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Letter from Ukraine: Facing God at Babi Yar

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?

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