Thomas Kahn
Thomas Kahn

Babyn Yar: Why We Must Remember

Just last week, the world took a historic step to remember the Jewish Genocide at Babyn Yar. The Ukrainian government hosted an international gathering to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre, likely the single worst Jewish killing field of the entire Holocaust.  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was joined by Israeli President Isaac Herzog and German President Frank Walter-Steinemeier for a moving tribute to the victims of Babyn Yar, in which the leaders inaugurated a huge new memorial complex to remember its victims. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered eloquent remarks by video.

On Sept 29-30, 1941, Nazi troops and their Ukrainian collaborators shot and killed 33,771 Jewish men, women, and children.  Their bodies were dumped in mass graves, one on top of another, in a deep ravine called Babyn Yar, located just a few miles from the center of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital. An additional 70,000 victims were murdered there over the next two years, including Jews and Roma. Fearing punishment for their heinous crimes, as they fled Kyiv in 1943, the Nazis tried to erase the evidence by ordering Jewish concentration camp prisoners to exhume and burn the bodies of thousands of victims.  Then the Nazis killed the prisoners.  After the war, the then-Soviet Union, in pursuit of its own anti-Semitic policies, continued the effort to conceal the Jewish genocide at Babyn Yar for another five decades.

I was privileged to join an American national delegation, organized by the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), to attend the ceremony. In addition to participating in the moving tribute, our group met with Jewish and Ukrainian leaders, including the mayor of Kyiv and the Ukrainian President’s chief of staff.

As did many Americans, my wife and I lost family in the Holocaust. But this trip an even more personal impact. Almost fifty years ago, when I was a college student studying in Russia, I went to Kyiv  in part to visit Babyn Yar. But I almost did not make it to the site.  Repeated taxi drivers refused to drive me because they feared KGB retribution if their actions were discovered. After I finally succeeded in bribing a driver, I saw a site that looked like a garbage dump. Trash littered the site, dogs were running everywhere and there was no marker commemorating the atrocity against Jews.  The Soviets filled in most of the ravine and built a park, television tower and sports facility. There was only a hard to find tiny stone marker generically mentioning Soviet victims.

This year’s gathering, on the complete contrary, highlights a dramatic and historic development.  The Ukrainian government now stands with governments around the world to reject the Nazi and Soviet effort to erase from memory the Babyn Yar genocide. Today there’s a newly constructed open-air wooden synagogue and visual exhibits including a reflecting platform shot through with bullet holes. Eventually, there will be a museum, a research center, and archives which will also recognize those Ukrainians who saved Jewish lives. An international board chaired by Natan Sharansky and including Israeli, Ukrainian, and American public officials and historians will oversee the project. The new initiative has raised questions because major funding comes from Russian Jewish oligarchs. But while the funding may be controversial, the goal of the project, to remember the victims and the criminal perpetrators, is not.

The Babyn Yar commemoration is important both to remember its victims and make it less likely the world will ever again witness genocide against Jews nor any other minority.  Today the world faces a frightening upsurge in anti-Semitism and xenophobia, including in Germany where the Holocaust began. Jews have been killed in synagogues, while other synagogues and Jewish institutions have also been attacked. The Rohingya in Myanmar and Uyghurs in China have been targeted for persecution and death.  Less immediate but more ominous for the long term, many people have either forgotten about the Holocaust or in the case of young people never learned about it in the first place.

Remembrance is an important theme in Jewish law. The Torah teaches us “to guard your soul carefully lest you forget the things your eyes saw…and you shall make them known to your children and your children’s children.”  By remembering Babyn Yar, the world can both honor the victims and make real the words, “never again.”

About the Author
Thomas S. Kahn serves on the Executive Committee of National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry and the National Board of Governors of the American Jewish Committee. For twenty years, he was the Democratic Staff Director of the U.S. House Budget Committee. He currently teaches in the Government Department at American University in Washington where he is a distinguished fellow with the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.
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