Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s unprecedented acknowledgment and condemnation of anti-Semitism has received a welcome response from Jewish organizational leaders, who now want to see words followed up by deeds.
Gorbachev acknowledged the existence of Soviet anti-Semitism in a statement read on his behalf at a ceremony Saturday night commemorating the murder of tens of thousands of Jews 50 years ago at Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kiev.
In a statement read by Alexander Yakovlev, one of Gorbachev’s top political aides, the Soviet leader expressed regret that anti-Semitism is causing so many Soviet Jews to emigrate.
Gorbachev’s remarks were the strongest condemnation of anti-Semitism ever made by a Soviet leader. A similarly forceful statement was made at the Babi Yar gravesite by Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, who acknowledged Ukrainian collaboration in the Nazi massacre.
Kravchuk accepted “part of the blame” for his republic’s collaboration and asked the Jewish people for forgiveness.
Last week in New York, Kravchuk told a gathering at the Park East Synagogue convened by the Appeal of Conscience Foundation that the Ukraine aims to create a favorable environment for Jews. He also said the Ukraine would “publish a book of the names of all those who perished” in Babi Yar, and name, too, “all those who helped Jews hide from their death.”
In Keeping with that pledge, the Ukrainian government erected a large bronze menorah at the exact site in Babi Yar where the Nazis killed more than 33,000 Jews in about 36 hours beginning on Sept. 29,1941.
Some 100,000 people, including Gypsies, communists and homosexuals were later killed in the mass grave. But most victims were Jews.
The Ukraine also amended the wording on the large marker erected some way down the ravine to say that the majority of the victims at the site were Jews.
A ‘COURAGEOUS, CLEAR POSITION’
Meanwhile, statements praising Gorbachev’s stance on anti-Semitism were issued Monday in New York by a number of Jewish groups.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a member of the American delegation to the four-day commemoration at Babi Yar, said that the Soviets took a “courageous, clear position” in denouncing anti-Semitism at a time when “it is not such a popular thing to do.”
Foxman and another member of the American contingent, Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, both said they were particularly pleased to see exhibits in the streets of Kiev that showed graphic photographs of the massacre.
While Meed said he came away with a feeling that the Soviets genuinely appeared to “want to come to terms with the truth of the black chapter” in their history, he also espoused a wait-and-see attitude, saying, “We want to see what the future will bring.”
On a similarly cautious note, Pamela Cohen, national president of the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, suggested that Gorbachev made his remarks because he was pressured by the West to do so and said that any real progress for Soviet Jews was not soon to be expected. But she conceded that Gorbachev’s remarks were historic in that “he spoke openly about Jewish genocide in the Soviet Union.”
The killings at Babi Yar were commemorated on Saturday, when about 3,000 people gathered in a semi-circle on the edge of the ravine. There, Yevgeny Yevtushenko read the poem he published in 1964 which broke the silence about Babi Yar.
America actors Tony Randall and Cliff Robertson read translations in English, while Israeli actor Topol read a Hebrew translation.
And on Sunday, some 50 Jewish delegates from the United States, Britain, Canada and Israel gathered in bright sunshine at the edge of the ravine and said Kaddish. And then spontaneously, several people made remarks honoring the dead.
Shoshana Cardin, chairman of both the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said, “Through us they will be silent no more.”
The existence of Israel, she said, “will make such horrors impossible in the future.”
And then the crowd sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.