How Britain and Ukraine can learn from each other on Shoah remembrance

Natan Sharansky addressing guests at the House of Commons event for the Babi Yar memorial (Jewish News)
Natan Sharansky addressing guests at the House of Commons event for the Babi Yar memorial (Jewish News)

Precisely one year ago, Ukraine joined the international community in declaring January 27 an annual day of Holocaust Remembrance. This may sound like a very long way away from where we are in the UK but in fact there have been some striking parallels between Britain and Ukraine on the issue of Holocaust Remembrance. The two countries have more to learn from each other than many realise.

Links go all the way back to World War II. Winston Churchill was one of the few real-time witnesses to the mass killings of Jewish people by German forces, as they advanced through Ukraine in the summer of 1941. Thanks to the Enigma machine, German police radio messages reporting the numbers of Jewish people killed were decoded and Churchill was among the first to speak out condemning German police atrocities as “a crime without a name.”

In 1969 Kyiv-born writer Anatoly Kuznetsov was granted asylum by the British government and was able to publish his literary masterpiece: Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel, smuggled out of the USSR on microfilm. His work revealed the devastating extent of Soviet censorship and documented the Nazi murder of Roma and people with disabilities, and the use of gas vans in Kyiv, at a time – in the 1970s – when the British people were just starting to grasp the full extent and meaning of the Holocaust.

Today, we can all witness the development of Holocaust memorial initiatives across London and Kyiv. A UK National Holocaust Memorial will stand next to Parliament as a “permanent reminder of the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy to be vigilant and responsive whenever our values are threatened”.

Meantime in Ukraine, we at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) have recently launched our Architectural Competition for a memorial at Babyn Yar, the site of one of the largest mass killings by Nazis during the Holocaust. Commemorating the men, women and children slaughtered at Babyn Yar is long overdue, but like the UK project, the memorial will be more than “just a monument to something in the past”. For a young democracy like Ukraine, coming to terms with the past, even its most painful episodes, is an important step towards developing our national identity and securing a democratic future.

In deciding upon the winning design of Sir David Adjaye for the London Memorial, “being visually arresting and yet showing sensitivity to its location and context” was a key consideration. This will be critical in designing a memorial to fit into the landscape of the authentic historical site of Babyn Yar.

We want to go one step beyond, however, and tell the story – largely unknown internationally and even in Ukraine – of the “Holocaust by Bullets.” This was the murder process in most of Ukraine and its Eastern European neighbours and it was quite different from the deportations to Auschwitz and other killing centres, familiar to a western audience. Here most Jewish people were rounded up, shot, and buried within earshot of their own homes.

This will be the new perspective our Centre will add to the existing network of Holocaust museums – to retell this visceral and painful story from an Eastern-European perspective and pay our respects to the 1.5 million Jewish people murdered by the Nazis and their associates on the territory of Ukraine.

Distressingly, antisemitism, prejudice and racism are still recognisable to all of us around the globe as real challenges for the modern world, not historic issues. It is essential that tolerance and remembrance initiatives around the world can work together and learn from each other. We in Ukraine have all-too-recent experiences of what it means to suffer from an authoritarian regime. We can learn a lot from longer-established democracies – but we are also in a unique position to help these nations deliver the most powerful warning against the dangers of racism and totalitarianism.

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About the Author
Yana Barinova is COO of Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC), a non-profit that documents and commemorates the Holocaust, in particular the Babyn Yar mass shootings of September 1941.
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