In the Shevchenkivskyi district in the northern part of Kyiv, lies a scenic little green space known as Babyn Yar (Grandmother’s Ravine). For most of its recorded history it was owned by a monastery and used at various times as a cemetery and military campground.
Seventy five years ago it also become notorious as the first mass killing ground of Jews by the Nazis after they occupied most of Ukraine and Kyiv in particular. At that time some 160,000 Jews lived in Kyiv, however most of them managed to flee Kyiv before the arrival of the German armies in September of 1941. The Nazis quickly made short work of those that remained.
Between September 29 and 30, 1941, units of the SS and their extermination squads known as Einsatzgruppen executed some 34,000 of Kyiv’s remaining Jewish population. In the ensuing months and years that the Germans occupied Kyiv, somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 more victims met their untimely end on this infamous killing ground. They included not only Jews, but also gypsies or Roma, Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war, captured partisans, Ukrainian nationalist political prisoners and many others whom the Nazi authorities deemed dispensable. Before they retreated from Kyiv, the Nazis made significant efforts to try and hide all the traces of their atrocities, but the scale of their deeds made that impossible, and sufficient survivors and evidence remained to ensure that this tragedy would not be lost to the annals of history.
After the war, the Communist authorities did little to commemorate what happened at Babyn Yar, and the first official monument was not erected until 1976. Interestingly enough it made no mention of the fact that Jews were the first and primary victims. For the longest time, the most notable tribute in the Soviet Union as to what happened was in the form of a famous poem entitled “Babi Yar” by dissident Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. It was not until 1991 and the disintegration of the Soviet state, that a Jewish memorial in the form of a Menorah was finally installed on the site.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first horrific killings at Babyn Yar, and a joint Ukrainian-Jewish initiative led by a group known as the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE) aims to properly commemorate the event this coming September in Kyiv. The UJE is a multinational organization formed in 2008 by members of Ukrainian and Jewish diasporas that aims to overcome some of the historical conflicts and animosity that has characterized relations between these two ethnic groups, and reach some form of reconciliation and mutual understanding of their intertwined and complicated history.
This Babyn Yar commemoration project is being implemented with the support and co-operation of the President of Ukraine as well as the World Jewish Congress. It will feature a week-long series of events in Kyiv from September 23rd to the 29th that include public symposiums and presentations, town hall meetings, art displays, a commemorative concert, and the culmination of a memorial landscape space design competition that aims to transform the Babyn Yar site into a protected and inviolable historic and commemorative site. Over the decades, there have been a number of statues, plaques and other memorial structures erected on the site, however, in the view of many people, they do not do justice to the events that took place here, hence the competition to come up with an integrated memorial design befitting this hallowed ground.
It is particularly significant to me that Babyn Yar is serving as a catalyst in bringing together two ethnic groups that both suffered grievously during the past several centuries and were often used as tools against each by ruthless imperial powers. One cannot escape nor ignore history, but one can come to terms with it and find ways to build a more peaceful and cooperative future.
For those souls that lie in the hallowed ground of Babyn Yar, does it really make a difference that the neighbor buried next to them was a Jew, or a Ukrainian, or a Roma, or a Russian? They were all fellow human beings who deserved a better fate.
More information on the 75th Anniversary events can be found at: www.ukrainianjewishencounter.org