The number six million is a powerful symbol. It evokes the ultimate evil. It represents unparalleled human suffering. But six million should never be misunderstood as a generic sum. The six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust did not suffer indistinguishable, identical fates. Each victim wiped from the face of the earth experienced their own tragedy, a unique story we are duty-bound to tell. Not all were herded into cattle carts and sent to gas chambers. Nothing represents this more powerfully than Babyn Yar.
Just days after the Nazis occupied Kiev in September 1941, around 34,000 of the city’s Jews were marched to the Babyn Yar ravine and shot dead over a two-day period, during the holiest days in the Jewish calendar. Massacres at the same site saw Ukrainian dissenters, Roma and the mentally ill suffer the same fate. The story of Babyn Yar evaded the historical record for decades. It has become a symbol for the lesser-documented fate of an estimated 1.5 million Jews, who were shot in the ravines and killing fields of Eastern Europe. The time has come to preserve their memory.
A concerted effort to deny history has largely concealed the horror of Babyn Yar. The Soviet authorities desperately sought to erase Holocaust memory. Jewish suffering had no place in the Soviet narrative. Consequently, they fought tooth and nail to obscure the Jewishness of the victims. I personally experienced the heavy price paid by Jews in the USSR who insisted on clinging to their identity.
The woods of Babyn Yar are no less haunting or hallowed than the concentration camps synonymous with the Holocaust. Yet for decades, Babyn Yar was buried both metaphorically and literally. The Soviets turned it into a waste site, built housing and a motorway. They even had plans to turn the site of mass murder into a sports stadium. In his famous 1961 poem, Yevgeny Yevtushenko noted with utter dismay, “No monument stands over Babyn Yar.”
Independent Ukraine has always looked to rectify this stain on its history, but bureaucracy and funding setbacks invariably prevented a fitting memorial. Until now. When I was approached in 2016 by the mayor of Kiev and project donors to head a supervisory board for establishing a lasting memorial at Babyn Yar, I gladly accepted and proudly retain this position today.
Sadly, such a memorial is needed now more than ever before. Trivialization of the Holocaust has become commonplace, especially as the COVID-19 crisis continues to grip the world. In the United States, face mask regulations have been compared to the Nazi dictates against Jews, which laid the path to the murder of millions. Similarly in Germany, large-scale protests against coronavirus regulations have featured Nazi imagery, promoting the same grotesque equivalence.
Today’s world is filled with the uncertainty and confusion that too often form the perfect breeding ground for extremism. If left unchecked, the trivialization of the Holocaust—the perception that it was simply one heinous crime among many—will leave the door ajar for the type of fanaticism and bigotry we hoped had been left behind in the twentieth century. The only remedy is a fierce determination to preserve Holocaust memory. We must not only recycle the slogans of “Never Again.” We must engage new audiences and bring untold stories to the public imagination. That is why righting the historical wrong of Babyn Yar is more important than ever before.
Work to this end is already well underway. Although we don’t yet know exactly what the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center will look like, it is already conducting important research projects. The names of thousands of victims, many previously unknown, have been uncovered. Ukrainian non-Jews who saved their Jewish neighbors are being located and given support. An online archive of oral histories is giving a voice to unheard victims. A collection of archive footage is opening a new window into the lives that were lost.
The work to preserve, honor and promote the memory of Jews and Ukrainians cruelly murdered at Babyn Yar and deliberately forgotten represents the closing of a personal circle for me, as someone born and bred in Ukraine and as a proud Jew whose identity the Soviets sought to crush. It also represents the closing of a collective circle, telling the story of the tens of thousands killed by the Nazis only for the Soviets to wipe away their memory. For too long, the story of Babyn Yar and the 1.5 million Jews shot across Eastern Europe has been overlooked. For the sake of our future, with the world at an uncertain juncture, history must be restored to the very place where it was erased.
Natan Sharanksy is a former prisoner of Zion. He was Israel’s minister for Diaspora affairs and deputy prime minister. He served as chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and was recently named as chair of The Institute for the Study of Global Anti-Semitism and Policy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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