Directly facing history is the only true and just path forward for Ukraine
Facing our past is not always easy. But it is the right thing to do. Without it, we cannot move forward honestly nor fully realize our dreams, whether as individuals, communities, or societies.
It is this choice that today’s Ukraine is determined to make.
The creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center — slated to open in 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city — will be Ukraine’s post-independence opportunity, and after far too long, to finally commemorate the horrific Babi Yar ravine massacres of World War II. These terrible crimes took place in the city of Kyiv, beginning in 1941 during the German invasion of the Soviet Union and its subsequent occupation of the region.
This historic Memorial Center, situated in the heart of Eastern Europe and at the site of one of the 20th century’s greatest crimes, is truly a remarkable development. The Memorial Center represents for the first time, a truly honest, authentic, and inclusive effort—initiated by and for Ukrainians themselves — to recognize and come to grips with our painful history and with the horrific events that took place in the heart of our society. And not that long ago.
Why is this so remarkable?
It may come as a surprise to many Americans and American Jews, but the crimes at Babi Yar and the many other mass shootings by Nazis and their collaborators during the Shoah — while commonly known throughout the West — have been a widely under-told story in Ukraine and across the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, Holocaust awareness and education in Ukraine to date has been, sadly, largely limited due to three main factors: the Soviet Communist legacy, which ignored and suppressed this history; the painful though indisputable reality that many Ukrainians willingly cooperated with the Nazis; and complications associated with an emerging wave of World War II-era revisionism and revered national heroes and movements that were proudly anti-Semitic. Not only Ukraine, but also other ex-Communist countries in Eastern Europe — such as Lithuania, Hungary, and Poland — face these same challenges.
Make no mistake. Our Memorial Center will necessitate dealing with uncomfortable truths. And yet we are determined to face our past and to have these difficult conversations.
That is why this project to finally commemorate Babi Yar is so important. It represents the free and democratic will of the Ukrainian people to resist the erasure of memory and the denial of our past — and instead to forge a common destiny based on an inclusive approach to our history. It stands for the new, bright face of Ukraine, one that recognizes that confronting the brutalities of the past is a necessary prerequisite — a building block — for a future free from hatred, bigotry, and scapegoating.
In this way, Ukraine will serve as a positive role model of a transitioning country that has the courage to examine a dark chapter in its past. Doing so is the mark of a mature society based upon universal values and can serve as an example for Ukraine as it seeks to reform in other areas that hold the country back. Indeed, Ukraine’s path to joining Europe — which is first and foremost a community of values — is in large part based on its recognition that the shared trauma of the genocide that occurred during World War II is a core, underlying foundation that helped unite Europe in the second half of the 20th century.
This is the vision that inspires the Memorial Center which we believe will draw much needed and renewed attention to Babi Yar. Our hope is to help enshrine for future generations the significance of the Holocaust in Ukraine’s history and collective memory. Moreover, the Memorial Center aims to serve as a dynamic, world-class research and education destination welcoming visitors from around the world — and to act as a potential human rights hub for Eastern Europe. Such an institution has been sorely missing from the post-Soviet space.
As with the precedents set by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem, the Memorial Center will be constructed adhering to the highest and most up-to-date contemporary standards in the fields of international museum and academic scholarship, scientific research methods, and presentation best practices.
This February in London, the Memorial Center is launching a new, worldwide traveling art exhibition focusing on Babi Yar. Open to the public and timed to coincide with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the exhibition calls for greater awareness of the events that occurred at Babi Yar and aspires for the tragedy’s legacy to help educate audiences regarding human rights violations continuing to occur today around the world.
We hope to bring this timely exhibition to the United States and elsewhere in the near future.
In developing the Memorial Center, we see these efforts as our patriotic duty to Ukraine. As was said succinctly by Taras Shevchenko National University historian and Memorial Center board member Andrii Rukkas, “honest and open conversation, but one that is based on facts and documents, is absolutely necessary…We can’t live in the atmosphere of half-truth. It’s part of becoming a mature nation.”
Together with my fellow native Ukrainian Jewish and non-Jewish founders and professional staff, I am deeply honored that the Memorial Center enjoys the full support of the highest levels of Ukrainian leadership, including President Poroshenko, Prime Minister Groysman, and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko as well as such international leading figures as Joschka Fischer, Senator Joseph Lieberman, and Natan Sharansky.
In the words of Memorial Center Executive Director Yana Barinova:
Today memory of the Holocaust is a touchstone for people’s attitudes toward human rights. The Memorial Center does not want just to propose a few theories, but to apply all our joint intellectual efforts to answering key questions about the place of Babi Yar in the history of mankind…It is important for us to show everyone, that regardless of one’s professional, educational, and social status, understanding the tragic events of World War II is truly significant for all of them – everyone who lives right here, right now.
This work is especially relevant today amidst growing concerns over rising anti-Semitism and intolerance in parts of European society and indeed around the world. Our center is fully cognizant that such prejudices and hatreds — left unchecked and unaddressed — stand to exact enormous, pernicious costs from society as a whole, beyond specific minority groups. Therefore, moving beyond commemoration, the Memorial Center’s living, breathing mission will be to allow Ukrainians and visitors alike to learn from our history and to explore ways to defend human rights, overcome discrimination, and uphold inclusive societies.
It is my sincerest wish that the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center will help ensure that we never forget Babi Yar and the Shoah — and that by doing so, we will deepen the bonds of our common, shared humanity. We strive, through our work, to commemorate this past and to move our societies forward into the future, united in our commitment to the value of every human life.