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Ukraine’s prelude to Babyn Yar

Boris Maftsir has crafted a film which hardly shies away from historical controversy and nuance.

January 10, 2019 - Nikolas Kozloff - History and Memory

Babyn Yar ravine in Kyiv. David Holt (cc) flickr.com

Two years ago, during ceremonies honouring the 75th commemoration of the Babyn Yar massacre in Kyiv, I was struck by the extent of official preparations. In tandem with the event, the authorities brought off an impressive array of events designed to draw attention to the atrocity, in which the Nazis, assisted by Ukrainian collaborators, killed an estimated 33,771 Jews within a two day period at a ravine located just outside the Ukrainian capital. Perhaps less well known, however, is the earlier prelude to Babyn Yar which was no less horrific, as the Nazis liquidated the local Jewish population amidst the German advance striking deep into Ukrainian territory.

How many Ukrainians are aware of the historic crimes committed against Jews in outlying towns such as Ternopil, Berezhany, Buchach, Lutsk and Vinnytsia? I recently had the opportunity to attend the Kyiv premiere of a new documentary film which draws attention to the tragic events during the summer of 1941. Entitled The Road to Babi Yar, the film takes the viewer from town to town where we encounter survivors, experts and historians who seek to address the fundamental question of how such atrocities could have occurred in the first place. Rather than resort to gimmicks or Michael Moore-style stunts, director Boris Maftsir takes a low profile in the film, preferring to simply pose questions as a documentarian. Interspersed between interviews, the viewer takes in scenery from the window of a car traveling along local roads. Indeed, it is the highway which emerges as a Grim Reaper-style central character in its own right.

To his credit, Maftsir has crafted a film which hardly shies away from historical controversy and nuance. While Maftsir hardly excuses local wartime complicity, he points out how Ukrainians suffered immeasurably under Soviet rule and were looking for convenient scapegoats once the Germans arrived on the scene. In Berezhany, for example, Ukrainians took advantage of the German invasion by breaking into the town’s prison. There, locals observed the murdered corpses of their countrymen who had earlier fallen prey to the Soviet NKVD. Outraged by what they had seen, an angry mob of Ukrainians dressed in traditional clothing marched through the town. Blaming the Jewish population for Soviet atrocities, they exacted vengeance by brutally murdering their neighbours with broomsticks to which nails had been attached.

No less abominable was the case of Vinnytsia, where the Germans, assisted by Ukrainian “auxiliary police”, liquidated the Jewish intelligentsia. In a harrowing scene filmed in her old backyard, Faina Vynokurova, deputy director at the local state archives, recounted how her mother, who had attempted to hide from the invaders, was eventually turned in by a neighbour and killed. Vynokurova then escorted Maftsir to the local maternity ward where Germans and local police had bullied staff into revealing which women were Jewish. Once they identified their victims, invaders executed the women who were still dressed in their hospital gowns and even murdered others waiting to give birth. Under supervision of German gendarmes, the staff placed babies into paper bags which were then brazenly tossed out of the windows.

The cases of Berezhany and Vinnytsia highlight difficult and soul-searching questions for contemporary Ukraine. To be sure, the Ukrainian police were assigned “auxiliary tasks”, but that does not mean they were not essential to the overall extermination effort. Indeed, the police helped identify Jews and pointed out where they resided. Later, police assisted Germans during executions or cordoned off sites where killings took place, thus ensuring that victims could not escape and no one would witness atrocities. Tim Snyder, a Yale historian and one of Maftsir’s chief sources on the film, remarked that “auxiliary forces” typically represented a small percentage of the overall population but still larger than local occupying Germans. Vynokurova believed police in Vinnytsia signed up for economic reasons such as pilfering the apartments of the murdered Jews or acquiring extra food rations. In Zolotoshnova, another town, policemen assembled inventories of clothing in the wake of massacres. The clothing was later handed out or sold at bargain prices to locals who were perfectly aware who the garments belonged to.

But while sheer opportunism may have played a role, some policemen undoubtedly collaborated with the Germans for ideological reasons. Ironically, even though the Nazis had initially associated Jews with capitalism, antisemitic views took on a new complexion during the Russian Civil War. As Russian refugees began to stream into Germany, they brought with them antisemitic texts which associated Jews with communism. Such convenient associations between Judaism and Bolshevism appealed to Ukrainian nationalists searching for scapegoats. Indeed, the “Judeo-Bolsehevik” idea allowed Ukrainians, some of whom had collaborated with the Soviets, to absolve themselves of guilt. When the Germans arrived, locals convinced themselves that it was the Jews who had collaborated with the communists, and not Ukrainians.

It is rare to see a documentary in which complex historical issues are dealt with so thoughtfully and comprehensively, though I wondered what kind of a reception the film might receive in Ukraine where political nuance is in short supply and nationalist passions run deep. Several years ago, arsonists set fire to Kyiv’s oldest theatre, the Zhovten, during the screening of an LGBT film festival. During the blaze, much of the theatre was destroyed and two men who were later apprehended admitted they had aimed to disrupt the event out of contempt for gay people.

If Maftsir was worried that his film might encounter the same fate or be targeted, he gave no indication. During an interview at his local Kyiv hotel, Maftsir stated bluntly “I’m not afraid of anything.” Following up, I asked Maftsir if the Ukrainian right wing had intervened or complicated the filming of his documentary in any way. Chuckling, the director said he had not encountered any problems, though he seemed a little unsure of how the public might react in the long term. “What will happen tomorrow or after tomorrow, I really don’t know,” he said.

But to even make waves, The Road to Babi Yar must gain high profile visibility in Ukraine, and it remains to be seen whether that will happen. To be sure, the usual suspects showed up at the film’s premiere, held at the rather charmless Column Hall of the Kyiv City State Administration. Sitting in attendance were Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, who has been a prominent supporter of Babyn Yar commemorations, diplomats, members of the Jewish community and several experts who had been interviewed for the film.

But after the screening, the crowd dwindled during the Q&A. As the audience filed out of the auditorium, I asked Maftsir whether he had a commercial or distribution plan for his film, or whether local cities such as Vinnytsia had expressed any interest in showing The Road to Babi Yar.

“No,” he responded, “though if someone wants to screen the films for public use, I have a web site where people can download it for free.” It is a pity that such an important documentary film may be relegated to the internet, rather than getting play in the Ukrainian towns which need to see it most.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based author and a contributor to such venues as Al Jazeera, Huffington Post and Le Monde Diplomatique. For the past four years, he has been writing prolifically about the deterioration in East-West relations and the political crisis in Ukraine.

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