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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.
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.
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.
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.
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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