Though the Babi Yar 75th anniversary commemoration events in Kiev are slated to continue for at least another four days and the German government’s own program of activities has yet to begin, the final and signature events of the weeklong commemoration took place on Thursday. The unexpected passing of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, who was laid to rest the next day, in the midst of the commemorations threw much of the officialdom off-balance, leaving the program of commemorations somewhat in flux. As a result, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who had delivered a speech in the Ukrainian parliament on Tuesday afternoon, and had been expected to take part in the commemoration activities (as well as pay a visit to his ancestral Odessa), instead cancelled his planned actives in order to return to Jerusalem to take part in the preparations for the state funeral.
Whatever other faults it might have, the presidential administration of Petro Poroshenko, whose recently resigned chief of staff Boris Lozhkin and loyalist prime minister Groysman are both openly Jewish, has been been fully supportive of the commemoration activities and is utterly cognizant of their international significance, as well as to the palpable relationship between the nation’s memory policies and western support for the country. A memorial concert was held in the Kyiv Opera house which featured the Hamburg symphony orchestra. The presidential administration held its own reception in the Mystetski Arsenal and later in the evening one of the less sophisticated of Kiev’s Jewish oligarchs held his own private concert of popular—and populist—chanson for several thousand guests.
On Wednesday night, a dinner jointly hosted by the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter and the World Jewish Congress dinner gathered 250 Jews and Ukrainians to award the third annual Andrei Sheptytsky medal. The medal is bequeathed in honor of the heroic wartime head of the Greco-Catholic Ukrainian church who personally intervened to save Jews during the war, and has become a symbol of Ukrainian-Jewish comity. The Ukrainian Jewish elites unified support of Sheptytsky’s claim to be honored by Yad Vashem, a process which has been stalled for decades amid acrimony and a climate of skepticism from some Israeli and Russian-Jewish sectors, has been amply noted by Ukrainians.
The guest of honor and recipient of the medal was the Ukrainian writer and dissident Ivan Dziuba, who had given a speech in Kiev exactly 50 years ago calling on Ukrainians to honor and remember the Jewish victims of the Babi Yar massacre, which was certainly a radical and daring gesture for that time, and which posited that Ukrainians needed to acknowledge the atrocity as their own. Dziuba, by now a frail and visibly ailing man spoke humbly about literature without mentioning very much about his speech from half a century ago or its historical context.
However, the day’s events did not pass without controversy. In a defensive Facebook post, Volodymyr Viatrovych, the controversial head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, attacked president Rivlin’s comments about the heroization of controversial World War II era Ukrainian nationalists. “Unfortunately the president of Israel in his speech to the Ukrainian parliament echoed Soviet myths about the OUN’s (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) part in the Holocaust,” he wrote. “Honoring the victims of Babyn Yar would be more sincere without the deployment of myths of those who robbed of their memory.” Several other high level members of parliament posted similar sentiments on their own social media platforms. (Viatrovych followed up with another tone-deaf post on Friday claiming that Babi Yar is now a space for competition of narratives of victimhood.)
Yesterday’s commemorations began with the gathering of Ukraine’s political and cultural elites for the signature of a “declaration of intent” to create a Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial and research center. Many of the speakers at the event pointed out the ironic discrepancy of the fact that Keiv, the site of the atrocity itself, did not have a dedicated historical museum to commemorate events which were marked with public museums or memorials in at least a hundred different cities. Interestingly many of the Jewish businessmen who had pledged sums to build the museum were either Russian Jews or Ukrainian-born Jews, such as Alfa group owners Michail Friedman and German Khan, who had made their money in Russia.
The Ukrainian rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk spoke after President Poroshenko and Natan Sharansky and Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko joined Natan Sharanksy on stage for the press conference as nearly every major Jewish businessman in Ukraine roamed the room. At the press conference, the journalist Sam Sokal asked Klitschko whether it was correct that a government employee such as Viatrovych would be making those sorts of statements. Klitschko deftly avoided the question while spouting clichés about uniting rather than dividing.
The final state organized events took place at night at the site of Babi Yar itself, where the government erected a stage and seating for 1,600 people. There were at least a dozen solemn speeches and the main of these and perhaps the most interesting was President Poroshenko’s forceful and forthright, even brazenly political speech, during which he drew contemporary parallels to historical events. In a particularly intriguing twist he told the assembled guests that Moscow— meaning the Soviet Union and now Russia by extension—had for decades been an ally of countries who wished to see Israel thrown into the sea and had sold weapons to Israel’s enemies. Without naming him, Ukraine’s head of state adroitly acknowledged the criticism that Rivlin had leveled at the Ukrainian state earlier in the week during his historic address to parliament. As well as having many heroes to be proud of, Ukraine needed to acknowledge its shame for those Ukrainians who had collaborated with the Nazis. He underlined that such collaborators could be found in every country in Europe. Poroshenko likewise invoked Ukraine’s relationship with Israel and drew thick political parallels between the situation of constant menace that Ukraine faced and that of the Jewish state. Above all, Ukraine would need to learn to emulate Israel’s example, in both the defense sectors as well as in the economic capacity to flourish amid a prolonged and semi-permanent crisis.
Everyone present would have agreed that Ukraine will need to learn to live with its exceedingly complex history.
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.