'No Monument Stands Over Babi Yar'

Seventy-five years after the mass slaughter of Kiev's Jews, Ukraine begins a new memorial project.

People place candles and Israeli flags during a ceremony commemorating the victims of Babi Yar on September 29, 2016.
People place candles and Israeli flags during a ceremony commemorating the victims of Babi Yar on September 29, 2016. (Valentyn Ogirenko / Reuters)

KIEV—The soil of Babi Yar is the color of pulverized ashes, its sooty gray and green landscape interrupted by the occasional trash heap. The sprawling park, just a few metro stops away from Kiev’s city center, was once dubbed “Kiev’s Switzerland” for its seemingly placid, plunging landscape.

But Babi Yar’s history is not one of calm. On September 29, 1941, German forces and their Ukrainian collaborators began a two-day massacre of 33,771 Ukrainian Jews, including many members of my family, in the ravine that once cut through the park. The steep canyon spared their killers the trouble of digging a mass grave. Ultimately, over 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar during World War II, including thousands of Roma and Soviet political prisoners along with most of Ukraine’s Jewish community. The site has become emblematic of the “Holocaust by bullets” propagated throughout Eastern Europe, a method of mass murder that preceded the gas chambers of Auschwitz and ensured victims came face-to-face with their killers.

Today, Babi Yar is a popular local hangout, complete with a makeshift soccer field and playground. When I visited the field on a sunny afternoon this summer, two young Ukrainians sat on the edge of the ravine smoking cigarettes, their legs dangling over a picnicking couple sprawled out in the valley below. Beside them towered a Soviet monument commemorating the “citizens of Kiev” killed there. On the ground beneath them, seven decades prior, the retreating German army exhumed and burned the corpses of their victims. Nearby, mothers pushed strollers along the park’s winding paths, past rows of men on wooden benches guzzling beer. At the entrance to the Dorohozhychi metro station, passersby queued before a bright neon-colored stand called “Big Burger” to buy shwarma and soda. Gas stations, an auto shop, and billboards advertising nearby apartments for rent dot the highway straddling the former killing field.

This pedestrian setting—a relic of Soviet times, when authorities once considered refurbishing the site by constructing a stadium—allows unsuspecting visitors to pass through Babi Yar oblivious to its bloody history. The Soviet Union attempted to suppress any mention of the specific nature of what happened there almost immediately after the massacre, a policy that lasted for decades. In Soviet Ukraine, Jews who tried to pray at Babi Yar risked arrest. In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his famous poem “Babi Yar” to protest the Soviet erasure:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.

In the decades since, a chaotic field of memorials to various groups of victims—Jews, Roma, Ukrainians nationalists, and priests—has been erected in one section of the park, on the side of the highway furthest from the actual site of the murders. The markers can be difficult to find and even harder to identify, a problem that Ukrainian officials, on Thursday’s commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the massacre, vowed to correct.

But deciding how to memorialize so much terror and erasure is proving an altogether intractable task.

On September 29, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke at the launch of the Babi Yar Memorial project, which has pledged to create a museum near the old ravine. It will be funded in part, by the Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Pinchuk and Alfa Bank co-founder Mikhail Fridman, among others. Kiev Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko vowed that the museum will be completed in time for the 80th anniversary of the massacre. A separate initiative, supported by the privately funded Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), launched an architectural competition in December to come up with a design to turn the park into “a space of reflection and acknowledgement of the extreme inhumanity and tragic events” and where they occurred. There was no first-place winner when the results were announced, and UJE has no power to implement any of the recommendations. Still, efforts to “do something to correct the present garbage-dump status,” of Babi Yar, as Berel Rodal, a UJE board member, put it, are welcomed.

“For 10 years, they’ve been talking about this project,” Ukrainian historian Vitaliy Nakhmanovich said when we spoke about the government’s plan for a museum. “The place where they want to build is an old Jewish cemetery. You don’t build on a cemetery. Second, it’s pretty unclear what the museum will be about. Until now, it has been presented as a museum to those who were shot at Babi Yar, not a Jewish museum or a Holocaust museum,” he said. “Let them build three museums. It won’t change anything. Babi Yar is a kind of litmus test. It has always reflected the state of society ... [it] is a living place, it’s not just a place where people were shot. There will always be life there.”

