Babi Yar

by Maria on September 28, 2006

Yesterday in Kiev there was a commemoration at Babiy Yar, the infamous gorge in which tens of thousands of Ukraine’s Jews were murdered by the invading German army in 1941. (Later on in the occupation, Babi Yar was also used to massacre gypsies, other Ukrainians and Russian prisoners of war.) President Viktor Yuschenko and the presidents of Israel and Croatia all gathered for an event attended by thousands of Ukrainians. A quick taxi ride turned into an hour-long odyssey as traffic all over the city was at a standstill for hours as the scale of the commemoration was so huge.

It’s a sign of how radically things here have changed in the past fifteen years. Under the Soviet regime, the plaques marking mass murders of Jews during World War II paid tribute only to the Soviet citizens killed by fascist invaders. In a Soviet Union that wished to suppress ethnic or religious distinctions, there was no room to acknowledge the particular suffering of Ukraine’s Jews. Uncle Joe’s raging anti-Semitism may have had something to do with it too.

Sixty five years ago this morning, the following notices appeared all over Kiev:

“All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29, 1941, to the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc. Any Jew not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering flats evacuated by Jews and stealing property will be shot.”

Thinking they were going to be deported, many of Kiev’s Jews turned up. They were butchered and left in the ravine of Babi Yar. The Jews of Ivano-Frankivsk, 40% of that town’s population, were marched to their own graveyard to be mordered. By the end of the German occupation, about 100,000 of Kiev’s 175,000 Jews were dead, with the help of local collaborators and some Ukrainian nationalists who briefly fancied their chances under the Germans.

In a country that lost upwards of ten million people in the 1930s to the Soviet-created famine, collectivisation and communist party purges – and a country that lost a greater portion of its population in World War II than did Germany – some ambivalence about the need to mark the special suffering of the Jews might be understandable, though not excusable. I have the sense that Ukraine still suffers from the missing millions that might have made this country a different place. You can’t walk across Maidan Square without wondering a little about the people who are missing, the Ukrainians who were never born.

Like the rest of central and eastern Europe, Ukraine’s Jewish population was decimated in World War II. Of the two and three quarter million Jews in Ukraine (or an area approximating to modern day Ukraine) at the turn of the nineteenth century, only 486,000 remained in 1989. That was less than 1% of the population. As in other post-Soviet countries, once visa restrictions for departures were lifted, Jews flowed out of Ukraine to Israel. Between 1989 and 2002, about half of the remaining Jewish population left Ukraine.

Independence hasn’t meant exit for all of Ukraine’s Jews. Some have proved especially nimble at adapting to the new order. Next month, a documentary film about the Holocaust in Ukraine will premiere in Kiev. Its executive producers are Steven Spielberg and Viktor Pinchuk. This film may help modern Ukrainians and many others to appreciate this less well known part of Ukraine’s bloody history.

So much of Ukraine’s self-willed transformation is focused on the future; on incorporating European standards and harmonising with EU laws and on joining international organisations like the WTO or the Council of Europe. But this part of Ukraine’s rehabilitation into the European mainstream requires the country to acknowledge and come to terms with its own past. Yesterday’s commemoration is a part of that process.

(Most of numerical data above comes from Andrew Wilson’s and Anna Reid‘s histories of Ukraine noted in the list of recommended books.)

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{ 1 comment }


Nick 09.29.06 at 2:05 pm

I’d strongly recommend that people read Anatoli Kuznetsov’s / A Anatol’s Babi Yar to find out more . . .

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