(October 6, 2021 / JNS) The horrors of the Nazi mass extermination camps in the Holocaust are well-known but the “Holocaust by Bullets,” during which Jews were shot one by one, is less known. In the span of just two days on Sept. 29-30, 1941, the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators committed one of the Holocaust’s largest—and quickest—massacres when they murdered, one by one, a staggering 33,771 Jews in Babi Yar, a massive ravine situated on the outskirts of the country’s capital of Kiev (Kyiv), Ukraine. Today, the city has grown and Babi Yar is now situated within its boundaries. In total, between September 1941 and November 1943, the Nazis murdered more than 100,000 individuals, mostly Jews, but also Roma, POWs, mental patients and members of the anti-Nazi resistance.
At the invitation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Israeli President Isaac Herzog will participate in an official ceremony on Wednesday marking 80 years since the Babi Yar massacre to help inaugurate the new Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC). German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and other leaders will be in attendance as well.
BYHMC chairman Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and former member of Israel’s Knesset, called Babi Yar “the most-quickly filled mass grave” and told JNS the center, which is already under construction, is intended to be a museum, memorial, educational center and scientific historical center.
It is intended to be “a place where it would be interesting for young people to come,” he said.
The center is expected to be completed by 2025.
In a statement to the media on Tuesday, Herzog said, “The Jewish people have a glorious past in this land. … Yet, in addition, the Jewish people also have a tragic and painful history here in Ukraine. From pogroms in previous centuries to the horrific massacre at Babi Yar. … In my view, this past leads us to the present: a present in which Ukraine bears the important responsibility for the memory and history of the space and culture of the Jewish community that lived here throughout the ages, from the much-needed preservation of Jewish cemeteries to the establishment of memorial centers to commemorate the murdered Jews of Ukraine.”
Zelensky said, “I am very grateful to the Israeli delegation, which has come to mark 80 years since the tragic massacre at Babi Yar. The memory of the victims is sacred for us, for every Ukrainian. With the president of Israel, we spoke about how a tragedy like the Holocaust must never happen again.”
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the victims were summoned to the site, forced to undress and then compelled to enter the ravine. The few photographs that exist show the piles of clothing and belongings left behind by the victims. Sonderkommando 4a, a special detachment from Einsatzgruppe C under SS-Standartenführer Paul Blobel, then shot them in small groups. The massacre was one of many mass shootings perpetrated by the Nazis beginning in 1941; it was also one of the largest mass killings at a single location during World War II.
‘We are financially much more independent’
But for years, the memory was in many ways forgotten—the result of German and then Soviet efforts to erase and re-write history, as well as the fact that the role and images of the death camps often overshadowed the centrality that other mass murders, like Babi Yar, played in the story of the Holocaust.
Adding Soviet insult to German injury, nearby brick factories dumped waste and refuse into the ravine, and it slowly became filled with sludge. In March 1961, a dam collapsed and a massive mudslide dumped mud, water and human remains from the ravine into the streets of Kiev below, killing somewhere between 145 and 1,500 people (actual numbers are unknown as the Soviets suppressed publication of the facts).
In 1962, the Soviets leveled off the ravine and turned it into a park.
But at the same time, in the 1960s, the memory of Babi Yar began to emerge, with the publication of Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous 1961 poem, “Babi Yar,” as well as Anatoly Kuznetsov’s 1966 book of the same name, and a broader movement led by young local Jews interested in their own heritage and history.
In 1966, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre, an unofficial memorial sign was hung at the site, which drew thousands of local Jews each year and would become a central force in the awakening of Soviet Jewry. Grassroots efforts also began around that time to locate the mass graves in the area—something else which was not a priority for the Soviet authorities. Some of these activities were captured on film by Joseph Schneider, a Holocaust survivor.
Rare photographs that tell the story of the Soviet-era struggle to commemorate the atrocity have also just been released for the first time by the National Library of Israel’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People (CAHJP). The photos reveal critical early efforts to better understand the legacy of Babi Yar and remember its victims.
Over the years, a number of attempts were made to build a museum to commemorate those who were murdered, but none ever came to fruition because they lacked proper backing, whether from donors or from government entities.
Sharansky acknowledged to JNS that “there were lots of problems and there probably will be, but it is my hope that this time it will be different and much more serious, with much more preparation. And we are financially much more independent,” he said.
‘How easily our world can turn to this hell’
Of course, the opening of an institution of such scale and import inevitably cannot come without controversy.
Accusations have been leveled against the Ukrainian government for allowing the center’s two Russian oligarch supporters—Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, who have pledged to fund about half of the project—to essentially inject alleged subversive Kremlin influence into an important Ukrainian site. Critics see this is a slap in the face and part of a Russian plot to discredit Ukraine during its ongoing low-level war. A recent Time magazine article delves into Fridman’s connections to the Kremlin and the controversy surrounding the oligarch’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But according to Sharansky, there is little truth to the accusations. “Even if Putin would like to have influence, we have such a strong board and everything is discussed,” he told JNS.
“We have to make sure our initiative has nothing to do with the war between Russia and Ukraine. We have different types of problems. We don’t have a problem in this area.”
Some members of the supervisory board include former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Ukraine Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich and former director-general of UNESCO Irina Bokova.
Sharansky also noted to JNS that while there is a menorah that was placed at the site in 1991, it does not properly represent what happened because “it is something that can be placed anywhere in the world.”
“Here was hell,” he said, referring to Babi Yar. “People need to learn what happened and what can be done to avoid it.”
“Words are not enough,” he added.
While the current projects and art installations at the site are mostly symbolic, Sharansky noted that the next stage of construction “will present an image of that hell. People will see what it means when 34,000 people are killed in two days.”
After World War II, numerous Nazis and their collaborators claimed they “were just following orders,” but Sharansky noted that preventing further genocide relies on the personal and moral choices made by each individual.
“I want everyone to feel that everyone has a moral choice,” he said. “It’s not just that some demonic forces are acting and then what can you do?”
He said the center needs to be interesting and challenging with the intent to imbue visitors with the understanding of “how easily our world can turn to this hell and how much that depends on you personally.”
‘Remind people to confront history’
Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan, who is also attending the official memorial ceremony, addressed participants of an academic conference—titled “The Mass Shootings During the Holocaust as a Criminal Process”—that coincided with the commemorative event.
Dayan remarked: “It is extremely important to memorialize the Jewish victims of the Nazis. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to recognize and teach about the role of local collaborators in Babi Yar, as well as in other places during the Holocaust.”
Yad Vashem has marked the anniversary of the massacre by uploading a new online exhibit featuring photographs of Jews murdered in Babi Yar, which the World Holocaust Remembrance Center has collected over the years.
“During the fateful massacre … Jews were brutally murdered, whole families destroyed in a matter of hours or days, sometimes four generations, at Babi Yar,” said Dayan. “In many instances, these images are all that remain to remember their very existence.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told JNS that constructing the center “is not just for Ukraine. Every time we build an institution that recalls the past, we secure the future for all of us,” he said.
“In an age when we see young people who don’t know what Auschwitz is, don’t know about the history, we see it is endemic to this generation,” he continued. “At a time when there is so much Holocaust denial and distortion, it is imperative that we remind people to tell the truth about what happened and confront history so that we can build a better future. You cannot deny history and think things will be better if you don’t learn the lessons and implement the messages that those lessons teach us, which is zachor, to ‘remember.’ ”
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