Ukraine to Mark Babi Yar Massacre, in Major Reversal of Soviet Practice

The government of the Ukrainian republic of the Soviet Union is now trying to rectify years of Soviet failure to acknowledge that more than 33,000 Jews were massacred by the German army at Babi Yar, outside of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

A weeklong series of commemorative events will take place in Kiev between Sept. 29 and Oct. 6, Sergei Komissarenko, the Ukrainian deputy prime minister, said in meetings with Jewish organizations last week.

Komissarenko, in talks with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial here and the World Jewish Congress in New York, said the commemorations would underscore the Jewish dimension of the tragedy.

The Ukraine, which is now striving toward autonomy from Soviet authorities, has been making strides in recent times to affiliate with Jews and to make amends as best as possible for past grievances. The Ukrainian independence movement, Rukh, and Jewish groups have been supporting each other’s requests for independence and respect.

The massacres began on Sept. 29, 1941, when the German army took the 33,771 Jews remaining in Kiev to the ravine at Babi Yar, shot them and dumped their bodies in the pit. Most of Kiev’s Jews had fled earlier, and those who were shot were largely the elderly, the sick, women and children.

During the following months, Babi Yar was used as an execution site for Gypsies and Soviet prisoners and other Jews, perhaps totaling as many as 100,000, although nobody knows for sure. As the Red Army advanced toward Kiev in August 1943, the German army spent the next month digging up the mass graves and burning the bodies to conceal the crime.

The Soviet Union did not erect a memorial to the victims after the war. This was publicized in the Soviet Union and abroad in 1961, when Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko wrote his famous poem, “Babi Yar,” in which he lamented that “no gravestone stands on Babi Yar.”

But when a memorial stone was finally erected in 1974, it made no mention of the Jews.

IMPORTANT TO PAY TRIBUTE

Now the Ukrainian government plans to change this.

In addition to the week of observances, a new monument will be erected to tell what happened to the Jews. The memorial will stand at the site where the Jews were massacred, said Komissarenko, who is chairman of the Baba Yar 50th Commemoration Committee.

He told the members of the council that as many as 40,000 Jews may actually have been killed during the first two days of the massacre, since many Jews were in Kiev at the time from the villages outside the city.

“It is important for our republic to pay tribute to those who were murdered on our soil at Babi Yar,” he said.

A biochemist, Komissarenko said he was working at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in 1981 when he saw a television program on the Holocaust and realized that many people do not know the true history of what happened.

He believes what happened during the Holocaust must be known and should especially be taught to children.

Komissarenko said the commemorative events, including memorial services, academic conference and other programs, are to be funded entirely by the government of the Ukraine.

FLAGS AT HALF MAST

The Kiev City Council has declared Sept. 29 an official Day of Memory and Sorrow. The city will lower its flags to half-mast, and public prayers will be held by all religious organizations, Komissarenko said.

The ceremonies will also include a reading by Yevtushenko of his poem, with translation to other languages by other readers.

Komissarenko came to the United States to invite members of Congress and Jewish, human rights and business leaders to attend the events.

In Washington, Komissarenko met with several members of Congress. Following that, he went to the Holocaust Council, where he was shown the models of both the exterior and interior of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which is being built near the Washington Monument.

At the request of the council members, Komissarenko said he would help them get artifacts from Babi Yar, including a copy of the posters that were placed throughout Kiev in 1941, ordering all Jews to report to a site near the Jewish cemetery, where they were to be taken to what would be their death.

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