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April 8, 2021 3:47 pm

‘The Only House of Remembrance of the Holocaust by Bullets’: Synagogue Unveiled at Memorial to Babi Yar Massacre in Kiev

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

The newly-opened symbolic synagogue at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center

A new synagogue in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev honoring the tens of thousands of victims of the Babi Yar massacre was unveiled Thursday as the world marked Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day in the Jewish world. The “symbolic” synagogue was built near the site’s ravine slope, where on Yom Kippur eve in 1941, more than 33,000 Jewish men, women and children were shot dead during just two days by the Nazis.

The first Jewish house of prayer at the massacre site will be part of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), established by a private foundation, which was created in 2016 to build a Holocaust museum in Kiev to collect the historic facts, testimonies and narratives that were silenced for decades and to find names of victims.

“This is a significant event because it demonstrates the ongoing commitment by the Ukrainian government to acknowledge the mass murder which happened on Ukrainian soil so many years ago,” Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of the National Coalition Supporting Euro-Asian Jewry told The Algemeiner.

The synagogue is part of a wider project to create an interfaith complex to include houses of worship for Jews, Christians and Muslims, since the atrocious massacres at the Babi Yar site — sometimes referred to as Babyn Yar, using the Ukrainian spelling — also saw Ukrainian dissenters, homosexuals, Roma and the mentally-ill suffer the same fate. There is already an Orthodox church near the synagogue, and other prayer spaces will be added in the future. The number of victims murdered at Babi Yar is estimated at around 100,000, making it Europe’s largest mass grave.

“At Babi Yar not only Jews were killed so we will also make space for the prayer of other religions, but it will not undermine the Jewish character of the place,” said Ukraine-born Natan Sharansky, chairman of BYHMC’s supervisory board, in an interview with The Algemeiner. “The synagogue is part of a very big complex which will serve as the only house of remembrance of the Holocaust by bullets.”

Designed by internationally-known architect Manuel Herz, the synagogue takes the form of a pop-up book — inspired by the idea of children opening and closing a book as they read to reveal and learn new things, according to Sharansky. When closed, the 12-meter high building is a flat vertical structure that is manually opened, and then unfolds into the three-dimensional space of the synagogue structure. The structure is made of 100-year old barn oak.

The ceiling of the synagogue is decorated with patterns in the form of a map of the starry sky, reproducing the position of the stars on Sept. 29, 1941. The structure is also decorated with restored paintings, patterns and texts of prayers, with references to two destroyed 17th and 18th century Ukrainian synagogues.

Kiev Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich leads the memorial ceremony and inauguration of the synagogue. Photo: Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center

The synagogue is the first construction to be completed in the planned Babi Yar memorial complex, which will stretch over an area of 370 acres, making it one of the world’s largest Holocaust memorial centers. Babi Yar has become a symbol of the less-documented tragedy — also known as the Holocaust by bullets — of an estimated 1.5 million Jews, who were shot in the ravines and killing fields of Eastern Europe and buried in mass graves between 1941 and 1943 during the Nazi occupation. According to the freedom fighter Sharansky, a number of attempts to commemorate the tragedy had failed in the past, including a monument that did not mention the Holocaust of the Jews.

Sharansky, who spent years in a Russian prison before finally being freed, said he knew nothing about the Babi Yar massacre when he was growing up as a child, due to the Soviet policy of suppressing information about the tragedy after the Second World War.

“Almost everything was tried to erase the memory of Babi Yar in Soviet times. Babi Yar is a symbol of the attempt to erase our memory and deprive us of our identity,” Sharansky said. “The Soviets tried to turn the grounds into a waste site. They even tried to build a sports stadium on it.”

The Babi Yar project is supported by a number of high-profile figures, including Russian magnate Mikhail Fridman, Ukrainian tycoon Victor Pinchuk and former world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, as well as the Ukrainian government.

The French Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois — who has been at the forefront of discovering and identifying the mass graves of Jews murdered by Nazi killing squads across occupied eastern Europe over the past 17 years — explained that the documentation and memory of the Holocaust victims by bullets is today more important than ever.

“In Auschwitz or other Nazi extermination sites there are camps to visit. The un-silencing of the Holocaust by bullets relies on finding eyewitnesses to locate the execution sites and mass graves,” Desbois told The Algemeiner. “We are doing everything to find evidence. People want to talk to tell the truth. We need to safeguard the mass graves. Without that evidence, the deniers will only multiply, while the survivors die out. If we don’t have the evidence of the crime, we dismiss the responsibility of the killers.”

For Desbois, there is a strong legacy and lesson to be taught from the Holocaust by bullets, as he draws parallels between the execution-by-shooting model used by the Nazis and rising antisemitism linked to acts of hatred today in France and elsewhere.

“We look at Auschwitz and we say never again. But we don’t say no more shootings,” Desbois said. “Again today, we are seeing that people are ready to die in order to kill as it is seen as another shooting. The crimes committed by the ISIS are just one example of the same human disease.”

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