At Babyn Yar, history sounds the alarm

Biden says ‘freedom will always triumph over tyranny’ and Putin will ‘pay the price’ for his war on Ukraine. But freedom does not always triumph, and certainly not always in time

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony at the monument to Jewish victims of Nazi massacres, at Babyn Yar in Ukraine's capital Kyiv, September 29, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a ceremony at the monument to Jewish victims of Nazi massacres, at Babyn Yar in Ukraine's capital Kyiv, September 29, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

This Editor’s Note was sent out Wednesday in ToI’s weekly update email to members of the Times of Israel Community. To receive these Editor’s Notes as they’re released, join the ToI Community here.

Babyn Yar, where the Nazis gunned down 34,000 Jews in two days in September 1941, is not located in a remote forest far from teeming everyday life.

You stroll around Kyiv, turn a corner or two, and there you are — facing the site where the Jews of the city and its environs were ordered by the occupying Germans and their local collaborators to assemble.

Believing they were to be sent for resettlement, they were instead stripped of their valuables and then of their clothes, forced into the ravine along a corridor of soldiers, and shot — endless layers of victims piled on top of each other.

This horror was allowed to happen in full view — indeed encouraged to happen by many complicit locals, as Yad Vashem’s chief historian Dina Porat reminded us in an Israel Radio interview on Wednesday morning — while city life bustled on around it.

On Tuesday night, Vladimir Putin targeted and damaged the Babyn Yar area in a missile strike — aiming for the local TV tower and studio complex that the Soviet Union chose to construct alongside that blood-drenched earth — and in so doing further highlighted the historic resonance of the outrage he is currently pursuing in Ukraine, and the vast danger it poses.

Like the Nazis, the Russian president is seeking to gobble up an independent neighbor, misrepresenting its past and its present, and betting that a flabby, self-interested international community won’t muster the energy to repel him.

Ukrainian firefighters tackle a blaze in a building in the Jewish cemetery at Kyiv’s Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site, on March 1, 2022. (State Emergency Service of Ukraine)

Repugnantly, he claims to be acting to “denazify” a country with a proudly Jewish president, a country whose actual “crime” has been to try to maintain its independence from Russia, root out corruption, draw closer to the West, and democratize.

And in pursuit of his goal, facing a Ukraine that turns out to have molded into a robust, patriotic and unified independent entity, he is now resorting to vague and ominous nuclear weapons threats and an open assault on civilian targets.

We write the Holocaust with a capital H to emphasize its eternally incomprehensible dimensions — the staggering scale of the killings, the relentlessness of the effort to wipe out our entire people. We protest attempted comparisons, even to other genocides, that would trivialize or minimize its dimensions and impact.

Photo taken from the body of a dead German officer killed in Russia, showing a Nazi firing squad shooting Jews in the back as they sit beside their own mass grave, in Babyn Yar, Kyiv, 1942. (AP Photo, file)

But when Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky asks, as he did last night, “What is the point of saying ‘Never Again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?’ his is no cynical, cheap invocation of our abandoned people’s tragedy eight decades ago. It is a heartfelt, legitimate plea for help to put an end to the new tragedy that has so symbolically now engulfed Babyn Yar.

Nuclear-armed Putin has the kind of weaponry the Nazis were unable to summon, hard though they tried, to cause the most colossal and rapid harm. Nobody knows how ready he may prove to use it.

Putin assumed Ukraine would roll over. The rest of the world assumed the same. Its astonishing resistance has gradually widened international interest and support, but it is dwarfed by Russia’s military might.

US President Joe Biden delivers his first State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, March 1, 2022, in Washington. (Saul Loeb/Pool via AP)

Understandably anxious to avoid a direct confrontation that could escalate into a third world war, US President Joe Biden on Tuesday night reiterated that the US will not send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine, and the US-led free world is thus far declining to try to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Biden also declared his confidence that “freedom will always triumph over tyranny” and that Putin will “pay the price” for his aggression. But freedom does not always triumph, and certainly not always in time.

Putin presumably recognizes that to withdraw is to lose power. A best-case scenario would be for his troops, as Zelensky has urged, to simply lay down their arms and leave, with the encouragement of Russians back home. That currently appears highly unlikely.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the head of Russia’s Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, a big business lobby group, at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 2, 2022. (Mikhail Klimentyev / SPUTNIK / AFP)

Sooner rather than later, Putin is going to have to be stopped. Financial pressure, however crippling, will infuriate but not suffice. Any and every non-military pressure point must be applied. But that, too, is unlikely to be adequate.

We can all see what’s been happening. There’s no telling what the frustrated, untrammeled dictator could do next. And at Babyn Yar, history is sounding the alarm.

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