Memorializing Babi Yar Massacre Has Proven to Be a Difficult Task

In the fall of 1941, Kiev’s Jews were rounded up and taken to Babi Yar, then a ravine on the edge of the Ukrainian city.

“These Jews themselves presented themselves voluntarily, believing they were to be evacuated,” Shmuel Spector, a scholar on the Holocaust in Ukraine, has written.

No one was evacuated. Instead, on Sept. 29 and Sept, 30, 1941, 33,711 Jews were killed by German forces and local collaborators, their bodies thrown into the open ravine.

As one witness, who survived because she had a Russian passport, later said, “I saw groups of men, women, children and elderly undress. Then they were taken to an open pit and shot.”

Babi Yar was “a breakthrough massacre” because of its size, according to University of North Carolina professor Christopher Browning.

Until the end of the war, Babi Yar served as a site for twice-weekly killings. Up to 100,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews, were killed there.

In the decades after the war, attempts to memorialize Babi Yar stirred controversy.

In the late 1940s, Soviet plans for a memorial on the site were shelved during the beginning of an anti-Semitic campaign launched by Stalin in the years before his death.

In 1959, during a cultural thaw under then-Soviet leader Nikita Khruschchev, author Viktor Nekrasov opposed plans to turn the ravine into a park.

That call reverberated around the globe a few years later when Soviet writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko published a poem titled “Babi Yar”:

No gravestone stands on Babi Yar

Only coarse earth heaped roughly on the gash.

Such dread comes over me; I feel so old,

Old as the Jews.

In the 1970s, the Soviets erected a memorial — which, like a Yiddish translation later added to the memorial’s inscription — failed to mention Jews specifically. The Soviet plaque refers to those who died at the “hands of German fascist invaders.”

In 1991, a new monument in the shape of a menorah that did specifically mention Jews was added, across the plaza from the Soviet memorial. And a plaque to the victims in Hebrew and Russian was erected during Israeli President Moshe Katsav’s visit to Kiev earlier this year.

In recent years, two separate commemorations have been held at Babi Yar — one an official ceremony, the other a more participatory service with flowers and stones.

At the end of this month, a cornerstone is being laid for a Jewish heritage center sponsored by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

The center will be built on land donated by the city of Kiev near the site of the Soviet memorial.

Expected to serve as a community center and to house exhibits on Jewish history in the region, the center “will return Jews back to the Jewish people, return their Jewish pride and become a force in re-establishing a viable Jewish community in Kiev,” said Amos Avgar, the JDC’s director for Western Ukraine.

NEXT STORY