Jews Mark Yahrzeit of Babi Yar, Ask Ukraine to Confront History
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Jews Mark Yahrzeit of Babi Yar, Ask Ukraine to Confront History

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In two weeks, Jews from around the world will come to the Ukrainian city of Kiev to mark the 50th anniversary of one of the darkest tragedies of the Holocaust: the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews at Babi Yar.

But on the Jewish calendar, the yahrzeit of that slaughter was last Thursday. And so, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel and a delegation of Jewish leaders gathered at the site to memorialize those who died there.

Peering into a ravine leached with human blood, they recited the Kaddish and the El Moleh Rachamim, the lamentation for the dead, remembering the 33,771 Jews murdered in one day by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators.

On that day in 1941, the Jews, stripped naked, were shot in lines, shoved into the pit, bodies layered over bodies, some still alive as the crush buried them.

The tragedy was also marked Sunday at a ceremony at New York’s Park East Synagogue.

During their visit to Babi Yar, Wiesel and World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman met two Jewish women from Kiev who had survived the killings, and a gentile woman who had rescued one of them by hiding her.

One of the survivors had crawled out from under the bodies. The other had been told to run away by a German soldier, who warned her of what was about to happen, Elan Steinberg, WJC executive director, related in a telephone call from London.

Joining Wiesel, Bronfman and Steinberg at Babi Yar were WJC Secretary-General Israel Singer and Vice President Kalman Sultanik; Michael Chlenov, co-president of the Vaad, the federation of Jewish institutions in the Soviet Union; and Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Ya’akov Bleich.


A menorah is being built at the site, to be unveiled at the end of this month, when a week-long series of events will take place to commemorate the killings.

A monument that stands away from the actual site of the massacre now recalls only that more than 100,000 “citizens of Kiev and prisoners of war” were killed in that place, over a period from 1941 to 1943.

On Sept. 29, a new plaque will be set, which will state clearly that the principal victims of Babi Yar were Jews. Ukrainian flags will be flown at half-mast, on what has been officially designated a day of remembrance.

That is one of a series of observances being planned by the Ukrainian government, whose own search for its nationalist roots and sovereignty from the Soviet Union have led it to a feeling of kinship with the Jewish people.

In putting up the two monuments to Jews and hosting symposia and ceremonies, the Ukraine is trying to come to terms with a tarnished past whose memory has been long suppressed.

Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, recalled in a telephone conversation his first trip to the killing field in 1965.

“They didn’t even want to show me Babi Yar,” he said. “I went around from person to person. No one would tell me where it was. It was as though it hadn’t happened.”

In 1979, he came as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Commission, at which time the Ukrainians, “with great pride, organized a ceremony for us.

“And I let them have it,” he recalled.

Even today he feels the anger. “Each time I go, I confront them,” he said.


Last Thursday, Wiesel vented his outrage at Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, with whom the Jewish delegation met after the small ceremony at Babi Yar.

Wiesel, still pained by the years of Ukrainian amnesia, confronted Kravchuk, asking him to explain why 50 years ago some Ukrainians had taken part in the killings, while others stood by and allowed them to happen.

“The Jews were walking from morning to evening to their death,” through the streets of Kiev, Wiesel said he told the Ukrainian president. “How many doors were open?”

Why did no one “take one child in and say to the Jewish child, ‘You won’t die’?”

The Ukrainian president seemed hard-pressed to respond. He said his mother had protected a Jewish woman during the war.

And he said he wanted to see a new era begin between Ukrainians and Jews.

The Ukrainian past was also discussed Sunday at the memorial ceremony in New York, where diplomats, politicians and Jewish rabbinic and organizational leaders spoke against the backdrop of American, Israeli, Soviet and Ukrainian flags.

Visiting Ukrainian Foreign Minister Anatoli Zlenko acknowledged that relations between Ukrainians and Jews “were not always cloudless.”

But he added, “It is difficult to find something so far from the truth than the assertion that for centuries Ukrainians were anti-Semites and the Ukraine was a center of anti-Semitism.”

Another speaker, Valentin Ladzshinsky, Soviet deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said that while there might appear to be a resurgence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union, this is not the case.

Rather, he said, the bigotry and anti-Semitism that had flourished underground in a suppressed Soviet society are now surfacing in the more democratic Soviet Union that exists today.


“These are the side effects of an open, democratic society,” he said. He spoke of this phenomenon in a positive way, emphasizing that when an “illness” such as anti-Semitism is exposed rather than hidden, it becomes much easier to “treat.”

Ladzshinsky spoke on behalf of Yuli Vorontsov, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations, who attended the ceremony but could not speak due to laryngitis.

Other speakers at the commemoration included Thomas Pickering and Yoram Aridor, the U.S. and Israeli ambassadors to the United Nations; Sen. Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.); New York Mayor David Dinkins; Shoshana Cardin, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors; and Rabbi Arthur Schneier, chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad and senior rabbi at Park East Synagogue.

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