Babyn Yar: Re-Burying the Holocaust With Bullets
Russian dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous 1961 poem “Babiyy Yar” begins: “Over Babiyy Yar, there are no monuments.”
Resulting in what can be fairly termed the most attention ever paid to the largest mass shootings of Jews in German-occupied Europe, Russian aggression recently caused unspecified damage to the still-under-construction Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. The strike was symbolic of unfinished business: the decades it took for recognition of the Holocaust by bullets in Soviet killing fields and the constant antisemitic attacks against the Shoah. The site has become a rallying point for Jewish outrage against Russia; reasons for outrage, however, have long existed.
Before the Wannsee Conference that decided that the answer to the “Jewish Question” was the total destruction of European Jewry — and also prior to the German invasion of its then ally the Soviet Union during “Operation Barbarossa” in June 1941 — there were 160,000 Jews living in Kyiv, thought to be about 20 percent of its population. Approximately 100,000 Jews immediately fled or were already absent serving in the Soviet army.
As part of German advances following this surprise attack, Einsatzgruppen (mobile groups of Nazis killing largely by bullets) pushed west, slaughtering 4,200 Jews in Kamenetz-Podolsk, 6,000 in Lomzha, Poland, 25,000 in Odessa, and then 33,771 (along with 19,000 non-Jews) just outside Kyiv, in the Babyn Yar ravine. Jews died “by systematic, merciless executions” that were first considered random murders due to infrequent reports, and accounts of other Jews dying from starvation, disease, or as part of other groups. It was an ominous sign that the political affairs director for the World Jewish Congress said at the time that many Jews “complain now as a sheer matter of habit,” in response to American Jews grumbling over the disinterest shown by the Allies.
The post-war history of the site is rife with significant controversy encased within political intrigue as a memorial was sought. In March 1945, the Ukrainian government and Communist Party agreed to build a monument in the form of an abstract large black granite form that would not recognize Jewish victims. The Soviet Ukrainian Ministry of Culture halted the program due to its refusal to build any monument at all, hoping to sweep away the atrocities altogether.
During the 1950s, attempts to physically erase Babyn Yar occurred under the guise of “residential planning.” Liquid mud waste dumped over the mass grave as a primary weapon to bury the past proved so heavy that the dam abutting the land collapsed under its weight. The subsequent surge of water killed 145 people and destroyed 70 buildings in the area. A Jewish cemetery adjacent to the flood was paved over shortly thereafter to build a sports complex.
The Ministry of Culture of Soviet Ukraine continued to control decisions in the 1960s, initiating a “closed competition” for monuments in memory of Soviet citizens and soldiers who perished during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv. In response, a memorial park to be built on bridges over the Babyn Yar ravine, along with other entries that would memorialize Jews, were rejected as “Zionist.” The location became a person-made memorial with no official recognition, when Russian and Ukrainian writers, many of whom were jailed, gave impassioned speeches — including the unveiling of the above “Babiyy Yar” poem — to 1,000 people decrying the suffering of the Jewish people and the necessity of the struggle against antisemitism.
On August 24, 1991, Ukraine’s Declaration of Independence was approved. Jews looked to it with the hope that it would mark the end of state-sponsored antisemitism. Finally, 50 years after the Babyn Yar massacre, authorities for the first time admitted publicly that most of the victims were Jews. The man who would become the first President of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, delivered a speech that stressed Jews were killed in Babyn Yar only because they were Jews.
Despite the continued Russian threat, the Ukraine government moved forward with reforms. It was in Israel where the dam was broken: then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke to the Knesset in 2015, emphasizing that Babyn Yar is a shared, open wound of Ukrainians and Jews; recognizing that 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews perished during the Holocaust; and apologizing to the children and grandchildren of Holocaust victims for Ukrainian “collaborationists.”
Finally, on the evening of October 6, 2021, the sacred ground saw the opening of the memorial that is not just for the memory of Nazi horror but also to symbolize continued repression of and antisemitism against Jews by the Soviet Union, Russia, and the Ukrainian collaborationists. With Ukraine’s Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky as a witness, the chair of the memorial’s advisory board and former refusenik and ex-member of the Israeli Knesset Natan Sharansky said, “Babyn Yar is not only the symbol of the Holocaust by bullets but it is the symbol of the efforts of Soviet communist regime to raze the Holocaust memory.”
And now, the symbol comes full circle. With Purim’s own form of a memorial approaching, the Jewish world pivots. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett undertakes at least a temporary leadership role in shuttle diplomacy, while Ukraine’s Jewish president takes center stage in a conflict that includes the bombing of a Holocaust memorial. Israel opened its border to welcome home what could be ten thousand Ukrainian Jews making Aliyah (becoming Israeli citizens), along with increasing the number of non-Jewish refugees it will absorb for the coming year.
At the same time, antisemitism and anti-Zionism roar, fully integrated with political correctness. Israel is being compared to Russia; the memorialization of the six million Jews remains under attack against charges of denial and distortion; and conspiracy theorists baselessly blame Jews for genocide. Yet Israel and world Jewry is leading by showing and not telling, by acting and not pontificating. There is no reason to expect or desire credit as Israel shows the world and diaspora Jews what is possible despite the never-ending denunciation.
Michael B. Snyder is a publishing Contributor at The MirYam Institute. He is an attorney with over 35 years of experience in the areas of children’s rights, human rights and Non-Government Organizations in the United States, Israel and Africa.
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