Babi Yar center stirs controversy

Ukrainian President Kuchma lays a flower during a September 2001 cornerstone ceremony for a new Jewish center at Babi Yar. (JDC)

Ukrainian President Kuchma lays a flower during a September 2001 cornerstone ceremony for a new Jewish center at Babi Yar. (JDC)

MOSCOW, Aug. 26 (JTA) — When Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma laid the cornerstone for a new Jewish memorial and community center at Babi Yar last September, few imagined that the project would generate such a heated dispute in the Ukrainian Jewish community. As start of the construction draws near, the issue centers on one question: Is it appropriate to build a communal facility on a site such as Babi Yar, where a Nazi-era massacre filled the land with such tragic history? Supporters of the project say the center, which is being funded by American Jews and will include a memorial to the Holocaust and the rich history of Ukrainian Jewry, is a way to perpetuate the memory of the victims. Opponents say it is inappropriate to build on the site of so much devastation. The Babi Yar massacre began in late September 1941 when Nazi forces occupying Kiev forcibly marched 33,000 Jews to the steep ravine and shot them over a period of several days. Killings in the area continued throughout the two-year Nazi occupation of Ukraine. Altogether, 200,000 people, including non-Jewish citizens of Kiev, Soviet prisoners of war, members of the Ukrainian national resistance movement, gypsies and mentally disabled persons are believed to have been shot or killed in truck-mounted gas chambers and then dumped into the ravine. Before their 1943 retreat, the Nazis forced the concentration camp inmates to burn corpses and spread the ashes across the vast territory adjacent to the ravine. In more recent years, Babi Yar came to symbolize Soviet attempts to suppress Jewish identity. When a memorial to victims was erected there 35 years after the tragedy, it mentioned only "citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war" but not Jews. In 1991, Jewish groups erected their own memorial, a 10-foot menorah about a mile away from the Soviet monument. And last year, Ukrainian and Jewish leaders unveiled a monument to children killed at Babi Yar. Advocates of the construction of a multifaceted Jewish center argue that the plot of land in the municipal park at Babi Yar allocated by the City of Kiev contains no human remains. "There is no evidence that any killings took place at the site nor that there are any remains" in the ground, said Genrikh Filvarov, a prominent Kiev architect who serves as chairman of the project´s steering committee. To support the point, the 12-member committee, comprised of leaders of various local Jewish organizations, commissioned a survey of the land beneath the site to determine if there are bones buried there. The survey, conducted under the supervision of a rabbinical expert from Israel, was completed last week. The survey has not yet been made public, but JTA has learned that experts found no evidence of human remains where the center is to be located. But critics say it is still inappropriate to build on the site. "It is impossible to prove whether or not killings were carried on or near the site," said Josef Zissels, a longtime Jewish leader and a former dissident imprisoned in the 1980s, who launched a campaign to change the original plan or cancel the construction altogether. "Even if the archaeological research brings no material evidence of the killings, this proves nothing," he said. "Victims were being burned and ashes were being spread across the area that no excavations would show." The idea of the center was conceived by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. JDC will fund the construction, which is expected to top $6.5 million, with money from a $50 million special fund established to support the construction and first three years of operation of several Jewish community centers serving the largest communities in the former Soviet Union, including Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev. According to JDC, the money was raised from dozens of North American donors, including the Weinberg and the Schusterman family foundations. The first such center was opened last year in downtown Moscow. Israeli architects have been chosen to design the new Jewish Heritage Community Center in Kiev, as the project is known. In addition to a panel of judges that included professional architects, over 300 members of Kiev´s Jewish community also participated in the selection of the winning design last May. JDC and many community activists say that construction almost anywhere in Kiev would most likely trigger a similar dispute. "The entire city of Kiev was turned into a killing ground during the war," said Vladimir Glozman, the JDC´s representative in the Ukrainian capital. Out of the prewar population of 900,000, only 180,000 were left at the end of the war, Glozman says. Supporters say building a center for Jewish life is the best way to honor the memory of the victims. "The idea is to have a place that would defy" the Holocaust and that "would be a statement of Am Yisrael Chai," Amos Avgar, the JDC country director for Central, Western and Southern Ukraine, said, using the Hebrew phrase meaning "the Jewish people lives." Moreover, JDC and the community leaders who support the project point out that the area has already undergone major development in the postwar decades. Today, the Babi Yar site has a main highway across it with a housing development, a television antenna, a subway station and adjacent recreational and residential properties. All this makes it even more appropriate to create a meaningful Jewish presence in the area, the proponents say. The opponents disagree, saying that Babi Yar bears such historical connotation for all the people of Kiev, Jewish and non-Jewish, that the Jewish community should not undertake any construction in the area. They argue that JDC and its backers do not care about community sensibilities. Glozman said the project came about because his organization cares about the community and its needs. "I was very happy that we could find this combination of a memorial to honor the victims and a modern center to benefit the existing community," he said. The conflict took an unexpected turn two weeks ago when one of the most outspoken critics of the proposed construction, Vitaly Nakhmanovich, had to step down from his position as editor-in-chief of the Kiev-based biweekly newspaper, the Jewish Observer. He told JTA he was forced to resign under pressure from supporters of the center who were unhappy with the newspaper´s critical coverage of the project. Critics say that although the project enjoys the full support of the Ukrainian government and the city of Kiev, non-Jewish public opinion will not favor the project once construction begins next spring. Leonid Finberg, the only member of the Jewish center´s steering committee to resign from the body, is concerned that the construction will outrage some Ukrainians, particularly in the wake of recent evidence that some Ukrainian nationalists were shot on the site where the center is planned. But Kiev´s leading rabbinical authority, Rabbi Ya´akov Dov Bleich, sees no problems with the construction unless there is proof that killings took place on the site or that there are human remains in the ground. "There is no halachic or moral problem with building the center on this site," Bleich, who is the chief rabbi of Ukraine and Kiev, said, referring to Jewish law. The communal leaders who object to the project appear to be in the minority, but are actively using the media to press their case. They insist that the evidence is still insufficient as the Germans and the Soviets destroyed many wartime documents that could shed light on the tragedy. Finberg, the director of the Kiev Judaica Institute, said, "If there were no killings or burials at the actual construction spot but we know that" just a few hundred yards from there Jews were ordered to undress before being shot, "does this make the place look any better?" Zissels has recently come out with an alternative to a community center at Babi Yar. He suggested that the memorial part of the center be constructed on the site and a separate facility to serve other community needs be built elsewhere in Kiev. There are currently two other community centers serving the city´s estimated 70,000 to 100,000 Jews. JDC officials and the steering committee say the plan is not viable for two main reasons. First of all, they argue, most of the large Jewish groups in Kiev support the project. Second, the North American donors would not agree to split the project since they donated the funds to build a community center rather than a memorial to the past tragedy. JDC and local community leaders have already introduced changes to original plan. Once completed, the center will focus on educational activities, said Yosef Axelrud, executive director of the center´s steering committee and director of Ukrainian Hillel. In addition, the center´s backers have vowed that the facility would never host any activities that seem inappropriate for its location, such as dances, weddings or Purim celebrations. Some supporters, including the chief rabbi, said this was the key condition for their overall support for the project.

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