Preserving the memory of the thousands of Jews massacred in 1941 at the site in Ukraine that symbolizes the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ is fraught with controversy
By Judy Lash Balint
(JNS) Over a two-day period, beginning on Sept. 29, 1941, almost the entire Jewish community of Kyiv was wiped out at a ravine on the outskirts of the city known as Babi Yar.
The Nazis and their collaborators rounded up and shot the 34,000 Jews who had been unable to flee in advance of the Nazi onslaught two weeks earlier, and over the next two years tens of thousands of others, including political dissidents, Roma, psychiatric patients and Ukrainian nationalists faced death by shooting at the once bucolic site now known as Babi Yar in Ukraine.
This year, due to restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic, the 79th anniversary of the Jewish massacre will be marked by an online broadcast featuring Jewish and Israeli leaders and the launch of an audio installation project at the site.
Battles over the appropriate way to preserve memory at Holocaust sites are nothing new; however, efforts to build a memorial and an educational center at the infamous Babi Yar have been particularly fraught with controversy.
This comes despite the fact that according to Dutch Holocaust researcher Karel Berkhoff, former chief historian for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BY-HMC), “Babyn Yar has come to symbolize what has occasionally been referred to as the ‘Holocaust by bullets’: mass shootings of Jews in Eastern Europe, by contrast with the better known stationary gas chambers used at Auschwitz and other death camps. In the ‘eastern’ Holocaust, the vast majority of Jews were slain in mass shootings, near their homes and within a short span of time–days, weeks or at most months.”
During the decades when the area was under Soviet control, there was no mention of the Jewish victims at the huge, Socialist realism-style official statue that hovered over one corner of the vast ravine. All who perished there were described on the plaques as “victims of fascism.”
Since the establishment of independent Ukraine, Jews are acknowledged, but attempts to create an appropriate official memorial that honors and respects all victims and provides a framework to impart the message of “Never again” have repeatedly stalled.
“There is a reason why every attempt to create a serious memorial at Babi Yar over the last 30 years has failed. There is a strong movement in Ukraine to disconnect Babi Yar entirely from the Holocaust, to claim that Babi Yar is an internal Ukrainian matter, and that Ukrainians should have the exclusive right to decide what a memorial project at Babi Yar should look like,” Izabella Tabarovsky, managing editor, Russia File and Kennan Focus Ukraine at the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C, explained to JNS.
The latest effort to overcome this attitude came to life in 2016 with a Declaration of Intent to form the BYHMC, a non-governmental initiative now headed by former Soviet refusenik and human-rights activist Natan Sharansky and funded primarily by a consortium of Russian Jewish philanthropists.
Recently, the BYHMC launched a sophisticated online presence and held a design competition to build a multimillion-dollar state-of-the-art center planned to be operational by 2026.
The Austrian architect firm, querkraft architekten, won the competition and has been charged with carrying out the project together with Austrian landscape designer Kieran Fraser.
Fraser’s initial plans include a reference to “integration of tombstones and memorial plates into the historical area of the jewish (sic) cemetery as an essential part of the proposed project.” Fraser told JNS that the design is not final, and BYHMC officials say that artistic director Ilya Khrzhanovsky is in charge of the final concept and is “in dialogue” with the Austrian architects.
Building on top of the pre-World War II Jewish and Karaite cemetery that lies immediately adjacent to the site of the 1941 mass killings has been one of the major points of contention that have stalled previous attempts at creating a memorial at Babi Yar. But the map attached to the call for submissions to the design competition clearly shows that the cemetery was included.
Sharansky, chairman of the BYHMC Supervisory Board, assured JNS that under no circumstances would the center build anywhere near the old Jewish cemetery. “We’re not going to dig even 20 to 30 meters away,” he stated. According to Sharansky, the issue of the boundaries of the cemetery and plans for construction are being “monitored by the highest international authorities in the Jewish world with regard to where it’s supposed to be built.”
‘If they don’t build it, we will have nothing here’
In remarks to the Kyiv Jewish Forum last week, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that the Babi Yar property belongs to the municipality and that he sees it “as my mission to implement this memorial.” As for the area designated for the creation of the Memorial Center, BYHMC representatives told JNS that it’s leased from the city of Kyiv.
Meylekh Sheykhet, director of the Ukrainian branch of the Washington-based Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union who lives in Lviv, has fought proposals to build at the site for years through the Ukrainian court system on the grounds that it violates Ukraine’s rigorous Laws on the Protection of Cultural Heritage, as well as Jewish law.
Sheykhet shared with JNS documents from the Chairman of the Scientific and Methodological Council of Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine that acknowledge the professional surveys of the site undertaken on behalf of the Union of Councils. Additional information that Sheykhet obtained from 1944 aerial photos from the U.S. National Archives where the cemetery fence is visible were passed on to the Ukrainian Ministry. The 2013 papers committed the ministry to investigate further, but Sheykhet says that still hasn’t happened, and therefore according to Ukrainian law, there’s no official approval for the site, which means nothing may be built there.
One Jewish member of Ukraine’s parliament who wanted further information on the Jewish cemetery issue told JNS she approached BYHMC staff last week and asked to see a map of the site and the building permit. “They told me it was confidential, and I would have to sign a five-year nondisclosure agreement if I wanted to see it. Of course, I refused,” Olga Vasylevska-Smaglyuk of the ruling SN Party related to JNS.
