Cohen: Eighty years after the Babi Yar massacre, we struggle to remember and learn

Good reminder:

Among the most searing scenes in War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s epic novel of the Second World War presented as a multi-hour television series in the 1980s, is the massacre at Babi Yar in 1941. It is where the Holocaust began.

Through his highly developed characters, Wouk offers an unsparing depiction of the plight of the Jews in Auschwitz and in Theresienstadt, “the paradise ghetto.” In contrast to the slow, intimate unspooling of that agony, his dramatization of Babi Yar is remote, anonymous and brief.

See thousands of Jews ordered from their homes in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. See them marched to a sprawling ravine on the city’s outskirts. See them present their papers, leave their luggage, remove their clothes. All methodically.

See them walk to the edge of the ravine — naked, terrified, wailing — where they tumble like cordwood before the battery of machine guns. See officers with revolvers wading through the bodies that have been choreographed to fall “like sardines” in the pit; they shoot those still moving. See them work with equanimity and efficiency.

They needed both. After all, you can’t dispatch 33,371 Jews over two days without a plan. The Nazis had one. Blow up important buildings in Kiev and blame it on the Jews, calling them Bolshevik saboteurs, Communists and partisans. Use that as a pretext to eliminate the community of 230,000, mostly women, children and the elderly, the younger men having gone east to join the Soviets.

Post signs telling the Jews to gather with their belongings, bedsheets, winter coats. Years later, those confiscated items were sold in local markets.

All this took place on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941. It was the largest such operation up to then as the Nazis swept across the Soviet Union, which they had invaded in June. It was, as historians says, the Holocaust “by bullets” rather than gas.

There was no ghetto in Kiev like there were in Warsaw and Lodz in Poland and other cities in Ukraine. The mechanized killing that reached its apogee in the Nazi concentration camps came later.

That autumn they would kill Jews, gypsies, political prisoners, the mentally ill, Roma, Communists and Ukrainian nationalists, thought to number 100,000. Two years later, the leaching mass graves so alarmed retreating Germans fleeing the Soviets that they made prisoners dig up and burn the bodies, then killed them.

Eighty years after the massacre, in a climate of swelling anti-Semitism, we struggle to remember. In our unconscious world, where memory is easily manipulated, distorted or denied, who knows or cares?

Five years ago, when my son and I visited Babi Yar, we could barely find it. There were monuments at either end of the nearby subway station, but they were unimpressive. Worse, when we came upon what appeared to be the blood-lands, nothing marked what happened there.

Nothing. A grassy park, picnic grounds, slightly sunken. A couple sat on a blanket. Children roughhoused. Dogs roamed. No one seemed aware of the atrocity. It was nauseating.

In my season searching for the past in monuments, memorials and museums of Europe, this was the most wilful, brazen erasing of memory I’d seen.

What the Nazis tried to hide, the Soviets did, too. In 1961, Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko famously wrote: “No monument stands over Babi Yar/A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.”

Only after Ukraine became free was there any attempt to recognize the past. It was easier to forget, especially because some Ukrainians took part in the atrocity, too. History is a minefield, and no more so than when it is a killing field.

That’s changing. Ukraine is now remembering Babi Yar. The story is taught in schools; on the 80th anniversary last week, there were commemorations and programs in Kiev and beyond, attended by prominent politicians.

In the next five years, a museum, memorial and research centre are planned. Finally, Ukrainians want to come to terms with their uncomfortable past.

If the acknowledgement of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom, this is reason for hope.

Source: Cohen: Eighty years after the Babi Yar massacre, we struggle to remember and learn

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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