Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Iterations of Babi Yar

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Iterations of Babi Yar

Article excerpt

Like the sound of "Auschwitz," "Bosnia," and "Rwanda," the place-name "Babi Yar" cracks like a gunshot and disturbs the heart. How that name and place became resonant in the public consciousness is owed as much to artistic rendering as to the uncovering of historical fact about the place that has come to stand for all the killing sites throughout the former Soviet Union where Nazis mercilessly murdered Jews, along with Roma and other Soviet peoples.

That the world came to know of this place is filled with stops and starts: Poems, a symphony, a novel, part of a film, and various monuments have assured the representation and memory of an event that the Nazis, and later the Soviets, tried to erase. These artistic iterations of Babi Yar built upon each other and carried the seeds of new depictions. Each repetition and each new bit of information, whether personal or public, gathered new meaning into what went before, and the place-name, in our minds, became enlarged, growing in intensity and volubility.

Though little known in the West, Russian-Jewish writers Ilya Ehrenburg and Lev Ozerov wrote poems of mourning about Babi Yar immediately after the war. (1) In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, finding desolation there instead of a memorial, trash rather than graves, wrote his great poem "Babi Yar"; inspired by this tribute, Shostakovich wrote his Thirteenth Symphony, setting the poem to music in the first movement. Other iterations slowly followed: a part in a film, a novel based on fact. A Russian memorial, erected in 1976 at the ravine, included no mention of Jews; a menorah, raised in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, stands now for the thousands murdered, but it is only one of many other monuments to various Russian peoples found there. Juxtaposed, these different representations of Babi Yar augment the history that produced such artistic depictions. Poetry, music, film, monuments, and memorials attempt to express the inexpressible, thereby allowing for an emotional space blocked to writers of history.

Babi Yar, a ravine outside the city of Kiev, was first named in historical accounts in relation to its sale by an old woman ("baba") to a Dominican Monastery in 1401. Over the ensuing centuries the area was used for military camps and two cemeteries, one Orthodox Christian and one Jewish, the latter closed in 1937. But, in 1941, after the capture of Kiev, on September 29-30 (during Yom Kippur), Nazis killed 33,771 Jewish women, children, and men. During the next two months, over 100,000 people, the great majority (most likely ninety percent) of whom were Jewish, were murdered there. In August, 1943, Russian prisoners of war were forced to burn the bodies and cover up evidence of the murders.

Babi Yar is further notorious for the silence that accompanied its history. First, the Nazis tried to erase all evidence of the massacres; next, the Soviets eradicated all mention of Jews as distinct victims and instead referred to the dead as "Russians," thus expunging memory of the site for years. (2) For a long time, few, outside of those who had lived in Kiev, knew of the infamous killings--fewer still of the place itself. After the war, the ravine was a dumping ground for garbage; later, the site of a proposed sports stadium. In 1959, writer Victor Nekrasov, protesting the sports stadium, called for the building of a memorial at Babi Yar in an article published in Literaturnaia Gazeta, but nothing happened. As recently as 2009, Kiev city officials considered turning part of the area into a hotel to house athletes for Euro 2012.

Research into what Raul Hilberg called "Mobile Killing Operations" reveals the indiscriminate murder of thousands of Jews throughout the Soviet Union and adjoining countries by Einsatzgruppen and Einsatzkommandos as a prelude to deportations and extermination camps that has been studied only of late. There are many reasons for this lacuna: There were few survivors; records could not be obtained; many killing sites had been dug up and corpses burned or reburied by the Nazis; the Soviets refused to list Jews per se among the dead; Antisemitism, apathy, and collaboration were rampant; and, perhaps most importantly, there was a great desire among non-Jews to forget. …

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