Death and Forgetting at Babyn Yar

In the coming days, we will mark the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre, when Germany and its allies slaughtered more than 33,000 Jews in Kiev, Ukraine, during a two-day period in September 1941. The incident has been called the largest single massacre during the Holocaust, up to that date.

As a Jew born in Odessa whose family emigrated before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I feel obligated to remind the world about this tragedy, denied for 50 years in the USSR.

Before the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Kiev had been home to some 160,000 Jews, about 20 percent of the population. About 100,00 Jews fled Kiev before the German advance. By the end of the German occupation, between 100,000 and 150,000 people from different ethnic groups were killed at Babyn Yar. The Nazis also built a concentration camp near the site.

I trekked through deep snow in 2018 to visit Babyn Yar for the first time as part of a group of Russian-speaking Jews from the former Soviet Union. It was on an unseasonably cold April day that we first saw the Menorah-shaped Jewish memorial, which was only erected in 1991 after the fall of communism in Ukraine.

Most in our group had never heard of the massacre and were learning about it for the first time, despite being descendants of those that had fled and fought the Nazis.

This gap in their memory was a result of the official Soviet policy of minimizing — and often erasing — the Jewish losses incurred during the Nazi period. After the war, the Soviet government told its citizens, “Do not divide the dead,” as it persecuted its own Jews during what historians call the “black years” of Soviet Jewry. During this time, Jews were expelled from certain professions; Jewish artists and writers were prohibited from presenting Jewish themes; and many Jews were exiled and even killed by the government after being accused of being Nazi and/or Zionist spies. This ban on discussing the Holocaust and other Jewish themes persisted throughout the Soviet period, and the effects of this imposed silence are still felt today.

This enforced silence about the Jews killed at Babyn Yar only ended in 1991 with the fall of the Soviet Union, which finally allowed for a Jewish monument to be placed at the site and finally enabled Jews to freely discuss the horrors that had occurred there.

The Czech dissident Milan Kundra wrote, “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Babyn Yar, a site and symbol of the clash between the memory and forgetting of the “Holocaust by bullets” in the former Soviet Union, stands as proof of the eternal nature of this struggle.

One of the many traits the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany shared was a drive to destroy Jewish cultural memory. After marching through the snow at Babyn Yar to see the enormous Menorah that now embodies Jewish memory, my colleagues and I experienced a lesson that our minds and bodies will never forget. The massacre became a permanent fixture in our memories as we stood on that frozen ground, now a mass grave for thousands of innocent victims of fascism.

As a grandchild of Soviet Jews who survived the Nazi invasion, it is my duty to make sure the world remembers this massacre, particularly when so few of those who survived or witnessed it remain. For 30 years, a monument honoring the Jews who perished there has stood on the site where, for 50 years prior, no such commemoration was possible. All of us must remain vigilant about remembering what transpired at Babyn Yar, so that future generations will not forget this tragic episode. There might again come a day when these transmitted memories will be all that remain to memorialize what once happened there.

Dr. Oleg Ivanov holds a doctorate from UCLA and is a member of the World Jewish Congress Jewish Diplomatic Corps.