During a trip to Ukraine last week, President Clinton met privately with members of the Kiev Jewish community after paying tribute to the tens of thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis at Babi Yar.
The chief rabbi of Ukraine, Ya’acov Bleich, described the reception as an important opportunity for the president and the community to exchange ideas, according to Nate Geller, director of community services and cultural affairs for the National Conference on Soviet Jewry.
Bleich also said that amid all the ceremonies marking the Allied defeat of the Nazis, it meant a great deal to the community that Clinton took the time to recognize the Jewish suffering at Babi Yar, said Geller, who spoke with Bleich by telephone after the reception last Friday.
More than 150,000 people, the majority of them Jewish, were shot at Babi Yar beginning in September 1941, when an estimated 34,000 Jews from Kiev were herded by the Nazis to the edge of the ravine at Babi Yar and were executed by machine guns. Tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews were killed at the site in subsequent months.
The Nazis, in an effort to conceal the atrocity from the approaching Red Army in 1943, forced prisoners to dig up and burn the corpses. Most of the prisoners were themselves later killed to prevent them from recounting what happened there.
In his remarks at the Babi Yar site, Clinton said, “Here on the edge of this wooded ravine, we bear witness eternally to the consequences of evil.”
Clinton traveled to Ukraine after visiting Moscow last week. He met with President Leonid Kuchma to discuss strengthening U.S. – Ukrainian relations.
Joining Clinton and his wife, Hillary, at the ceremonies were Bleich and more than 150 members of the Kiev Jewish community.
Clinton wore a kipah during the Babi Yar ceremony; the first lady tossed a bouquet of flowers into the ravine to honor those massacred at the site.
During the Soviet era, a monument was erected at Babi Yar, but it referred only to “the people of Kiev” who were executed, with no mention of the Jewish victims.
There are now two monuments at the site. The one from the Soviet era was augmented with a plaque in Hebrew bearing witness to the Jewish victims. And in 1991, about a mile from the first, Jewish organizations erected a 10-foot-high menorah.
Last week, during the 50th anniversary commemorations of the Nazis’ defeat, visitors to Babi Yar carpeted the monuments with flowers. Officials from the Israeli government placed three large wreaths at the foot of the menorah.
Before World War II, one of every three Kiev residents was Jewish. Now there are an estimated 95,000 Jews living in the city of 3 million.