A group of Ukrainian Jews in America is lambasting a plan by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to build a Jewish community center near the site of the Babi Yar massacre in Kiev.
In a petition sent in July to Russian-language American newspapers and Jewish organizations, the ad-hoc committee known as Save the Babi Yar — comprising 16 Ukrainians living in the United States, many of whom had relatives killed at Babi Yar — called for the Joint and “all American organizations that support and trust the JDC” to terminate the project. Though the project has support from most of Kiev’s Jewish community, members of the committee contend that the proposed center will be 200 meters from Babi Yar, a ravine in northwest Kiev where 30,000 Jews and thousands of non-Jews were murdered over several days in 1941.
“This place symbolizes a pain for the Jewish people,” said Fira Stukelman, a committee member. “How can you build a community center at a place like this? I know a woman who escaped alive from the mass grave by climbing out of the ravine. How would she feel about them building a community center there?”
The site’s cornerstone was laid on September 30, 2001, by Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma. The design, which is expected to be finished in three to four months and then submitted to the Kiev municipality for approval, is said to combine an active community center for the 100,000 Jews of Kiev along with a Holocaust memorial center. Representatives from the JDC assert that the site is at least a mile away from the mass graves, but members of the Save the Babi Yar committee disagree.
“Two miles is not correct,” said Alexander Burakovsky, a writer who spearheaded the committee, in a translated interview with the Forward. Burakovsky contends that the project will be based roughly 657 feet from the ravine, and he attempted to prove this with documents sent to the Forward. Unfortunately, the map was unintelligible.
Even if it was a full two miles away, Burakovsky added, the location would still be suspect. “Any location — 100 meters, 200 meters, 600 meters — makes no sense, because in 1943, as the Nazi army was leaving Kiev, they stacked corpses in 60 locations on the Babi Yar territory and then burned them in order to cover their tracks,” he said.
In response to the letter, the Joint sent an e-mail message addressing some of the committee’s concerns and defending its position. “The building site was approved by the highest forensic Jewish experts — the Atra Kadisha rabbis from Israel,” the organization wrote, referring to an organization devoted to preserving Jewish burial sites.
Burakovsky acknowledged the Joint’s soil testing but claims the results are irrelevant because the human remains would be too far below the surface. For years after World War II, he argued, the Soviet army periodically filled the ravine where the bodies were left; in 1961, a retaining wall in a nearby cement plant burst and the slurry held behind poured into the ravine, which again disrupted the earth.
“Of course they didn’t find anything; the ravines were [75 to 100 feet] deep, and they just touched the surface. They did not drill deep enough,” he said. “What do they do if they start excavating the site and they unearth remains? Do they stop the project? We believe this risk shouldn’t be taken and a community center should not be built on the bones of Babi Yar.”
In an interview with the Forward, Ilya Levitas, chairman of the Council of Leaders of All-Ukrainian (Major) Jewish Organizations, an umbrella organization of major Jewish organizations in Ukraine, discounted Burakovsky’s objections to the site and his credibility in general.
“People have dramatized this situation,” Levitas said. “Every new construction in Kiev causes some opposition because it is an old city.”
“Burakovsky has never had any support from the Ukrainian Jewish community,” he continued. “His option is not credible and is not based on any serious objections. The actual burial ground is completely closed; there has been no ravine since 1961. Houses have been built near it, a TV station.”
Though there is a memorial near the site, it makes no specific mention of the Jewish victims of the massacre. According to a Joint representative, the project will be part of the Jewish healing process of what happened at Babi Yar.
“In addition to two museums planned for the site commemorating Babi Yar and a grove planted in dedication to the righteous gentiles who helped save the Jews of Kiev, there will be programs offered related to Jewish heritage so that people can view Jewish tradition as an energizing force for the future to develop new Jewish life,” said Amos Avgar, chief of programming at the Joint.
“I really think the decision whether or not to construct the center is that of the local Jewish communality in Kiev,” continued Avgar. “The head of the local group of Holocaust survivors [in Kiev] said he approves the project… and that it would be an example of Am Yisrael Chai,” an act that perpetuates the Jewish people.
In the meantime, Save the Babi Yar committee is planning a national press conference in Brooklyn for September 25 in which they will present a map of the area that they believe shows that the proposed center will be on the ravine. Regardless of whether they can prove this case, though, members believe a larger issue is at stake.
“The issue of distance isn’t even that important,” says Julian Rapoport, a member of the committee who is organizing the press conference. “Nothing should be associated with Babi Yar except for a solemn memorial — not entertainment, research or regular activity. Kiev is one of the biggest cities in Europe; they could build it elsewhere. Our main question is why does it have to be there, and no one has answered it yet.”