Babi Yar, a patchwork of ravines outside Kyiv where 33,771 Jews were executed by firing squads on Sept. 29-30, 1941, is the most potent symbol of the “Holocaust by bullets” in the Nazi-occupied Soviet territories. Yet more than 75 years after the murder of 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews—a quarter of all Holocaust victims and more than half of all Jews murdered in the Holocaust in the USSR—Babi Yar remains an orphan among the sites of global memory of the Holocaust.
Today the place is no longer empty of monuments, as it was in 1961 when Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote his eponymous poem, which brought the name to the world’s attention. At least a dozen monuments to various groups that died here pepper the site, including memorials to Jews, Ukrainian nationalists, children, and Roma. Yet none of these captures more than a slice of the events that unfolded here. Nor do they capture the significance of the much larger events of which the murders at Babi Yar played a part. While at least two attempts have been made to build a Babi Yar memorial in independent Ukraine, both failed.
The Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), the latest such attempt, promises to be a landmark event in the field of Holocaust commemoration: In the entire post-Soviet space, there isn’t a single museum specifically dedicated to the unique way in which the Holocaust unfolded in Soviet territories. The center, which aims to open in 2021, promises to combine a state-of-the-art museum with a permanent exhibit, outdoor space for reflection, an educational program, a traveling exhibit, and an archive and research center. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko is said to have played a critical role in providing initial support for the project and allocating a plot of land for the center. At the launch event in 2016, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that he was proud as an ethnic Ukrainian and citizen of Ukraine to have worked with other Ukrainians to initiate the creation of the center. The project’s founders and major funders—Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, Pavel Fuks, and Victor Pinchuk—are well-known figures in the world of Jewish philanthropy. Work on the center to date has earned praise from senior figures at Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum and Warsaw’s POLIN Museum, and the total financial commitment to the center to date is estimated at $100 million.
Natan Sharansky, who chairs BYMHC’s supervisory board and who grew up in Donetsk in Ukraine, told me: “In just about every place where I spent my childhood, there were tens of thousands who had been killed—thrown down the mines, walled up in the shafts. As children, we played right there. Yet we, who only just a few years before that had lost so many loved ones in those very places, knew nothing about it.”
Yet some in Ukraine question whether there is a need for a Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar, and not a few of the politically charged arguments that opponents are employing seem to be aimed squarely at making it go away.
The BYHMC was launched in September 2016 during the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre with the explicit goal of building a Holocaust memorial at the site of the Babi Yar. Several critical milestones have been achieved, including securing a plot of land from the Kyiv municipality and obtaining clearances from international halachic authorities that the site can be built on. (Jewish law prohibits construction over human remains.) Competitions for architectural rendering and design of the center are being organized. The next major milestone will occur this fall, when the memorial’s academic council, which includes some of the world’s best-known scholars of the Holocaust, plans to present its historical narrative (anticipated to weigh in at 500 pages) for public discussion and feedback. In addition to driving tourism, hosting a major Holocaust memorial would help Ukraine take its place in the European community of memory and thus create another significant link between the country and the European space.
Yet opposition to the Babi Yar museum is not inconsequential. One of the central arguments against the BYHMC first surfaced in a public letter signed by a group of Ukrainian historians in March of 2017: “We consider it a mistake to associate Babi Yar only with the history of the Holocaust while ignoring other victims and other dramatic moments of its history,” they wrote. “This approach would only exacerbate the war of memories that has for many years been going on in the territory of Babi Yar.”
This proposed decoupling of Babi Yar from the Holocaust sounds odd—as if someone tried to decouple Auschwitz and the Holocaust. In the Ukrainian context, it comes across as a throwback to Soviet times: For decades the Soviets denied the sui generis nature of the Holocaust, using the phrase “peaceful Soviet citizens” to refer to the murdered Jews. In the history of Holocaust commemoration, the honoring of multiple groups is hardly a unique challenge: Auschwitz, among others, has addressed this issue successfully. BYHMC plans to do so as well – a fact that was confirmed to me in conversations with both the founders and the scholars engaged in the project.
Yet, it is specifically the genocide of the Jews that makes these sites noteworthy and links them together into a single transnational constellation symbolizing one of the worst crimes in human history. For while many different groups suffered at the hands of the Germans and their collaborators during wartime, only Jews were singled out for genocide. In the Soviet territories, including Ukraine, they very nearly succeeded: 97 percent of Ukrainian Jews who remained under the occupation were murdered. For a memorial at Babi Yar to diminish the significance of these facts would be historically false and morally wrong.
The argument against establishing a special connection between Babi Yar and the Holocaust illustrates a line of thinking that is part and parcel of a particular view of history that has taken hold in Ukraine, as well as in other Communist countries, which posits an equivalence between crimes committed by Nazi Germany and those committed by Communists. Proponents of this view assert that yes, Nazi crimes against the Jews were terrible, but Communist crimes against other ethnic groups were as bad or worse. One product, or goal, of this equivalence, is to rehabilitate members of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist movements, most notably the OUN, many of whose members fought for Ukraine’s independence but frequently participated in violence against Jews and other ethnic groups alongside or in competition with the Nazis.
