UC Berkeley Blog: Erasing Babi Yar, Again

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I read with anguish the Russian bombardment of Babi Yar (Babyn Yar). It seems crucial to provide some context for this act and what makes it so disturbing in the overall scandal of the war in Ukraine.

Babi Yar is the most symbolic site of the Holocaust in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union; it accounts for the predominant manner in which the Germans and their allies massacred Jews on Soviet and Ukrainian soil, in what priest and author Patrick Desbois called “the Holocaust by bullets.” In the fall of 1941, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Jews were rounded up in Kyiv (now Kyiv) and marched to the Lukyanovka Jewish cemetery, which borders the huge ravine on the outskirts of the city. On September 29 and 30, 1941, nearly 34,000 Jews were massacred by bullets in the Babi Yar ravine. The Germans continued to round up the Jews and execute them at Babi Yar. However, they also used the ravine to execute Roma, Russian, and Ukrainian civilians and Soviet prisoners of war of all nationalities. More than 100,000 victims are said to have perished at Babi Yar between 1941 and 1943; approximately 50,000 of these victims were Jewish.

In 1943, in anticipation of the Soviet advance in kyiv, the Germans “cleared” the site of the Babi Yar ravine. To erase the evidence and conceal the traces of their atrocities, they burned the bodies and razed the mass graves, forcing the Jewish prisoners of the nearby Sirets labor camp to commit these acts before being themselves executed. We know much of what we know about Babi Yar, both the initial 1941 massacres and subsequent roundups, and this subsequent 1943 cover-up, through a few survivor testimonies and secondary literature on Babi Yar. Nevertheless, the horrific nature of these acts ensured the impossibility of recovery and accountability for the victims at Babi Yar; “who is dead?” and how much?” remains disputed to this day.

Moreover, the Soviet regime played its own part in the erasure of Babi Yar. Jews and other Soviet dissidents held spontaneous commemorations at Babi Yar during the thaw of the 1960s. These gatherings are banned and thus become acts of counter-memory. Early calls to place a memorial at Babi Yar, commemorated in Yevgenii Yevtushenko’s poem, which presciently begins “No monument stands on Babi Yar”, were rejected by the Soviet regime. The regime had other plans for the Babi Yar Holocaust site and the former Jewish cemetery grounds of Lukyanovka – to build a sports center and a television station. (This broadcasting station was the target of the Russian missile). The destruction begun by the Germans was completed by the Soviet Union – erasing both the memorial site of the massacre and the Jewish cemetery. When the Soviet government finally erected its Babi Yar monument in 1976, a realistic Soviet structure of struggling heroic figures, it built it at a different place in the vast territory of the ravine, in the form of a park, far from the cemetery and the site of the massacre, and dedicated the monument to “Citizens of kyiv and Prisoners of War”, confusing the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust with the suffering of all Soviet people under German occupation.

The Babyn Yar memorial space has become more complex in the post-Soviet context. The Jewish community of Ukraine erected the Menorah in 1991, openly dedicated to the Jews who perished at Babi Yar. This memorial stands close to the site of the original massacre – it borders the property of the state television channel and the remains of the Lukyanovka cemetery, and it overlooks the ravine. A modest structure, its menorah shape has a more symbolic meaning for the community that gathers each year to commemorate the anniversary of the massacre. Other memorials, erected by the state and by community groups, have emerged in the decades since Ukraine’s independence, capturing the complex nature of memory and its appropriation, particularly on a site where different groups have claimed losses. This crowded memorial landscape includes two large crosses and a state-sponsored monument for the children massacred at Babi Yar. More recently, the Jewish community, with state support, was erecting the Babyn Yar Memorial Complex, including a synagogue and a memorial center. The Ukrainian government, unlike its predecessor, recognized the Holocaust of Jews on Ukrainian soil and recognized the specific Jewish symbolism of the Babi Yar site, even with these competing memory claims.

The Russian bombing of the state television channel came too close to the Babi Yar memorials. Bombs can erase sites of memory, just as German fires and bulldozers and the Soviet construction of new sports and broadcasting buildings have done in the past. Shockingly, the Russian government was unaware of these past attacks on Babi Yar’s memory. Of course he did. Evtushenko’s 1961 poem and the underground commemorations at Babi Yar in the 1960s were powerful rallying cries for Soviet dissidents against Soviet rule. And in the late 1980s, the song by Russian Jewish bard Alexander Rosenbaum Babi Yar (written in 1986) captured Jewish and Soviet resistance to silence and the suppression of social memory. Erasing Babi Yar, again, has symbolic meaning for Jews, Ukrainians and Russians – but also for all of us who seek to remember and preserve the past as a way to make the world a better place.


This press release was produced by the UC Berkeley blog. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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