Like most Ukrainian Jews, Vasylevska-Smaglyuk had family members who perished during the Holocaust. While she is not in favor of any construction going ahead without permits, she is passionate about the need for a Ukrainian Holocaust memorial center. “I don’t care who builds it, and I don’t care about the politics,” she tells JNS. “The Ukrainian government will never build it. There’s no money and not too much interest. Russians give money here for all kind of things, and if they don’t build it, we will have nothing here.”
Izabella Tabarovsky agrees. “In the absence of anyone else’s interest in this matter (we American Jews, in particular, have completely failed in our duty toward these Holocaust martyrs), this project is our best hope – maybe our last hope – to turn Babi Yar into a kind of place of memory that the 2.7 million Jews murdered in Holocaust by bullets at sites across those territories deserve to have.”
Sharansky, who was born in 1948 in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, recalls being arrested on his way from Moscow to one of the annual clandestine and illegal memorial gatherings at Babi Yar in the mid-1970s. “Babi Yar is a powerful symbol of two things: the “Holocaust by bullets” and secondly, the awful crime of the Soviet regime and their big efforts to erase the memory” of the Jews who were killed.
“My childhood was spent just three miles from other Holocaust killing fields,” he tells JNS. “But we grew up knowing nothing about it.”
Sharansky relates that even as the independent Ukrainian government put a stop to the policy of silence surrounding Jewish victims of the Holocaust, “there has been no serious effort to create any memorials, due to bureaucratic and financial reasons,” he added.
“So, when the mayor of Kyiv [Vitali Klitschko] and one of the philanthropists approached me” to head the supervisory board of the BYHMC, “it was like closing a big circle in my life.”
Sharansky rejects the view of some critics that the BYHMC is a foreign body imposing on Ukraine. In the words of a May 2020 appeal to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed by 700 Ukrainian intellectuals and other Jewish activists, including Meylakh Sheykhet, “The authors call on President Zelensky “ … to take, in cooperation with civil society, real responsibility and direct control over the creation of a memorial complex at Babi Yar. This will prevent external destructive and manipulative influences.” The project should be “exclusively the prerogative of and under the control of the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian civil society and should not be placed in the hands of foreign citizens or private structures.”
Acknowledging the critics, Sharansky asserts to JNS that “our funders are first, Jewish international businessmen. They are involved because of one reason. Not because they are connected to the Kremlin. They are from Ukraine and have families who were killed in the Holocaust, some in Babi Yar. Our board is filled with some of the most respected names.”
They include the first president of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk; former President of Poland Alexander Kwasniewski; former U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.); former Foreign Minister of Germany Joschka Fischer; and president of the World Jewish Congress Ronald S. Lauder.
“There’s no way some of this project will be hijacked by Moscow,” he adds. “There are those who attempt to undermine this project and prove that it’s an imposition of Moscow on Ukraine. What nonsense.”
Sharansky does believe that the BYHMC should include Ukrainian government involvement, “but not be owned by the government.” He cites the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and Yad Vashem in Jerusalem as examples of entities receiving government funding and input with no say over museum policy. “We don’t want either the Moscow or the Ukrainian version of the Holocaust to dictate our policy.”
In his meetings with Zelensky, Sharansky says he has invited participation of government representatives to the BYHMC board and is waiting for someone to be appointed.
‘It should be dynamic, modern and tell a story’
Meanwhile, as the politics play out, the young and enthusiastic staff of Jews and non-Jews is busy formulating innovative programs to stimulate interest in the difficult task of preserving memory, honoring and remembering the victims, and fostering Holocaust education.
Under the direction of artistic director, Ilya Khrzhanovskyi, who created controversy when some plans for radical ideas that were never approved were leaked, the team has initiated projects such as Letters to the Righteous, an effort to reach out to help ease the isolation of the thirty surviving Ukrainians who took part in hiding Jews during the Shoah.
“We are building a museum in order to preserve the memory of the tragic events and the lessons learned from them for decades to come. It should be dynamic, modern and tell a story,” says Khrzhanovskyi. “Our task is to convey this story to people living now, so that they feel that this story concerns them. This is important for everyone who lives in Ukraine. This story is not only about how many Jews were killed by the Nazis. It is about humanism, about the events that took place in this country and about which the whole world knows. I believe that this museum will become the hallmark of Kyiv and Ukraine all over the world.”
With a background in theater and film, Nadia Pizharskaya, who manages the Righteous Generation project, is also working on the audio installation that will be rolled out for the anniversary on Sept. 29 and will then become part of the permanent exhibit of the BYHMC.
In a Zoom interview, Nadia told JNS, “It’s taking place in the alley; not on our land. We picked it because it’s the quietest, cleanest, best-lit place – and then we found out it’s the Jewish cemetery. We didn’t know it beforehand. On each lamp post there will be a different soundtrack, and because it’s the cemetery we won’t be allowed to use any music, so we’ll be reading the names of the victims. Kaddish will also be heard. On the next part of the alley, where the TV tower built by the Soviets is on the right-hand side, they took the gravestone of the nearest rabbi and just put it there to remind people that there used to be a cemetery there.”
Nadia, who is not Jewish, says she frequently walks through the area, which is used as a public park, and notes that “the first gravestone you come to is where all the dogs are pissing. People just don’t care. That’s why I want to do this project, just to make them aware.”
Main Photo: The current appearance of a forested Babi Yar ravine. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.