Letter from Ukraine: Facing God at Babi Yar

By Marek Halter

Published October 06, 2006, issue of October 06, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Babi Yar, who has heard about it? It is here, in the suburbs of Kiev, near the old Jewish cemetery, on September 29, 1941 —Yom Kippur day — that the Einsatzkommando headed by Paul Blobel, an SS colonel, with the help of the Ukrainian police, used machine guns to exterminate the Jewish inhabitants of this centuries-old town.

The killing lasted until October 3. More than 100,000 bodies — the population of a town like Berkeley, Calif. — piled up in the canyon. Some of the victims were still breathing; they were ultimately killed by hand grenades. Most of the victims were Jewish; a third of them children.

Two years later, on the eve of the liberation of Kiev by the Red Army in November 1943, the bodies were burned, their ashes dispersed by the Nazis and their Ukrainian auxiliaries. No doubt the assassins were aware of the crime they then tried to hide. But eyewitnesses were able to spread the news beyond the Ukrainian borders. It reached governments and was published on November 29, 1943, in The New York Times. Eventually the evidence would be produced at the Nuremberg trial. Two decades later, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a young Russian poet shocked by his accidental discovery of the massacre of Kiev’s Jews, thrust the massacre into the consciousness of his countrymen with the poem “Babi Yar,” drawing swift condemnation from the Communist Party.

I had never been to Babi Yar. I am distrustful about such memory places. The “décor” often affects the perception of reality by reducing our imagination to a few barracks or steles. This is why I only reluctantly accepted the invitation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko to participate in the commemoration ceremonies of the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.

I was wrong. There is no trace left of Babi Yar. Those who decided to hold the commemoration could not even agree on the location. Was the infamous ravine where the SS hoarded the 100,000 bodies behind the monumental menorah, which the survivors built to remember the extermination of Kiev’s Jewish community? Or was it much farther, where the communists erected an impressive Soviet realist-style monument? Or still farther, in the forest near the river, where Raissa Maiestrenko remembers happening to be with her grandmother and seeing Nazis machine-gun the men? But she was only 5.

On the Soviet monument, in front of which Yushchenko held the ceremony, I see two plaques — one in Russian, one in Ukrainian — honoring the “100,000 victims of Nazi barbarity.” Without explaining the ethnic identities of the victims. A Yiddish plaque was added after Perestroika, but with no modification to the text.

Under a radiant sky, the crowd at the ceremony was busy trying to guess the names of the personalities in attendance. Suddenly the voice of a little girl made me turn around. She had a round face and two blond braids. “How did they die?” she asked. “Of hunger,” the mother answered. I wanted to intervene, but what for? With regards to the location of the crime, nobody cares.

Father Patrick Desbois, whom I got to know a long time ago at the French Bible mission in Jerusalem, and who traveled with me, claimed he found the exact location of the ravine. “In the valley, behind the menorah,” he told me. Recently he found human bones amid the garbage thrown by the inhabitants of the surrounding neighborhoods.
Strange person, Father Desbois. Because his grandfather was deported by the Nazis to Ukraine, he has dedicated himself to finding all of Babi Yar. With the support of the French cardinals and with a young translator, he spends his time looking for collective burial pits in which the SS, helped by Ukrainian militias, threw the Jews they had executed. He has found 2,500 thus far.

I learned that those places, those multiple anonymous Babi Yar, were recently visited by individuals who unearthed the dead to find golden teeth. Indeed, the Babi Yar effect continues to have dreadful consequences.

The president of the “Let My People Live” association, Viatcheslav Kantor, was able to persuade Yushchenko to organize this ceremony. Yet, a leaflet distributed by young anarchists — an old Ukrainian tradition — where the forum was taking place reminds us all of what remains to be done to make sure that Ukrainians draw a lesson from Babi Yar.

“Babi Yar is part of the Holocaust,” the leaflet declared. “But it is not even taught in Ukrainian schools. Nobody knows anything about the genocide of the Jews.” By contrast, schoolbooks continue to glorify the personalities that have, through the centuries, massacred Jews, the leaflet added.

Jews once made up 11% of Ukraine, but virtually none are left in the country. And for good reason: Antisemitism is still alive.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church did not condemn the Holocaust. It was, however, largely represented at the Babi Yar ceremony. Its dignitaries, dressed in black or gold and glittering in the sun, were as numerous as the rabbis.

Standing side by side, I thought for a second that they would pray together. According to Hasidic tradition, there is only one day each year when our prayers reach the sky — provided they are strong enough to pry open the Lord’s doors. This day is Yom Kippur. And this is precisely the day on which the Jews from Kiev were assassinated.

But here we are, 65 years later, facing God. The representatives of the Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish religions are still divided. In a rivalry. After a short prayer by Ukraine’s grand rabbi, the Orthodox Church leaders took over. Their prayers, their songs, moved us; their voices were beautiful. More than a half-hour without naming the Jews nor Babi Yar. Claude Lanzmann, the director of the movie “Shoah,” was so outraged, he left. I saw the small Orthodox priests congratulate each other, staring with some distaste at the group of rabbis in their tight black frock coats.

Suddenly a shiver passed through the crowd. A voice arose. Surprising. In front of the microphone, against the backdrop of the imposing granite monument, a frail man, New York Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, started reciting the Kaddish. I could see the utter surprise on the faces of the Orthodox Church bards. Which then turned to admiration. One of them even applauded. For 15 minutes, Helfgot, with the choir from the Moscow synagogue, conveyed a Jewish presence to this place. In this musical competition, the Jews won. They paid dearly.

Was this enough to open the sky?






Find us on Facebook!
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.