Ukraine honors ghosts of Babi Yar
Hilary Leila Krieger
KIEV - Things have come a long way in the Ukraine since Igor Zhovnirovsky tried to immigrate to Israel in 1977. Back then, commemorating the Nazi massacre of more than 30,000 Jews at the Babi Yar forest outside Kiev was verboten. In previous years, friends of Zhovnirovsky had been prevented from making even token acts of remembrance. On the way to lay wreaths on the unmarked mass grave site, they had been arrested, interrogated and then released - without their wreaths. Zhovnirovsky tried to join in the commemoration in 1977, in part because he wanted to honor the memory of the dead, but also because he understood it would irk Soviet authorities reviewing his emigration application and perhaps hasten his exodus. Indeed, he soon received a call from the KGB. "They invited me in and told me I was allowed to leave, but that I shouldn't go to Babi Yar. So I said, okay, I won't," recalled Zhovnirovsky, now a 59-year-old engineer. "Of course I would have liked to go and lay the wreath, [but] it was a minor price to pay." Today, 65 years after the massacre, Ukraine is doing more than just laying wreaths - although the spectre of anti-Semitism endures. Kiev is hosting a commemoration Wednesday both at the site of the killings, which has since been adorned with memorials, and at a central city landmark. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko will lead the ceremony along with an Israeli delegation headed by President Moshe Katsav. Other world leaders will attend, though high-level participation by the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin is lacking. Katsav and Yushchenko spoke ahead of Wednesday's events at the opening of an exhibition on children during the Holocaust, sponsored by Yad Vashem. Both presidents referred to Babi Yar's significance in the light of contemporary intolerance, but neither addressed rising Ukrainian anti-Semitism directly. Yushchenko said, "Babi Yar must become a forewarning which should protect the world and alert it to aggressive, bloody xenophobia." Katsav followed by saying, "All of us, humankind, must act together to stop anti-Semitism and racism, which is raising its ugly face in the world, which is a danger not only to the Jewish people, but to the society around us." Earlier in the day, Katsav traveled to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav in Uman and paid a visit to the Ukrainian village his father-in-law came from. He largely avoided the media as sexual assault allegations swirled back in Israel. The Babi Yar commemoration is being orchestrated by the World Holocaust Forum. The forum - of which Yad Vashem is a key member - is the brainchild of Vaitcheslav Moshe Kantor, a tycoon who heads the Russian Jewish Congress. Fifty members of Kantor's family on his father's side died at Babi Yar, which he calls a "symbol in the world of the most secret Holocaust," since it has not received as much attention as other aspects of Nazi genocide. But for all the attention it is now receiving, the commemoration comes amidst a rise in anti-Semitism in Ukraine. Even as the country takes steps to recognize the historical contributions and suffering of the Jewish people, there has been an increase in anti-Semitic publications and occasional acts of violence against Jews. Gert Weisskirchen, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's special representative for combating anti-Semitism, called the situation here "critical" and urged authorities "to use the Babi Yar events to show the public that they are not ready to accept anti-Semitism in any way." Weisskirchen participated in a roundtable discussion Tuesday ahead of the ceremonies. Kantor estimated a more than 10 percent rise in anti-Semitic acts in the Ukraine in the last year, but stressed that there was no anti-Jewish sentiment at the governmental level. "There is no such country in the former Soviet Union where social anti-Semitism is so open, so pronounced, so declared. It's a bad thing," he said at a press conference Tuesday. "But there is something balancing this situation. Both in Russia and the Ukraine, the central government on the presidential level are demonstrating their opposition." At the same time, Josef Zissels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine, said the government could be doing more on the issue and that this was evident in the low level of its participation in the Babi Yar commemoration, to which it didn't give funding. Yet Zissels added that acts of violence against Jews were rarer than in Western Europe and that the four-fold spike in anti-Semitic publications was almost entirely the work of a subset of one Kiev university. Weisskirchen attributed the rise in anti-Semitism here to "the problems that transformational countries are facing among the conflicts coming from the post-Soviet era." Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev, who is to speak at Wednesday's ceremonies, said anti-Semitism had been part and parcel of the Soviet regime and that the de-emphasis on a place such as Babi Yar stemmed from this, as well a concentration on Communist victims of the Nazis and the struggle against fascism. He said recovering the site's past was significant to local Jews coming out of years of Soviet oppression, adding: "For the Jewish people, it was very important because it rebuilt their Jewish identity, which the Soviets fought against." Zhovnirovsky, who fled the Soviet authorities because he saw "no future" for Jews under their control, was gratified to hear of the scope of the event to be held at a site so long ignored. "It's great. It's terrific," he said. "People were killed there, and honoring their memory is always the right thing to do, [not only] for the people who remember it, but also for those who don't."
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