewry. It never occurred to me that I might one day be at Babi Yar. Last week, just before Tisha Be'av, Judaism's national mourning for the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, I found myself there, the site of the single largest massacre of the Holocaust, reading the same poem, this time in Hebrew. I am accompanying a small group of Holocaust educators from Israel. They are planning the annual educational trip sponsored by Hadassah for the children who live in residential Youth Aliya villages. Many of these youngsters are from Ukraine, and the educators want to weigh the possible impact of visiting sites there in addition to or instead of those in Poland. I'd always imagined Babi Yar as an isolated site - perhaps illogically because the Hebrew word for forest is ya'ar. I'd pictured a forest. But the infamous killing field is simply part of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. On the way there, we've stopped on Pushkin Street to visit the former home of the mother of one of the educators. Her mother had always described the grand apartment, near the Opera House, a stylish building with an elevator - a memory that had sounded aggrandized. But the apartment has large, luxurious rooms with curved balconies offering views of Kiev's golden domes. Indeed, it's near the Opera House, and there is an elevator. On September 29, 1941, all these Jews were ordered to report at 8 a.m. to the corner of Melnikov and Dokterivsky Streets with their documents, money, valuables and warm clothing. They didn't need the coats. Pushed naked into the gorge, they were shot and, dead or alive, buried in the pit; 33,771 Jews were murdered in Babi Yar on the eve of Yom Kippur, 1941. THE APARTMENT we visited was the home of the mother of Adina Shtoyer, 56, from Jerusalem. Her maternal grandparents made a narrow escape to Azerbaijan, but she has brought a thick folder of printouts of her Kiev cousins from the Pages of Testimony of Yad Vashem of the many relatives who were murdered here. She hands me one for Fima Fastovsky. I do the arithmetic. She was three years old. Today there are three memorials at Babi Yar - a modest stone menora, a Soviet style mega-sculpture for the Ukrainians killed there, and a children's sculpture. None of them, not individually or as a whole, conveys the tragic story of what happened here, but even worse is the thought that there are hundreds of smaller Babi Yars all over Ukraine, many not yet discovered. Shtoyer's paternal grandparents lived in a small town near the regional center of Kolomiya, in western Ukraine. We fly to Lvov, and drive four hours over rich farmlands as far as you can see. Her grandparents ran the kosher butcher shop; they had eight children. Adina's father Moshe Luks and his brothers Avraham and Yossele became soldiers in the Red Army. All three fought in the Konigsberg offensive operation in 1945. Only Moshe survived. After the war, he learned that his other siblings, his parents and his young bride had perished. An eyewitness described their murder in the Szeparowce forest of Kolomiya. His sister Haya, seven, was bashed to death on a tree when she cried out in hunger. More than 3,000 Jews were all shot into the pits which had been previously prepared by Jewish prisoners. All this Shtoyer knows only because in the days after her father died in 1994, she read his beautifully penned memoirs while sitting shiva. Among the papers was a living will calling on her to keep the memory of the family alive. Shtoyer's parents met and married after the war, had two children and eventually moved to Israel. Adina and her husband Zvi became high-ranking police officers. They have three children and four grandchildren. Telling the story to their own children didn't feel like enough to her. Shtoyer retired from the police force, went back to school and became a fulltime Holocaust educator. She has been to Poland more than 30 times with groups, most of them schoolchildren. This is her first visit to Ukraine. It is both her birthday and the anniversary of her father's death. The small stone memorial to the Jews at the Szeparowce forest is frequently vandalized. Today, too, it is pockmarked. Our Jewish guide shrugs. "You asked about anti-Semitism. This is Ukraine." Shtoyer has brought large laminated photos of her parents' graves in Jerusalem and places them on the memorial. "My father always felt guilty that he survived and the others didn't," she says. "At least in death he'll be reunited with his family." BEFORE THE trip, I'd never heard of Kolomiya. But another of the educators in our group also has roots here. Yossi Krautheimer, director of the Ben Yakir Youth Aliya village in Kfar Haro'eh, is a descendant of the Karlin hassidim who left Kolomiya for Jerusalem 200 years ago. Before we leave, Krautheimer is eager to find the graves of ancestors. A stone marker confirms the spot amid an acre of trees. There's nary a tombstone. The guide senses our disappointment. He takes us to the old Gestapo compound, a parking lot has been paved with stone: tombstones. We can make out the Hebrew letters. We run our fingers over the script, trying to make out names, to no avail. Sixty-five years after World War II, no one has bothered to remove the tombstones of the dead Kolomiya Jews from the parking lot. One last stop. A synagogue remains in town, Beit Haknesset Yerushalayim, no less. According to the guide, it's the last remaining synagogue in which the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the hassidic movement, prayed. One Torah scroll is more than 200 years old. At last, something from the time that the early Krautheimers lived here. Yossi Krautheimer holds the Torah high. We follow him around the synagogue in a singing procession. It's neither Monday nor Thursday, but reading from the Torah is irresistible. Krautheimer places the scroll on the bima and carefully scrolls the brittle parchment to the week's portion, the opening of Deuteronomy. The scroll is patched together from many different parchments cut from other Torah scrolls. In our own synagogues in Israel, such a scroll would never pass muster, but here in Kolomiya each scrap of Torah becomes a sacred memorial. "These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan..." chants one of our group members, an experienced reader unencumbered by the uneven script. "Come and possess the land that God swore to your forefathers..." The words of Moses have never sounded better. Adina Shtoyer's daughter is named for little Haya and her son, Adina's grandson, bears the name of his great-grandfather Moshe. Shtoyer is back in Poland this week with another group. Krautheimer is preparing for the hundreds of children who need special attention in his village. There are still far too few monuments to the 1.5 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust of Bullets. But better than headstones are those who have come from behind the Iron Curtain to bear their names and tell their stories.