BABI YAR, Ukraine — Seventy-five years after Nazi forces and their local Ukrainian collaborators executed nearly 34,000 Jews in a Kiev ravine, Ukraine has begun to open up about its Holocaust-era history and reckon with the role it played in perpetrating one of the worst Nazi massacres of World War II.
The mass shooting, which took place on September 29-30, 1941, was unprecedented in its scope — even by Nazi standards — and has been a source of controversy in Ukraine over the participation of local collaborators.
Historians estimate that nearly one million Jews were killed in the territory that is now Ukraine during World War II. The Soviets for the most part ignored the explicitly genocidal nature of Germany’s killing of Jews during the Holocaust, and officially referred to Nazi victims as “Soviet citizens” or simply “civilians.”
The memorial site at Babi Yar was no exception. The site of perhaps the largest shooting massacre during the Holocaust was not officially recognized until 1976, when a memorial was erected at the site to honor the “citizens of Kiev” killed there. It wasn’t until 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that a menorah-shaped monument to the Jewish victims of the Babi Yar massacres was allowed to be erected at the site that is now home to a city park.
But like many former Soviet nations seeking closer ties with the West, Ukraine in recent years has sought to commemorate its all but eradicated Jewish heritage as a way of documenting its own history, while also disproving Russian accusations of rising fascism.
This trend is particularly evident in the memorial of the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were gunned down by SS troops and Ukrainian police in the course of just two days.
Just 29 people managed to escape the execution by either by falling into the ravine before they were shot, lying on top of the thousands of corpses and later escaping, or wearing crosses to hide their true identity.
Victims of other massacres at Babi Yar during the course of the war included Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists and Roma. Historians estimate that between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed at the ravine during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine.
Last week, Ukraine embarked on a series of memorial events — including musical performances, lectures, ceremonial speeches and an official state ceremony — to commemorate the 1941 massacre. Jointly organized by the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter and the World Jewish Congress, the weeklong events showed just how far the country has come to terms with the darker chapters of its history.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko held his own memorial in honor of the 75th anniversary, and hosted Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in an official state visit who traveled to Ukraine to attend some of the events.
The memorials, however, were not without controversy. In his address to the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday, Rivlin did not shy away from telling lawmakers in Kiev that “many of the crimes were committed by Ukrainians” during the Holocaust.
“The fighters of UPA were especially prominent,” Rivlin said of members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who initially collaborated with Hitler because they felt the Nazis could help them break free from the Soviet Union.
“They victimized the Jews, killed them, and in many cases reported them to the Nazis,” he said at a special parliamentary session dedicated to the anniversary of the Babi Yar killings.
Rivlin’s remarks come at a sensitive time for the conflict-ridden state as its deadly dispute with Russia over the annexation of Crimea has sparked a rising tide of nationalism that has seen the veneration of some nationalist groups linked to war-time crimes against Jews.
Though Rivlin also noted the actions of the thousands of Ukrainian non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, his singling out of the nationalist group hit a nerve, and sparked a backlash from nationalist politicians and other key figures in Ukraine.
“What Rivlin did can unambiguously be interpreted as spitting in the face of Ukrainians” at a time when the people he accused of perpetrating crimes are no longer alive to defend themselves, said Bogdan Chervak, the first deputy chairman on the State Committee for Television and Radio of Ukraine.
The following day, Poroshenko tried to clear the air by stressing that “there have been those (in Ukraine) for which one felt shame. And this, too, cannot be erased from our collective memory.
“No Ukrainian has the right to forget this tragedy,” he said at Thursday’s official state ceremony attended by 1,600 dignitaries, at least half a dozen heads of state and religious leaders.
“The lesson of Babi Yar is a reminder of the terrible price of political and moral shortsightedness. This is the remembrance of the fact that condoning aggression only inflames his appetite,” Poroshenko said in a likely reference to its territorial dispute with Russia.
Thursday’s official state memorial included delegations from Israel, Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the US, as well as representatives from the World Jewish Congress and leading members of Kiev’s clergy.
Rivlin was in Ukraine earlier in the week for the memorial, but cut his trip short due to the death of former Israeli president Shimon Peres on Wednesday.
In his address, European Council President Donald Tusk urged nations 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.”
WJC chief Robert Singer also called for “all the countries involved, not just Ukraine, (to) take responsibility for their actions during that dark time.”
He pointed to the 500,000 civilians killed in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011, and the genocides in Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur as recent examples of the costly human price of bystanderism in the face of evil.
“When whole populations of Christians disappear in the Middle East, we don’t want to hear ‘Never Again’, because it is happening again,” Singer said. “ The world was silent 75 years ago. And it is silent now.”
The week of memorial events also saw the annual Andrei Sheptytsky medal awarded to Ukrainian writer and dissident Ivan Dziuba, who 50 years ago publicly denounced anti-Semitism and bravely called on the Soviet government to acknowledge the Jewish victims of the Babi Yar massacre.
The scope of the mass shootings that unfolded behind the Iron Curtain remains poorly understood by many Ukrainians, despite the fact that 2.7 million — nearly half of the Holocaust’s victims — perished there.
Some of the last week’s events throughout Ukraine aimed to tackle exactly that.
A UJE sponsored symposium on Babi Yar included special programming for Ukrainian young people, presentations by prominent Holocaust historians, including Timothy Snyder, film screenings and theater productions — all geared in part to address the most painful subject of local collaboration with the Nazi regime.
In a lecture contextualizing the massacre within the wider context of the war, Snyder urged Ukrainians to memorialize its largest mass grave by confronting their past.
“Without accepting responsibility, [Ukraine] risks erasing its own history,” he warned. “No nation can have a healthy grasp of it own history, without grappling with the darker chapters of its own past.”
In a long-overdue gesture, Poroshenko last week announced plans to build a multi-million dollar holocaust museum dedicated to the victims of the Babi Yar massacres in Kiev.
“The creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is very significant for the whole of humanity,” the president said of the museum that is slated to open in 2021. “This tragedy wasn’t just national, but global, in scope. Such a tragedy must never happen again.”