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Erasing the Ukrainian Holocaust site of Babi Yar. Again

Rebecca Golbert, Executive Director, Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies | March 22, 2022
Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, October 1, 1941.

Soviet POWs covering a mass grave after the Babi Yar massacre, October 1, 1941. (Photo credit: Johannes Hähle/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

I read with anguish about the Russian bombing of Babi Yar (Babyn Yar). It seems crucial to provide some context to this act and what makes it so disturbing within the overall outrage of the war in Ukraine.

Babi Yar is the single most symbolic site of the Holocaust in Ukraine and across the former Soviet Union; it captures the predominant way in which the Germans and their allies massacred Jews on Soviet and Ukrainian soil, what priest and author Patrick Desbois has called “the Holocaust by bullets”.

In the fall of 1941, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Jews were rounded up in Kiev (now Kyiv) and marched to the Lukyanovka Jewish cemetery, which borders the enormous ravine on the outskirts of the city. On September 29 and 30, 1941, close to 34,000 Jews were massacred by bullets in the ravine of Babi Yar.

The Germans continued to round-up Jews and execute them at Babi Yar. However, they also used the ravine to execute Roma, Russian and Ukrainian civilians, and Soviet POWs of all nationalities.  More than 100,000 victims are believed to have perished at Babi Yar between 1941 and 1943; approximately 50,000 of those victims were Jews.

In 1943, in anticipation of the Soviet advance into Kiev, the Germans “cleaned up” the ravine site of Babi Yar. To erase the evidence and cover up the tracks of their atrocities, they burned bodies and bulldozed the mass graves, forcing Jewish prisoners from the nearby labor camp Sirets to commit these acts before themselves being executed.

We know much of what we know about Babi Yar, both the initial 1941 massacres and subsequent round-ups, and this later 1943 cover up, from a few survivor testimonies and from secondary literature on Babi Yar. Nonetheless, the horrific nature of these acts has ensured the impossibility of recovery and accountability for the victims at Babi Yar; “who died?” and “how many?” remains to this day contested.

Moreover, the Soviet regime played its own part in the erasure of Babi Yar. Jews and other Soviet dissidents held spontaneous commemorations at Babi Yar during the thaw of the 1960s. These gatherings were prohibited and thus became acts of counter-memory.  Initial calls to place a memorial at Babi Yar, memorialized in Yevgenii Yevtushenko’s poem, which presciently begins “No monument stands over Babi Yar,” were rejected by the Soviet regime. The regime had other plans for the Babi Yar Holocaust site and the former grounds of the Lukyanovka Jewish cemetery – to build a sports center and a television broadcasting station. (This broadcasting station was the target of the Russian missile).

The destruction begun by the Germans was completed by the Soviet Union – erasing both the memory site of the massacre and of the Jewish cemetery. When the Soviet government finally erected its monument to Babi Yar in 1976, a Soviet realist structure of struggling heroic figures, it built it in a different location of the vast park-like territory of the ravine, away from the cemetery and the massacre site, and dedicated the monument to “citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war,” conflating the suffering of Jews in the Holocaust with the suffering of all Soviet people under the German occupation.

The memorial space of Babyn Yar has grown more complex in the post-Soviet context. The Jewish community in Ukraine erected the Menorah in 1991, openly dedicated to the Jews who perished at Babi Yar. This memorial stands close to the original massacre site – it borders the property of the state television station and the remains of the Lukyanovka cemetery, and it overlooks the ravine. A modest structure, its menorah shape has more symbolic meaning for the community that gathers each year to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre.

Other memorials, erected by the state and by community groups, have emerged in the decades since Ukrainian independence, capturing the complex nature of memory and its appropriation, especially at a site where different groups have claimed losses. This crowded memorial landscape includes two large crosses and a state-sponsored monument to the children massacred at Babi Yar.

Most recently, the Jewish community, with support from the state, was in the process of erecting the Babyn Yar Memorial Complex, including a synagogue and a memorial center. The Ukrainian government, in contrast to its predecessor, has acknowledged the Holocaust of Jews on Ukrainian soil and recognized the specific Jewish symbolism of the site of Babi Yar, even with these competing memory claims.

The Russian bombing of the state television station came too close to the memorials of Babi Yar.  Bombs can erase sites of memory, just as the German burning and bulldozing, and the Soviet construction of new buildings for sport and broadcasting did in the past. It is shocking to think that the Russian government did not know of these past assaults on the memory of Babi Yar. Of course it did. Yevtushenko’s 1961 poem and the clandestine commemorations at Babi Yar in the 1960s were powerful rallying cries for Soviet dissidents countering the Soviet regime.

And in the late 1980s, the Russian Jewish Bard Alexander Rosenbaum’s song Babi Yar (written in 1986) captured Jewish and Soviet resistance to the silence and suppression of social memory.  Erasing Babi Yar, yet again, has symbolic meaning for Jews, for Ukrainians, and for Russians – but also for all of us who seek to remember and preserve the past as a way to make the world a better place.