The Jewish holy days are now upon us. For religious Jews, none is more important than Yom Kippur – The Day of Atonement. It is an intense day of reflection, to ascertain where we have erred and to resolve to mend our ways. However, the need for honest reflection and determination to do better is not confined to individuals. It is a valuable process for societies too. History must be squarely faced.
Nowhere do I see this more clearly than in Ukraine, where I have served as Chief Rabbi for more than 30 years. The changes I have witnessed during that time have been dramatic. Ukraine has emerged from the shadow of Soviet rule, to become an independent, open and democratic society. However, in order to continue on this trajectory, to further intensify these values, the country must come to terms with its history.
Dealing with such a raw past is no easy task. Communist oppression is well within living memory. The suffering of the Ukrainian people and Soviet suppression of national identity is not just close to home, it is the life experience of millions of Ukrainians. Processing this reality, let alone educating the next generation about it, is complicated at best. As a result, there are many Ukrainian children who are unfamiliar with the architects of that painful era, such as Lenin and Stalin.
The educational paralysis surrounding the country’s history has also meant that Ukraine has yet to come to terms with the tragedy of the Holocaust and Nazi rule over the country, which claimed the lives of at least one million Jews and a greater number of local Ukrainians. Rather than ignore or obfuscate over the past, however painful and challenging it may be, Ukraine must embrace it. Overlooking the Holocaust and the Nazi era would be to neglect a significant chapter in Ukrainian history.
Other European countries such as Poland and indeed Germany itself, have for decades actively commemorated the Holocaust which took place on their soil. They have found a mature, responsible way of coming to terms with humanity’s darkest hour. Their societies are better off for it, having learnt the crucial lessons of the past. The result is a long-found and constantly deepening regard for values such as freedom, tolerance, diversity and respect for national minorities. As Ukraine continues to progress and advance, it too can reap the benefits of Holocaust education.
Relatives of victims of Babyn Yar at a memorial ceremony (Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center) The answer is clearly not to ignore the Holocaust, but to teach it. Fortunately, the educational tide in Ukraine is turning, with the establishment of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center underway. On 29 and 30 September 1941, the Jews of Kiev were rounded up by the Nazis, who had occupied the city just days earlier. They were marched to the nearby Babyn Yar ravine and systematically shot dead. Around 34,000 Jews were killed in just two days. Over the course of the Nazi occupation, tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Roma, mentally ill and others met the same tragic fate at Babyn Yar.
Yet, until now, this seminal event in Ukrainian history has not been fittingly commemorated. For decades, the Soviets sought to whitewash the events of Babyn Yar, with the particularity of Jewish and Ukrainian suffering antithetical to the Communist narrative. The Soviets quite literally buried history, building a park and roads over the site where multitudes were murdered.
That is why the construction of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is so important, to preserve history at the very place where history was forgotten. It will be the region’s first major Holocaust museum, on a par with any other in the world. It will employ fresh technology and innovative techniques to educate new generations about the tragedy of the past and to promote the values with which to build a brighter future.
Since Ukrainian independence, an annual ceremony has taken place at Babyn Yar on 29 September, the day the mass shootings began in 1941 – According to the Hebrew calendar, this notorious day was also Yom Kippur. Next week, we will gather there again to remember. Unusually, this year’s anniversary will once again coincide with Yom Kippur. The day’s eternal message of reflection and improvement has perhaps never been more apt. The generation that witnessed the Babyn Yar massacre, that remembers Jewish neighbors being marched to their deaths, has dwindled. The great challenge of teaching history and learning its lessons will be staring directly at us.