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'It would be worth our while to pay a visit to Babi Yar'

Blinken says Jewish stepfather used Babi Yar to counter Soviet Holocaust denial

On 80th anniversary of Nazi massacre of 34,000 in Kyiv, US secretary of state recounts how Samuel Pisar initiated a visit to the site during a dialogue meeting with Soviets in 1971

Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens to a question while speaking about Afghanistan during a media briefing at the State Department, August 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken listens to a question while speaking about Afghanistan during a media briefing at the State Department, August 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

On the 80th anniversary of one of the most infamous Nazi mass slaughters of World War II, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken shared the story of his Jewish Holocaust survivor stepfather, who in the 1970s combated Soviet attempts to erase the memory of the Babi Yar massacre.

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 it received little local recognition or was only marked as an attack on Ukrainians.

On Wednesday, President Isaac Herzog attended a ceremony in Kyiv alongside counterparts Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany to remember the victims of the massacre. 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.

In a video statement released on the occasion, Blinken said Wednesday that “for much of the last eight decades, the world did not remember what happened at Babi Yar. That was by design. The Nazis were not alone in trying to bury what had happened. For decades, Soviet history omitted that the 33,771 victims of those first two days – and tens of thousands more executed later – were Jews. And that they were killed because they were Jews.

“Thirty years after the massacre, in 1971, my stepfather, Samuel Pisar, was asked to join a small delegation of Americans for a series of off-the-record discussions with leaders from the Soviet Union… with the aim of fostering a candid dialogue on tough issues,” Blinken said. “The conference was held in Kyiv and, from the outset, the remarks from much of the Soviet delegation were hostile and rife with antisemitism.

“My stepfather, a Jew who had been born in Poland, had lost almost everyone he loved in the Holocaust, and had survived Auschwitz and several other Nazi concentration camps. When members of the Soviet delegation used terms like ‘the Jewish Nazis of New York’ – and gave a tour of Kyiv that focused on the suffering and heroism of the city’s population during the war without once mentioning the Jews – my stepfather said, ‘The numbers on my arm began to itch.'”

“So my stepfather asked to address the Soviet delegation,” Blinken said. “Speaking off the cuff, he talked about the dangers of antisemitism, the hard work societies must do to root out ethnic and racial hatred, and the perils of covering up the darkest parts of our history. He closed with a suggestion: ‘Yesterday, you gave us an opportunity of seeing the memorials to your Great Patriotic War against the Nazis… Today, it would be worth our while to pay a visit to Babi Yar.'”

Blinken said that on the same day, the American delegation decided to visit the site, where Pisar said there was “nothing to tell of the infamous mass grave under the newly planted birch trees.”

Part of the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine where the advancing Red Army unearthed the bodies of 14,000 civilians killed by fleeing Nazis, 1944. (AP Photo)

“Then another bus arrived. The Soviet delegation descended and quietly joined the visit,” Blinken added. “After that visit, my stepfather said, the tone of the dialogue softened considerably.”

Blinken said he believed his stepfather, who died in 2015 at the age of 86, “knew that one of the most powerful ways to conquer hatred is to show people where it leads – its human consequences. He made those delegates see that he could just as easily have been one of the people buried in that ravine. He knew that when we fail to remember, or when we intentionally erase parts of our history, we further dehumanize the victims. And we deprive ourselves – and future generations – of the lessons we must learn, and act on.

He added that Pisar, a prominent lawyer who was the co-founder of Yad Vashem-France, “knew the power of changing the mind of even a single member of that Soviet delegation, because the only thing that ever stands between us and atrocities is our fellow human beings. For just as people have the capacity to be perpetrators, so can they be righteous.”

Concluded Blinken: “So on this anniversary, we honor the memory of all those lost at Babi Yar, recommit ourselves ensuring that their full history is told, and pledge to act, every day, so that history is not repeated.”

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