Very rarely, a poem changes the way a nation remembers its history. Russian dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” was one such poem.
Penned in 1961, “Babi Yar” refers to the ravine in Kiev, Ukraine, where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and collaborators during two unprecedented days of slaughter in World War II. Until Yevtushenko’s poem denounced Soviet authorities for covering up the Holocaust and stoking new forms of anti-Semitism, the genocide had been almost totally repressed in the region where it began.
Yevtushenko died on Saturday at age 84 in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was a professor who split his time between the United States and Moscow. Remembered for criticizing the Soviet system in hundreds of poems, he wrote “Babi Yar” after visiting the infamous ravine more than half a century ago. On the site where the largest massacre of the Holocaust took place, the poet noticed that not one memorial had been erected.
Returning to his hotel, Yevtushenko wrote “Babi Yar” in just a few hours.
“No monument stands over Babi Yar,” began the poem. “A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone. I am afraid. Today, I am as old as the entire Jewish race itself.”
Without literary flourish, Yevtushenko recounted episodes of persecution throughout Jewish history, ranging from the Bible’s marauding Philistines to pogroms carried out on Russian soil. Most provocatively, the poet accused Soviet authorities of denying that a genocide of Jews had occurred, as well as for continuing to harass Jews living under Communist rule.
“O, Russia of my heart, I know that you are international, by inner nature. But often those whose hands are steeped in filth abused your purest name, in the name of hatred,” wrote Yevtushenko. He compared his anger about the lack of a memorial at Babi Yar to “one long soundless scream above the thousands of thousands interred.”
To comply with the authorities’ predictable objections, Yevtushenko amended the poem’s harshest criticism. As a poet with the fame of a rock star, Yevtushenko read “Babi Yar” and other works to massive audiences during public rallies. Not until the 1980s, however, we he permitted to read “Babi Yar” aloud in Ukraine, where many of the Shoah’s most notorious mass killings took place.
The poem helped open the door to awareness of the Holocaust, a genocide that did not fit into Soviet authorities’ “Great Patriotic War” narrative. Some of Yevtushenko’s cultural elite peers picked up on the themes of “Babi Yar,” including when composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote portions of his Thirteenth Symphony based on the poem.
“The poem was a criticism of anti-Semitism worldwide, including Soviet anti-Semitism, and was against all kinds of racism,” said Yevtushenko in a 2011 interview with the BBC.
“I was not afraid because I had already been expelled from the Literary Institute; I had been expelled from all kinds of organizations,” said Yevtushenko. “And I believed there was a future of change for Russia, that was also important. The poem was one of the changes; it was one first hole in the Iron Curtain.”
‘I feel my hair changing shade to gray’
Taking place at the end of September 1941, the Babi Yar massacre was a turning point in the Holocaust. For the first time, a large-scale “action” against Jews had been committed in the heart of a European capital. Many eye-witnesses were left behind, including Ukrainians who participated in the killing and children who observed the events from attic windows.
This normalization of genocide drove Yevgeny Yevtushenko to write “Babi Yar.” The poet was not only horrified by the 1941 slaughter, but also by its official erasure from public memory.
“Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,” wrote Yevtushenko. “The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement. Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand, I feel my hair changing shade to gray.”
To the Nazis’ relief, the massacre at Babi Yar did not precipitate a global backlash against Germany, much less resistance to the their mobile killing squads, or Einsatzgruppen, tasked with eliminating partisans and Jews. During the first phase of the Holocaust, these squads murdered 1,500,000 Jews in nations that had been under Moscow’s control.
At Babi Yar and other killing sites, photographs taken by German soldiers were sometimes mailed home, along with veiled descriptions of the massacres. Each elimination of a Jewish community meant that many locals became witnesses to the “Final Solution.” Neighbors divided the victims’ property among themselves, and some dug up the mass graves in pursuit of “Jewish gold.” None of this was ordered or discreet, much less in line with keeping the genocide hushed up in Germany.
In addition to the lack of privacy, the face-to-face nature of the mobile killing squads’ work meant that increasing amounts of alcohol were needed to calm the killers’ nerves. This led to another set of problems, including the rape of Jewish women by members of the “master race.”
At these custom-made facilities, fewer bystanders would witness the killings
To increase privacy and reduce the number of Germans involved in operations, death camps were set up at the end of 1941. Henceforth, Jews from all over Europe would be brought on trains to “work camps” or for “resettlement.” At these custom-made facilities, fewer bystanders would witness the killings, and fewer Germans were needed to run operations.
In his iconic poem “Babi Yar,” Yevtushenko envisioned himself as a victim of this genocide, and of other episodes in anti-Jewish persecution. The poet wrote that he “sees himself” as a boy during a Bialystok pogrom, and as the disgraced artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus, victim of an anti-Semitic show trial in France. In the poem’s most tender section, Yevtushenko identified with Anne Frank, a Shoah victim whose diary was becoming familiar around the world when “Babi Yar” captivated Russian audiences in 1961.
“It seems to me that I am Anna Frank, transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,” wrote Yevtushenko. “And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases, but only that we gaze into each other’s eyes. How little one can see, or even sense! Leaves are forbidden, so is sky, but much is still allowed — very gently in darkened rooms each other to embrace.”