By Thomas Kahn
Special to WJW
This month, the world took a historic step to remember the Jewish genocide at Babyn Yar. The Ukrainian government hosted an international gathering to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre, likely the single worst Jewish killing field of the entire Holocaust. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was joined by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and German President Frank Walter-Steinemeier for a moving tribute to the victims of Babyn Yar, in which the leaders inaugurated a huge new memorial complex to remember its victims. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered eloquent remarks by video.
On Sept. 29-30, 1941, Nazi troops and their Ukrainian collaborators shot and killed 33,771 Jewish men, women and children. Their bodies were dumped in mass graves, one on top of another, in a deep ravine called Babyn Yar, just a few miles from the center of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. An additional 70,000 victims were murdered there over the next two years, including Jews and Roma. Fearing punishment for their heinous crimes, as they fled Kyiv in 1943, the Nazis tried to erase the evidence by ordering Jewish concentration camp prisoners to exhume and burn the bodies of thousands of victims. Then the Nazis killed the prisoners. After the war, the then-Soviet Union, in pursuit of its own antisemitic policies, continued the effort to conceal the Jewish genocide at Babyn Yar for another five decades.
I was privileged to join a national delegation with five other Washingtonians organized by the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ) to participate in the commemorative events. In fact, half of our 12-person delegation was composed of Washingtonians, including Mark Levin, CEO of NCSEJ; William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations; Mark Hetfield, president of HIAS; Lesley Weiss, deputy director of NCESJ; and Susan Sandler, former deputy envoy at the State Department for Holocaust Issues. In addition to participating in the moving tribute, our group met with Jewish and Ukrainian leaders, including the mayor of Kyiv and the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
As did many Americans, my wife and I lost family in the Holocaust. But this trip made an even more personal impact. Almost 50 years ago, when I was a college student studying in Russia, I went to Kyiv in part to visit Babyn Yar. But I almost did not make it to the site. Repeated taxi drivers refused to take me because they feared KGB retribution if their actions were discovered. After I finally succeeded in bribing a driver, I saw a site that looked like a garbage dump. Trash littered the area, dogs were running everywhere and there was no marker commemorating the atrocity against Jews. The Soviets filled in most of the ravine and built a park, television tower and sports facility. There was only a tiny, hard-to-find stone marker generically mentioning Soviet victims.
In contrast, this year’s gathering highlights a dramatic and historic development. The Ukrainian government now stands with governments around the world to reject the Nazi and Soviet effort to erase from memory the Babyn Yar genocide. Today there’s a newly constructed open-air wooden synagogue and visual exhibits, including a reflecting platform shot through with bullet holes. Eventually, there will be a museum, a research center and archives that will also recognize those Ukrainians who saved Jewish lives. An international board chaired by Natan Sharansky and including Israeli, Ukrainian and American public officials and historians will oversee the project. The new initiative has raised questions, because major funding comes from Russian Jewish oligarchs. But while the funding may be controversial, the goal of the project, to remember the victims and the criminal perpetrators, is not.
The Babyn Yar commemoration is important both to remember its victims and make it less likely the world will ever again witness genocide against Jews nor any other minority. Today the world faces a frightening upsurge in antisemitism and xenophobia, including in Germany where the Holocaust began. Jews have been killed in synagogues, while other synagogues and Jewish institutions have also been attacked. The Rohingya in Myanmar and Uyghurs in China have been targeted for persecution and death. Less immediate but more ominous for the long term, many people have either forgotten about the Holocaust or, in the case of young people, never learned about it in the first place.
Remembrance is an important theme in Jewish law. The Torah teaches us “to guard your soul carefully lest you forget the things your eyes saw…and you shall make them known to your children and your children’s children.” By remembering Babyn Yar, the world can both honor the victims and make real the words “never again.”
Thomas S. Kahn serves on the executive
committee of National Coalition Supporting Eurasian
Jewry and the national board of governors of the
American Jewish Committee.