That certainly rings true today, when part of the park has been refurbished for the anniversary, while the rest remains an unfortunate “garbage-dump.” The first monument acknowledging that the victims of the German massacre were specifically Jews, not just peaceful Soviet citizens—the traditional Russian line—was erected only in 1991, when a newly independent Ukraine was looking to the West for support on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the murders. Today, as the Russian invasion and annexation of parts of Ukraine continue, Ukraine has once again turned toward Europe. That means deciding how to acknowledge its role in World War II. As recently as 2010, there were plans to build a hotel on the site, to accommodate visitors to the 2012 Euro Cup.

“In this history of World War II, of the Holocaust, Ukraine is part of Europe, and the pattern of collaboration is also present here,” said Paul Shapiro, director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies. “That Ukraine is wrestling with all of these issues is an indication that Ukraine is part of Europe. Every country has gone through this. The debate has come later to Ukraine than most countries, but there are political and historical reasons for that.”

Ukraine’s belated arrival to the debate over how to memorialize its largest mass grave means it must also address 75 years of four different kinds of forgetting, as the historian Timothy Snyder put it. Each kind altered the conceptual and topographical appearance of the space. First, the retreating German army exhumed and burned the corpses. Then the Soviet government, within weeks, began removing any mention of Jews from official government reports of the murder, “so that people [didn’t] remember, or … quite understand what was specific about Babi Yar,” Snyder said. The third kind of forgetting, he said, is the Western kind. “By the end of the Cold War we had already more or less made Auschwitz and the Holocaust synonyms, which made it very hard for us to accept that Auschwitz was actually just the last stage of the Holocaust,” he added. This made it possible to forget the face-to-face killing that predominated the earlier slaughter on the eastern front.

And then there’s the physical destruction of the site. In 1961, a Soviet attempt to fill the ravine turned disastrous when a nearby dam burst, causing a giant mudslide that killed 146 civilians and pushed tons of mud, and human remains, into residential areas. The ravine was ultimately filled—only one sloping gorge remains—but then an “ethnic competition” for memorialization began, Snyder said, with statues memorializing different groups popping up haphazardly. Those memorials will remain untouched as the government moves to refurbish the surroundings, a process that Poroshenko kicked off at Thursday night’s ceremony, his somber face bathed in blue-and-white floodlights as he praised Ukraine’s consolidation as a “political nation” moving toward a “common European future.”

“A commemoration like this is walking the walk of a political nation,” Snyder said, a gesture that Ukraine is an international nation that “includes Crimean Tatars, Poles, Russians, and Jews,” not only Ukrainians. In practice, that means accepting and protecting a Ukrainian nation of diverse ethnicities, religions, and nationalities, so as not to reduce “Ukrainian-ness” to a single ethnic origin. At a time when the country is commemorating the thousands killed in its ongoing fight against Russia, including the 298 people who died on the downed flight MH17 and the “disappeared” Crimean Tatar politicians and activists —both crimes that threaten to go unpunished—and amid rising nationalism within Ukraine and around Europe, walking that walk is no mean feat.

On Thursday night, in a newly refurbished area of Babi Yar surrounded by towering birch trees, Poroshenko convened a solemn ceremony to commemorate the thousands killed there. The audience included delegations from Israel, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the United States, as well as representatives from the World Jewish Congress and Kiev’s head clergy. “Babyn Yar is a tragedy of all humankind, but it happened here, on Ukrainian land,” Poroshenko said, using the Ukrainian spelling of the site. “The lesson of Babyn Yar is a reminder of the terrible price of political and moral shortsightedness. This is the remembrance of the fact that condoning aggressor only inflames his appetite,” he said.

The specter of the more recent atrocities hung over the ceremony. When European Council President Donald Tusk took the stage to admonish the crowd to “remember that it is our daily duty to cry out at the top of our lungs, and to act when innocent people are killed, when the strong attack the weak, when children become the target of warplanes and rockets,” it seemed a comment on the silence of the assembled dignitaries in the face of ongoing horrors.

Robert Singer, CEO of the World Jewish Congress, followed Tusk. In his remarks, he cited the 500,000 civilians being killed in Syria and the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. “Jews learned a very costly lesson at this pit. Jews learned that they couldn’t count on the world to defend them from evil. They would have to defend themselves,” he said. “To the silenced souls who lie beneath us, let us remember who they were, and why they died. When we remember them, there is a chance that another group of people, like you, will not have to gather 75 years from now at another pit, and remember events like Babi Yar.”

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, one of the chief rabbis of Kiev, concluded the ceremony with a mourner’s kaddish, and the orchestra played the score from Schindler’s List. The dignitaries filed out, leading the assembled delegations through a forested path to a statue of a stone menorah, where they knelt to place votive candles. Slowly, people began the journey home, following the newly laid stone path to the unmarked spot where it meets the highway.