MOSCOW (Aug. 4)
President Bush was clearly moved as he paid tribute in Kiev last week to the tens of thousands of victims buried at Babi Yar, site of one of the first and most notorious Nazi experiments at annihilating Jews.
The American president’s voice nearly broke with emotion as he addressed some 300 people Aug. 1 in front of a cast-iron monument at the ravine only recently acknowledged by Soviet authorities as a site primarily meant for mass Jewish death.
Many present had somehow survived the mass roundup and machine-gunning undertaken by occupying Nazi forces on Sept. 29, 1941 — with dance music deliberately being played in the background to mask the sounds of repeated firings and the victims’ cries.
Others present had helped Jews escape, through a network of safe houses, at great risk to themselves. Bush asked them at one point to stand up to be recognized for their valor.
Many present wept silently throughout the 15-minute ceremony, Bush’s last engagement on his three-day trip to the Soviet Union.
“None of us will ever forget,” he said after placing a wreath on the vast monument depicting victims of torture and a mother comforting her child.
“The Holocaust occurred because good men and women averted their eyes from unprecedented evil,” he said, his voice starting to break. “This memorial proves that eventually the forces for good and truth will rise again in triumph.”
Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk also spoke of the significance of the site.
Soviet television made it clear that the vast majority of the 100,000 people shot and buried there were Jews — in contrast to official insistence over many years that only Zionists failed to mention that Russians, Ukrainians and other nationalities had also suffered.
Until recently, Jews who tried to hold gatherings at the site were dispersed by police — reinforcing the Ukraine’s reputation for anti-Semitism.
A Hebrew plaque is to be erected on the site in the near future.
The new nationalist mood in the Ukraine has led to the diminishing of anti-Semitism in the republic after long years of mistrust between Ukrainians and its sizeable Jewish community.
Nationalist groups, led by the mass organization Rukh, have encouraged Jews to develop their cultural identity in what they ultimately hope will be an independent Ukraine.
The president’s speech was the emotional high point of his visit to the Soviet Union.
He recounted how Nazi commanders had suggested to Kiev Jews that they were being taken to Palestine, then made them undress and undergo the humiliation of piling their valuables on the ground before shooting them and hurling the bodies into the pit.
Many, he said, committed suicide rather than subject themselves to the execution rite.
Bush’s trip and the rousing reception he received from demonstrators chanting for a free Ukraine will liely enhance the process of improving relations between Jews and other groups.