Jonathan Russo

Mass Graves in Ukraine

I am not part of the “triggered” generation. To me, trigger was a gun part or the name of Roy Rogers’ horse.

However, I experienced a trigger episode a few weeks ago upon seeing photos of the mass graves in Ukraine, bodies partially covered by dirt and others stacked up and wrapped in plastic bags. I had an episode again upon seeing the new and larger mass graves uncovered in Mariupol.

I felt compelled to write about why I had such a strong reaction.

When I was around 9, I discovered the Holocaust. I was a camper at a Conservative Jewish summer camp in Pennsylvania. Somehow, I got separated from my bunkmates on an outing and wandered into a small wooden building. It was a library, isolated and alone in a field. I remember all this vividly 60 years later.

I was always a reader because of rather severe ADHD. I checked books out of my school library. Reading was a peaceful relief from a cycle of despair over my classroom behavior. It was natural for me to pick up a random volume from the shelves. I was alone, so there was no rush or supervision.

I picked up a book. It was about the Holocaust. I had never heard or seen anything about the Holocaust before. My family on my mother’s side was from Odessa, Ukraine, and my father’s side was from Ankara, Turkey. Thus, I am the product of a “mixed marriage,” Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Raised Reform in an affluent Long Island suburb, I spent considerable time with both sets of grandparents in their traditional New York City homes. One side spoke Yiddish, the other Ladino. Yet no one ever spoke of the Holocaust or mentioned relatives that perished in it. To this day, I am not aware of any family members who did.

The text in the book was horrifying, the black and white photos gut-wrenching. Captions described all the documented atrocities. I saw photos of the Warsaw Ghetto and several concentration camps, including the emaciated prisoners behind barbed wire. There were photos of men stacked up in wooden bunks, their bulging eyes staring blankly at me. Several were of Nazis in long coats and odd hats rounding up Jewish men.

Then there were the photos of Babi Yar. You have seen them, I am sure. The shootings of Jews at the rim of the ravine, the bodies pushed into the pit, the mass of corpses one on top of the other filling the hole in the earth. I could not believe my eyes. Instinctively, I understood why this was kept from me. I was not meant to see this at 9 years old. But I was transfixed and could not stop staring at the images. I understood the horrors were related to World War II because my father was the captain of a ship in the US Navy, and I knew very well there was a war between Japan and Germany and the United States.

This is where my memory becomes a bit hazy. I am not sure if someone came to find me or if I wandered back to my bunkmates, but something had come over me. I was changed forever.
I now understood that evil existed in the world. I comprehended right then and there that I was living a fortunate life, that everything around me was not the same as the photos I saw. I kept it quiet from the camp counselors and even my parents. It was a secret I decided to hold. Why? I don’t know. I was a kid.

As I grew older, I was introduced to Shoah (Holocaust) history. I attended several Jewish summer camps, and the Holocaust was made front and center in our Jewish studies. One time, our counselors even rounded us up in the middle of the night with flashlights and herded us into a barn acting like Nazis, threatening us with harm. Of course, we were terrified, but that was the point.

I have always loved history, even in grade school, so my adulthood habit of reading Holocaust books has not been a big surprise. I usually read two a year. When a new book comes out, I rush to read it. For some reason, Babi Yar is the ground zero of my obsession. More than Auschwitz or the dozens of other camps I have studied. More than the ghetto histories too.

As pointed out in many books such as Bloodlands, The Black Book and the more recent powerful The Ravine, about the slaughter of the Jews by the Einsatzgruppen was greater than in the Polish and German camps or the ghetto liquidations. Millions were shot at close range, beaten to death or stabbed. The bloodlust was not on an industrial scale like at Sobibor or Treblinka. It was personal, one-on-one.

Books like Dreamland, the story of Eastern European Jewry’s good life during the interwar period, only reinforced for me how fragile life is for Jews, even those such as myself in a free and prosperous America.

Unlike writers such as Daniel Mendelson or Lilly Brett, there was no point in trying to find traces of exterminated family. For me, the killings at Babi Yar were more philosophical than personal. The bodies in the ravine at Babi Yar became my life’s benchmark. Every day I did not die at Babi Yar was a gift. Of course, I do not think about this every day, but I do often enough.

A few decades ago, I needed some help with a life crisis and sought out a therapist. When the therapist asked me to tell him about myself at our first meeting, I told him, “My life is Babi Yar-based. Every day I am not murdered and thrown into that pit at six weeks or two years old is a good day.” I really believe that I feel it. I try (and mostly fail) to make the most of that reality each day.

I understand the Ukrainians can be brutal. They come by it honestly. Brutality is their story, their heritage. Long ago, I devoured James Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword. Here is the 700-page book in three sentences: Christianity has hated Jews and persecuted them for 20 centuries. All of Europe is Christian. All of Europe hates Jews and at one time or another sought to eliminate them. So if the Ukrainians were killers of Jews, they were not alone.

Babi Yar happened not that long ago. It is not the Spanish Inquisition or the Crusades. It happened in the modern world, the world of photography, telephones, airplanes and X-rays. That is what always made it real, relevant and approachable to me. Of course, I wondered: could it happen again?

Now I know the answer. Yes, it can, and it has. When the Russians shelled Kiev and damaged a Babi Yar monument during the opening salvos of the Russian war on Ukraine, I shuddered at the irony. That action brought me back to the trench filled with murdered Jews in all its horror. Were the Russians saying, “That was then, this is now, and we are not interested in Ukraine’s past suffering?” Or was it just a random unguided missile that needed to land somewhere? It did not matter at all. The missile toppled a sort of truce in my mind that Ukraine had made with their past. Just acknowledging that Babi Yar happened made the Ukrainians a more decent people in my mind. That they elected a Jewish person as their leader was astonishing. Now they were going to be punished for that.

Babi Yar is my ground zero of human evil. I know that the slaughter in the Congo, several other African countries and in some Asian countries is just as grotesque. I know the Cambodian genocide was comparable to the Nazi atrocities. But that is further away for me. I fully confess to being Eurocentric. I am a Jewish person of European origin, so my moral benchmark is set in Europe. This is not something I am proud of, just a truth I can admit.

We know that humans, regardless of geography, are not going to stop slaughtering those they dislike. The earth will continue to fill with the bodies of innocents.

Therapists advise that one way to deal with triggered memories is to flush them out and open up to speaking of them.

It has been 60 years since that isolated library and the Holocaust book with its photos of the ravine at Babi Yar, but painfully not long enough for me or the new bodies in pits in Ukraine.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.
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