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Skepticism over Compromise Efforts for New Community Center at Babi Yar

November 5, 2002
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Efforts are under way to broker a compromise over a proposed community center at the site of the Babi Yar killings.

But whether these efforts will succeed is still unclear.

Opponents of a plan for the center have written an open letter to the Ukrainian president, expressing their misgivings.

At issue is a multimillion-dollar project financed by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to build a community center at Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev where some 33,000 Jews were killed in September 1941.

An estimated 200,000 people in total were slaughtered there during the course of the war.

The Heritage Center was originally designed to include a museum, research institute and community center with a theater.

But since details were revealed at a public forum held in Kiev last May, the project has divided the capital’s Jewish community.

Proponents see it as a way to help build Jewish life in a community of at least 80,000 Jews.

Opponents of the plan object to the idea of constructing anything on top of what they consider a mass grave — and object in particular to the theater.

Opponents would like to see the 7,000-square-meter project divided — with a memorial or, at most, a museum located at Babi Yar, and the main community center constructed elsewhere in the city.

Osik Akselrud, executive director of the steering committee overseeing the center’s development, said the 12-member committee is continuing to work toward a solution. But he warned that the divided-center scenario is not feasible.

“That is not a compromise,” he said last Friday. “We have a donor, and the JDC does not sponsor museums. If there is going to be a sponsor for a museum, it’s not going to be the JDC — other money will have to be found to build it.”

With construction originally planned to begin next spring, it is difficult to envision what compromise will be reached.

Both sides claim to have the support of the majority of the local Jewish population. And the results of a soil analysis commissioned by the steering committee indicating there are no human remains under the proposed Heritage site have not appeased critics.

Akselrud said the steering committee has been open-minded.

He said it has accepted the argument that the proposed center should not play host to cultural events that involve singing or dancing or serve as the site of celebrations of joyful holidays like Purim.

That leaves the question of the theater portion of the Heritage Center up in the air.

But Akselrud said there is only so much room for compromise.

“The Babi Yar tragedy happened in 1942 and until now we still have no memorial and no center,” he said, “and this is our only chance.”

It wasn’t meant to be this way.

Sam Amiel, the JDC’s representative based in Kiev, said the Babi Yar project was intended to help achieve the organization’s goal of revitalizing the Jewish community across the region.

“The initiative stems from the realization of world Jewry that the Jewish population of the former Soviet Union today has matured to the point that a stamp on an emigration visa to Israel or simply receiving a food package is not enough to satisfy them,” he said.

“Jews are flourishing in the big cities here and grappling with the same issues as any other community of the Jewish Diaspora around the world is grappling with — how to reach middle age, how to loop in families, how to meet the needs of education and informal education through after-school activities.”

Amiel said the Babi Yar center is part of a $50 million flagship initiative to build three major centers in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Kiev.

Construction on the St. Petersburg center began last month.

Amiel said project-backers understood the significance of the Babi Yar location from the outset — and that they viewed it as an appropriate place on which to build the center.

There is currently a massive socialist-realist monument in Babi Yar erected by the Soviet authorities — who in the postwar period had even considered situating a stadium and amusement park on the site — as well as a menorah and a year-old monument to the children killed there.

“The important message that we’re trying to get through is that the Jewish people are alive today — that given the tragedies of the Jewish population in Kiev and in Ukraine, we are alive,” Amiel said. “And this center will bring to life that message.”

But project opponents like Leonid Finberg, director of the Institute of Jewish Studies in Kiev and a former member of the steering committee, have complained that the Heritage plan is the type of proposal put forward with the best of intentions by nonresidents of Ukraine who don’t understand the pressures of Ukrainian Jewish life.

Finberg is a signatory to the open letter addressed to members of the Ukrainian government, including President Leonid Kuchma, opposing the current project.

The letter is co-signed by representatives of 12 “national communities of Ukraine” — such as Poles, Romanians, Bulgarians, Tartars, Estonians, Lithuanians and Roma, or gypsies.

Finberg said it would harm the Jewish community in Kiev and Ukraine to construct a center that would be resented by other groups, including Ukrainians, who also had friends and relatives at Babi Yar, and who, he said, “have not yet had their own chance to mourn.”

“Why build a Jewish community center in this place and create a potential conflict for all these groups, which consider themselves to be descendants of Babi Yar?” he asked.

Akselrud said the steering committee has sought to involve non-Jewish segments of the community.

“We will work with other groups, Ukrainians and representatives of all the other groups killed at the place and for whom Babi Yar is a place of tragedy,” Akselrud said. “We want them all to have a place in our museum.”

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