Babyn Yar: When will the tragedy be finally commemorated?
Babyn Yar in Kyiv is the site of the largest Holocaust massacre on Ukrainian territory. The Nazis executed around 100,000 people from 1941 to 1943 on the site, including the killing of 33,771 Jews over two days – September 29-30th 1941. Today it is a place where an appropriate memorial to honour the victims has yet to be created. Since the Ukrainian state has been unable to take responsibility for such a project for years now, private actors have taken it on.
It has been 79 years since the massacre of Babyn Yar. Naturally, commemorative initiatives have been intensifying in Ukraine in recent years, as they usually do before round figure anniversaries. At the moment, there are at least two memorial projects at Babyn Yar, and both have a common aim: to commemorate the Babyn Yar massacre.
The first project is the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre which was founded in 2016 and scheduled to open by 2023; and the second is the Babyn Yar Museum. The museum is a state initiative commissioned by the Ukrainian ministry of culture and developed by the Institute of History of Ukraine and the Ukrainian National Academy of Science. The Memorial Centre was founded by diverse set of actors, including Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, the Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Soviet dissident and Israeli politician, Natan Sharansky, and even Alexander Kwaśniewski, the former President of Poland.
The two distinct projects of the museum and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre have co-existed for some time without any clear vision as how they could complement each other. Both projects differ in scale. The museum is scheduled to occupy a two-storey building, which is a former Jewish cemetery bureau, and the Memorial Centre will consist of over 70,000 square metres. The budgets of both projects also differ: the Babyn Yar Museum was allocated around 900,000 US dollars in 2019, while the budget allocated to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre is 100 million dollars.
Despite recent developments of memorial activity, the Babyn Yar site still looks like a neglected park with scattered memorial spaces. It is a place where locals go jogging, walk their dogs and drink beer. Even though Babyn Yar was recognised as a National Historical Memorial Sanctuary in 2007 and the administration facilities were located there, they did not do much to make the look any better.
One could easily be surprised that the authorities are now only taking an interest in the project with a desire to build a memorial as if they had no time to do it in the past. The truth is that the history of Babyn Yar was silenced during Soviet times. Ukraine has been independent for almost 30 years, and within that time some decisions to commemorate the tragedy were taken. But those steps were unorganised and left many unsatisfied. The first monument commemorating the Babyn Yar events was erected on the site back in 1976. It was hypocritically dedicated to “Soviet citizens and war prisoners, soldiers and officers executed in Babyn Yar by German fascists”. Neither the Holocaust nor the tens of thousands of Jews killed on the site were mentioned.
In the Soviet times, Babyn Yar was not only silent about its Jewish victims, but survivors were also not allowed to visit the place where their families died since the police banned such visits. “The Soviets killed the memory of Jews in Kyiv,” says Anatoliy Podolsky, head of the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies, whose relatives are among the victims of Babyn Yar. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed and the ban on visiting the site was lifted. On the 50th anniversary of the massacre in September 1991, just a month after Ukraine declared independence, a Menora monument dedicated to the Jewish victims was erected in Babyn Yar. Yet it was perceived as insufficient, mostly since it did not mention the non-Jewish victims of the Nazi massacre, such as Roma people, the mentally ill, Ukrainian nationalists or other targeted groups. The Menora monument was also deemed insufficient to commemorate the Jewish victims since many thought it was too small and too figurative, arguing that a high stone candelabrum did not represent the scale of the tragedy.
Because of that, grassroots initiatives to honour specific groups of victims emerged. The lack of state memory policies in general, combined with the absence of a specific memorialisation policy for Babyn Yar, only worsened the situation. The site now includes around 30 memorials in total, dedicated to Roma victims, priests, Ukrainian nationalists and children. They have all been designed by different sculptors and therefore have different sizes and aesthetics. The overall picture is also completed with eclectic information boards, placed by different organisations, thus creating a very chaotic and messy memorialisation project.
The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre seems dedicated to accomplish the memorialisation work. The institution hired renowned historians from Ukraine and abroad, including Karel Berkhoff from the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, who until recently led the historians’ team. In an interview in 2019 Yana Barinova, then-CEO of the memorial centre, explained they planned to create an “iconic project, a benchmark not only for Ukraine but for the whole world, where the respectful attitude towards the tragedy will be the main feeling that the memorial will convey”.
In autumn 2017, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre presented its first historical narrative and opened a public discussion around it. The narrative was highly criticised. The main accusation was that it followed the Soviet-Russian propaganda discourse, since the project is largely financed by Russian oligarchs. The donors for the project included Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, Ukrainian businessman Viktor Pinchuk and three Ukrainian-born Russian businessmen, Mikhail Fridman, Pavel Fuks and German Khan. Many therefore wondered why these people decided to finance such a large project in Ukraine while Russia was waging war against it. The answer given by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre was that those businessmen wished to honour the memory of their relatives killed at the site.
