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Fighting over Babi Yar memorial


The Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar was recently vandalized. A plaque in Hebrew and Ukrainian was badly damaged, as shown on this July 22 photo. (Vladimir Matveyev/JTA)

The Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar was recently vandalized. A plaque in Hebrew and Ukrainian was badly damaged, as shown on this July 22 photo. (Vladimir Matveyev/JTA)

KIEV, July 24 (JTA) — The future of Babi Yar is dividing Ukraine’s Jewish community, weeks before the country is to mark the 65th anniversary of one of the worst civilian massacres of Jews in World War II. Some 33,000 Jews were killed at the ravine in September 1941. The dispute highlights differences over whether private individuals should be allowed to build memorials to a national tragedy or whether the government should take complete responsibility for the memorial as part of present-day Ukraine’s attempt to come to terms with the tragedy. Despite the enormous scope of the tragedy at Babi Yar — an estimated 200,000 people were killed there during the course of the war — Ukraine still does not have a museum commemorating the killings. A Jewish leader’s decision to build a memorial and religious complex near the site has motivated opposition from a group called the Babi Yar Public Committee, made up of both Jewish and non-Jewish activists, joined by one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis. The memorial initiative comes from Vadim Rabinovich, a business magnate and head of the All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress. Those against his plan insist that no privately funded construction should take place at Babi Yar until the area is made into a state-protected memorial zone. Development at the site should be undertaken only if a broad public consensus has been achieved, activists say. But Rabinovich sees no contradiction between his plan and what his opponents suggest. Two of Ukraine’s three chief rabbis support Rabinovich, and he insists the plan is sensitive to both moral and religious aspects of the issue. “Rabbis consider that from the point of view of halachah,” or Jewish religious law, “it’s an ideal solution to build a synagogue, yeshiva and museum,” Rabinovich told JTA. He also noted that the plot he plans to use is “only adjacent to the territory of Babi Yar,” not on the site itself. Last month, Rabinovich and his supporters announced an Aug. 23 cornerstone-laying ceremony for the complex. The proposed ceremony and future construction is not related to another commemorative event to be held at Babi Yar later this year. On the invitation of President Viktor Yuschenko, international Jewish leaders and statesmen are expected to attend a Sept. 27 event marking the 65th anniversary of the tragedy. That event, co-sponsored by the Ukrainian government, is a brainchild of Russian Jewish leader and business magnate Vyacheslav “Moshe” Kantor, who wants to model the Kiev commemoration after January 2005 events in Poland when world leaders attended the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Kantor helped to bankroll that event as well. Critics have organized a media and political campaign in Ukraine describing Rabinovich’s initiative as an attempt to “privatize” what the activists believe should be a state-protected memorial zone of national importance. Rabinovich disagrees. “I hope the Ukrainian state will build its memorial complex at Babi Yar, and I will do what I can,” he told JTA. Meanwhile, on July 15, vandals desecrated a 10-foot memorial menorah that Jewish groups erected at Babi Yar in 1991. Following the vandalism, Azriel Haikin, one of Ukraine’s chief rabbis, sided with opponents of the new construction. Haikin wrote to Yuschenko, urging him to receive members of the Babi Yar Public Committee to “develop joint steps of the state and the public aimed at proper perpetuation of the memory of victims of the Holocaust and Nazi terror.” 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. Other Nazi victims at Babi Yar included Soviet prisoners of war, members of the Ukrainian national resistance movement, gypsies and mentally disabled people. Before their 1943 retreat, the Nazis forced prisoners 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.” After the collapse of the Soviet Union, several memorials were erected in Babi Yar, each built on a private initiative or by some public organization. Responding to the concern that Ukraine had not properly commemorated the tragedy, authorities decided a few years ago to turn the area into the State Historical and Cultural Reserve Babi Yar. Nothing has been done beyond the designation, however. Four years ago, a public protest staged by many of the same Jewish and non-Jewish activists and intellectuals led the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to scrap its plan for a Jewish community center that was to be built with funds raised from North American federations. Those who objected to that plan, and who are resisting new construction now, say there should be a different solution to make Babi Yar a meaningful symbol of Ukraine’s national tragedy. “Babi Yar should be made into a memorial zone without much bulldozing or construction. Any public, social or ethnic group would be able to find a place for its own memory in a project that could unify the entire nation,” said Vitaly Nachmanovich, the secretary for the Babi Yar Public Committee. (JTA correspondent in Moscow Lev Krichevsky contributed to this report)