The argument for downplaying Nazi crimes while honoring OUN is centered in the Ukrainian Institute for National Remembrance (UINP), a controversial government agency. Proponents of this tendency argue that Ukraine needs nationalist heroes as symbols to foster patriotism, strengthen Ukrainian national identity, and build national unity. Today, some of the memorials to be found in Babi Yar are to the very nationalists who explicitly supported German anti-Semitic policies. It is also feared that discussion of local collaboration in the Holocaust—a topic that is impossible to avoid in a fact-based conversation about Holocaust in Ukraine—might undermine Ukrainians’ pride in their nation and give a black eye to the country’s image in the West. Some object to the negatively connoted term “collaboration” entirely, pointing out that many Ukrainians viewed Germans as liberators from the hated Soviet power.
When I asked Mikhail Fridman, one of the project’s founders, about this, he said: “There is no question, the Holocaust was organized by Germans but executed to a considerable degree with participation from locals. Having said this, the fact that Ukrainians and whoever else took part in the executions is not an accusation against the whole nation. Because along with those who took part in the repression, there were righteous who took part in the saving of Jews.”
It is a fact that the forgetting that enveloped the Holocaust in Soviet times similarly destroyed the memory of Ukraine’s righteous. The heroism of those who risked their lives to help Jews in this part of the world, where the occupation was so brutal, was incomparably greater than in some other places. Yet this facet of the Ukrainian experience often gets short shrift precisely because so much of the world’s attention has been diverted to Ukraine’s national silence around collaboration.
Ukraine’s fear that an open discussion about this issue would fuel anti-Ukraine propaganda by the Kremlin may also be misplaced. Kiril Feferman, an Israeli historian from Ariel University, emphasized to me that in the history of the Holocaust “there are no people who’ve been one hundred percent pure.” Andrii Rukkas, a historian from Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University who is part of the BYHMC’s academic team, put it this way: “An honest and open conversation, but one that is based on facts and documents, is absolutely necessary. … We can’t live in the atmosphere of half-truth. It’s part of becoming a mature nation.”
Unsurprisingly, some critics have sought to strengthen their case against the memorial by focusing on the backgrounds of the three of the project’s four founders—Mikhail Fridman, German Khan, and Pavel Fuks. While all three men are Jewish and were born and raised in Ukraine, they made most of their wealth in Russia—a fact that may raise some eyebrows. (The fourth major donor is Victor Pinchuk, whose identity is firmly Ukrainian and doesn’t cause any questioning.) Yet none of the three men is new to philanthropy inside Ukraine. Fridman, who grew up in Lviv, is the founder of the massively popular annual jazz festival there. Fuks’ philanthropic contributions to his native city of Kharkiv earned him the designation of Honorary Citizen. Khan, who was born in Kyiv, is one of the co-founders of Genesis Philanthropy, which has sponsored numerous projects on the Holocaust and Jewish identity in the former Soviet states, including Ukraine.
The personal family connections of all four men to the Holocaust are an important motivating factor behind funding the project. Fridman’s eight great-grandparents and one of his grandfathers were killed by the Nazis. Khan has at least seven and possibly as many as 13 family members who were murdered at Babi Yar. In the view of Paul Shapiro, director for international relations at Washington’s Holocaust Museum, there is no evidence that the founders have any other goal in mind but to construct a successful Holocaust memorial at the site of Babi Yar. The only way to do, he said, is to adhere to a historical record. Khan confirmed to me that this is precisely the goal. “The purpose of this project is to be maximally removed from every kind of political influences and convey the historical truth of these events that took place then,” he explained.
Yet there are signs that the ambition to create a memorial free of political influences and devoted to historical truth may be running into trouble. Over the last few months, an additional Babi Yar project has arisen, driven by Josef Zissels, a well-known Ukrainian-Jewish anti-Soviet dissident. The museum he is proposing is explicitly not a Holocaust memorial. It is, rather, a museum of the history of the Babi Yar, in which executions of the Jew would be presented as a part of its larger history of violence.
There is also a new commission in place under the auspices of President Poroshenko, which, Mr. Zissels told me, he and his organization lobbied the government to establish. Its raison d’être is to coordinate the work of these two projects plus the additional project, which proposes to improve the landscape of the site and to turn it into a space of reflection. (This project is championed by the Canadian philanthropic group Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter.)
In a free and democratic Ukraine, it is certainly possible for three projects to co-exist, and this is precisely how BYHMC’s leadership is choosing to look at it. Mark Siwiec, the project’s CEO, told me: “We support others, with the hope that others support us.”
Yet only one of these projects is explicitly about commemorating the Holocaust, and this is what makes it of concern beyond Ukraine. The Holocaust was a transnational crime. And far from being of significance only to the Jewish people, it has long become a universal symbol that stands for the worst crime humanity can commit against its own.
The world has been waiting for a Holocaust memorial at Babi Yar for nearly 80 years. Ukraine should not let this opportunity slip away.
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