It is seven months ago.
A rabbi and twenty-nine women huddle at the edge of Babi Yar.
In the silence of the forest, we hear the ghosts of bullets whizzing by.
Almost all of us are neighbors and immigrants to Israel from America and our backpacks and purses are heavy with tissues and burdens, both personal and collective: The loss of the soldier son of one member of our group during a training accident the year before; the murder of our heroic neighbor Ari Fuld hy”d just three weeks before; the knowledge that just the day before, two of our fellow Israelis including the young mother of a toddler were lined up and shot point blank back home because they were Jews.
I also carry the prayer book of my late grandfather, a survivor of the Shoah, his name — Alan Wachtenheim z”l — proudly written inside in his beautiful, precise hand.
It is October in Kiev and our boots and heavy jackets clash with a bold sunshine that was not predicted and is not particularly welcome in a place that should never feel warm or pleasant or beautiful. We are on a three-day trip to Ukraine to explore the roots of Hasidim, but our first stop is Babi Yar, and we peer into this ravine of bottomless evil where approximately 33,771 Jews were murdered over two days in September 1941 and where over 100,000 were killed in what became known as the “Holocaust of Bullets,” the beginning of the Final Solution.
It is not simple to find the actual ravine because both then and still now many want to forget. Couples stroll around the park, walking dogs and holding hands. The ravine hides itself in the forest with no special marker or memorial pointing out the actual place, and the sign at the entrance to the park speaks of general atrocities but fails to mention the mass execution of tens of thousands of Jews.
Before we go to pay our respects at the ravine, we sit in a circle in the shadow of a nearby statue of a menorah, a late-appearing monument that has been defaced a number of times and even burned. Our guide tells us about some of Babi Yar’s history, of how the horrors there unfolded and she shares the story of a survivor who clawed her way out of the ravine. We read the most famous of the poems about Babi Yar, written by the non-Jewish poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko:
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid…
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here…
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew…
We march to the ravine and stand silently until our rabbi tries to find some words for a comfort that cannot come and he leads us in song, the soft and somber voices of us women an elegiac windchime.
Before we leave, one of us pulls out a pack of small stickers, red metallic hearts, and we start to place them on ourselves and even on the trees, inadequate band-aids on a festering wound.
I brace myself against a tree and begin to write a poem of my own:
It’s Babi Yar again.
We sisters stand at the ravine
The forest tries to act all nonchalant–
Trees stretch and pose to distract us from what’s below
Preening green in autumn
–As if they didn’t know!
The sun’s warm light is so out of place I’m embarrassed for her–
It should be grey here, after all
Winter’s boot stands on the throat of summer, spring and fall.
This time in Babi Yar
There are quieter sins
Only tears are forced to tumble in–
And a leaf who knows his place jumps in too
We sing “Ani Maamin”
But it hurts our tongues
The words flutter awkwardly to the bottom, wrung
And the melody joins them
With a thud
And we wonder:
How did faith bud
In a forest pit
Fertilized in blood?
Yesterday, at our blue and white home
It was Babi Yar there too
Two more of us lined up and shot:
But still we stand here
Sisters linked in mourning song
Mothers of soldiers
We soldier on.
It’s Babi Yar again
We know you already know
It’s been written about before, and better–
We sisters are new here and it’s our story too
And you still can’t seem to get the details right
Like: Massacred Jews.
My sisters and I huddle at the edge
We leave small hearts on tree trunks:
Tiny memoirs, a red parting greeting:
From our blue and white homes
Our bruised hearts will be beating.
Only 18 days later, at a Pittsburgh synagogue, there will be a mass shooting where eleven Jews will be murdered.
And it won’t be the last.