Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Ukraine’s Raisa Maistrenko, who was three years old at the time of the massacre at Babi Yar, lays flowers during a visit to the memorial monument in Kiev, September 23, 2016. Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
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From the Darkest Pages to the Living Light

Seventy-five years after the massacre at Babi Yar, a moment of reckoning, a lesson in awareness and forgiveness, and a path towards redemption

Bernard-Henri Lévy
September 30, 2016
Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images
Ukraine's Raisa Maistrenko, who was three years old at the time of the massacre at Babi Yar, lays flowers during a visit to the memorial monument in Kiev, September 23, 2016. Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Editor’s note: The following is adapted from a speech given by Bernard-Henri Lévy, special representative of President François Hollande of France, in Kiev, Ukraine, on September 29 during memorial ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Babi Yar .

President Petro Poroshenko, Presidents, Ambassadors, Chief Rabbis and religious dignitaries, Ladies and Gentlemen,

There is always a moment in the destiny of a great nation when the darkest pages of the book of the dead and the living come into the light of knowledge and remorse. This moment, for Ukraine, is today.

Seventy-five years after the massacre, in Babi Yar, of so many Jews in Ukraine, three-quarters of a century after the destruction, in this ravine now forever cursed and forever sacred, of 34,000 men, women, and children who were guilty only of being born, the time has come for contrition, for repentance, and for the entry of the crime into the great memorial of the universal consciousness.

And it is, of course, not insignificant that this moment should come just on the eve of the very special days that the Jews, all over the world, call “the dreadful days”; it cannot be a coincidence that it occurs just before a Jewish celebration (Rosh Hashanah) that is the celebration of judgment, when every nation must appear before the throne of God.

I am not unaware, ladies and gentlemen, of how difficult, even painful, this duty to appear and remember may be. I am well aware of the high price it may seem to carry for the Ukrainian national narrative and for Ukrainian pride.

And I have the honor to speak, today, in the name of a nation—France—that went through the same sort of holy but sorrowful duty of memory.

Because, ultimately, breaking a silence paved over by decades of censorship (and, here, in Ukraine, by totalitarianism, Stalinism) is essentially what President Jacques Chirac did when he acknowledged the responsibility of the French state for the deportation of the French Jews.

It is what German chancellor Willy Brandt did when he knelt in the Warsaw ghetto.

It is what Pope Jean Paul II proclaimed when he prayed in Auschwitz.

And this is what President Poroshenko is doing, today, when he encourages his nation to remember the genocidal mass murder of the Holodomor, to celebrate that member of the righteous among nations, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, and to pay tribute to those Ukrainians Jews who were killed and buried without a grave, without a trace, without even being properly counted.

But we all know that this moment of reckoning is also the path of justice and of truth. We know that nothing solid has ever been built by a country that did not come to terms with his own shadows and ghosts. And we are well aware that the decent and righteous recording of history was the true ground on which the new Europe was built.

Know, Mr. President, rabbis and dignitaries, ambassadors, that all the deeds done here today, every word spoken, every name whispered, are like a veil of mourning, forgiveness, and redemption laid over an earth stained by the blood of innocents.

But know, too, that the very fact that this ceremony is taking place, that the communion, on this afflicted ground, of so many Ukrainians from so many different faiths (Jews, Christians, Muslims, nonbelievers), this encounter of the highest authorities of the new Ukraine and of the states (Israel, Germany) who, with Ukraine and, from now on, with the rest of the world, share the heritage of the dead of Babi Yar—know that all of this, for this country, is a new step out of the age of totalitarianism and darkness—and a new step toward Europe.

Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 30 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His new book, The Will to See: Dispatches from a World of Misery and Hope, was published on October 25, 2021 by Yale University Press.

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