This justification does not satisfy a large number of Ukrainian historians and public figures from the Jewish community who refused to work with the centre as they feel it has a Russian colonial approach to the project. “Their heads remained in the Kremlin, and their concept is Russian, pro-Soviet” says Vitaliy Nakhmanovych, a historian and Babyn Yar researcher. He is a member of a group within the Institute of History of Ukraine that created an alternative concept for Babyn Yar memorialisation, of which the above-mentioned Museum project would be a part of.
This group emphasises the need to include a memorial project for the memory of all the Babyn Yar victims in the future, which addresses the broader history of Babyn Yar, and is not limited to the events of the Second World War. Indeed, the site has lived through more than one tragedy throughout the years. In the postwar time the site became a dumping ground for a neighbouring brickwork factory, and in 1961 the embankment breaking at Babyn Yar led to a mudslide killing of at least 145 people. It is a striking example of how the Soviet Union dealt with the memory of Babyn Yar.
Therefore, renovation works have begun on a building of the former Jewish cemetery bureau that will be part of the future Babyn Yar Museum. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre has also started renovation works on the site: in co-operation with the National Sanctuary, they relocated over 70 gravestones from a small ravine nearby to an area alongside the Sorrow Alley. The Memorial Centre also held an architecture competition for the site of Babyn Yar last year, which was won by an Austrian team. However, last December the management of the Memorial Centre announced some changes. The architectural project therefore can no longer be realised as originally planned and should be “elaborated”, says Max Yakover, the new CEO of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre.
New faces, new vision
Yakover is a young businessman, engaged in several creative industries in Kyiv. The Memorial Centre also recently created a new artistic director role, a position held by Russian film director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, since December 2019. There is also another remarkable new face in the supervisory board, namely, the Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
Khrzhanovsky is best known for the film DAU which was initially supposed to be a movie about Soviet physicist Lev Landau and his years in Kharkiv, but has grown into “a multi-disciplinary project at the intersection of cinema, art and anthropology” as described by Berlinale-2020. Today, DAU has more than 700 hours of video footage. One of its films DAU. Natasha won the Silver Bear Prize for outstanding artistic contribution at the Berlinale this year, but critics who saw DAU performances in Paris last year called the project dehumanising and mentioned violence as an integral part of it.
DAU raised further controversies, during the production stage. Lidiya Starodubtseva from Karazin University in Kharkiv called it a “disgusting anthropological experiment” in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Interestingly enough, the Russian neo-Nazi leader, Maxim Martsynkevich, also participated in the project.
Khrzhanovsky is a man known for controversy, and will now be responsible for the Holocaust memorial at Babyn Yar. In an interview with Radio NV, Khrzhanovsky explained that Mikhail Fridman, one of the memorial’s donors, asked him to make this project “more interesting, more emotional … according to how the world is changing”. He also declared that the thing he learnt while making DAU was love and acceptance of different people.
The memorial centre’s new CEO explained that the centre is now rethinking the concept they inherited. Even though the project is still in the making, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre is already planning to focus on the use of modern technologies, such as augmented reality and virtual reality. Yakover says that the centre will be focused on the experience of future visitors. After DAU, he adds that “Khrzhanovsky understands how to immerse people into such a reality that allows seeing the mechanisms the system used to trample down people and the strength a person could develop if not succumbing to this pressure”.
The first major initiative of the memorial centre’s new team was to rename the Dorohozhychi metro station as Babyn Yar, as “a tribute to the memory and manifestation of respect for the heroism of all Babyn Yar victims”, as explained on the centre’s website. Some liked the idea, though others did not, arguing that the everyday usage of Babyn Yar as a metro station would erase the actual meaning and history behind it. This initiative still attracted public attention for the memorial centre and its new management. One of the current projects of the centre is interviewing witnesses and renewing the names of those killed in Babyn Yar. They are also working on the site itself, and cleaning the actual area.
In spring this year, during the pandemic, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre distributed food packages for elderly people living nearby and financed medical equipment for the local hospital in the neighbourhood that is treating COVID-19 patients. In the precarious situation of 2020, the next developments for the Babyn Yar Museum are unclear. The state is not much involved in the Babyn Yar projects, and will probably be less so now due to the current pandemic. We can therefore only rely on public attention to develop both projects in order to finally create a decent memorial site at Babyn Yar.
Svitlana Oslavska is an independent journalist from Ukraine and the book review editor at Krytyka magazine.