President Isaac Herzog attended a ceremony in Kyiv on Wednesday alongside counterparts Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany to remember the victims of the Babi Yar massacre, 80 years after one of the most infamous Nazi mass slaughters of World War II.
Nearly 34,000 Jews were killed within 48 hours in Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, when the city was under Nazi occupation in 1941. SS troops carried out the massacre with local collaborators, but for years the massacre received little local recognition or was only marked as an attack on Ukrainians.
“Three terrible crimes were witnessed by this valley. The first was the massacre — the erasure of human beings. The second and third were the cover-up and the denial — the erasure of evidence, and the erasure of memory,” said Herzog, making the first state visit of his presidency.
“From most of the people murdered at Babi Yar, no trace survived — neither a name, nor a memory. The time for memory has come. That is why we are here,” added Herzog.
Herzog, Zelensky and Steinmeier inaugurated a memorial center, still under construction, dedicated to the stories of Eastern European Jews who were killed and buried in mass graves during the Holocaust.
During his speech, Herzog warned of the dangers of present-day antisemitism.
“Let us make no mistake: even in the present, Holocaust denial is still alive and kicking. Antisemitism still exists,” he said, noting the antisemitic graffiti daubed at the Auschwitz museum this week.
“We, world leaders, must all vigorously condemn the slightest hint of this phenomenon and fight it with all our might,” added Herzog.
“We must ensure for the whole of humanity — from this wretched place, of all places — from a place where the world bore witness, knew and was silent — that there shall never, ever be another Babi Yar.”
Ukrainian leader Zelensky, who is Jewish, called the massacre a “black, ugly page in world history.”
“Babyn Yar is a common tragedy of the Jewish and Ukrainian peoples,” Zelensky said.
“It’s hard to breathe at this place — thousands of children took their last breath here. It’s hard to stand here — thousands of bullets knocked people down here in Babi Yar. The earth was trembling from the convulsions of people who were still alive and trying to get out.”
Speaking at the ceremony, German President Steinmeier said that the fight against anti-Semitism “must go on.”
“It pains me and makes me angry that anti-Semitism is also growing stronger again in Germany — especially in Germany,” he said. “The evil spirits of the past are showing themselves today in a new guise.”
US officials also paid their respects.
“On this anniversary, we honor the memory of all those lost at Babyn Yar,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a poignant statement released on Wednesday.
Blinken pointed out that his Jewish stepfather “had lost almost everyone he loved in the Holocaust” and quoted from a report by a member of the Babi Yar killing squad.
“Not everyone who was shot died immediately. Some suffocated under the weight of the bodies,” Blinken said. “The earth around the ravine moved and moaned for days after the mass killings.”
On Wednesday, the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial center revealed the initial 159 names of hundreds of Nazi troops who took part in the Babi Yar massacre on September 29-30, 1941.
“Despite confessions, evidence and testimonies being submitted as late as the 1960s by some of the Nazi soldiers who carried out the murders, only a few of those involved ever faced justice for their heinous crimes,” it said.
“They were between 20 and 60 years old,” the memorial center said. “They were educated and uneducated, they included engineers and teachers, drivers and salespeople. Some were married and some were not. The vast majority of them returned to live a normal life after the war. They testified at trial and were found not guilty, except for very few commanders, not the soldiers who carried out the horrific massacre.”
“Babi Yar is the biggest mass grave of the Holocaust … the most quickly filled mass grave,” said Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the supervisory board of the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial center.
Father Patrick Desbois, head of the center’s academic council, said some of the 159 Nazi troops named “were shooters. Others extracted the Jews from their homes. Others took their belongings and their luggage. Others armed the weapons while others were serving sandwiches, tea and vodkas to the shooters. All of them are guilty.”
Also Wednesday, the world-famous conceptual artist Maryna Abramovych was to present a new memorial object – “Crystal Crying Wall” — and within six months the first museum space will be unveiled.
“We are going to give the real faces to the Holocaust, whether it’s the faces of the victims, of the executors or those who were helping to save Jews,” Sharansky told The Associated Press.
He noted that while some Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazi killers, at least 2,600 Ukrainian families were hiding Jews at the risk of their own lives.
“So we are going to recover the names of victims, and we are recovering more and more names of victims, the names of those who were saving Jews and the names of collaborators,” he said.