At every Yizkor service, I add additional souls to my personal prayer list: the nearly 34,000 Jews murdered at Babi Yar in Soviet Ukraine over two September days in 1941. We still don’t know all of their names, but I hold them in my mind anyway.
When we think about the Holocaust, we typically think of European ghettoes, deportations, barbed wire, gas chambers, and crematoria. We think of Poland and Auschwitz. And we assume that the entire six million suffered and perished in that way.
Yet, nearly half of the Shoah victims — an estimated 2.8 million — were murdered in Holocaust by bullets in the Nazi-occupied USSR. Most died in mass executions in ravines, forests, and streets right where they lived, often right in front of their neighbors.
The Holocaust arrived in the USSR early and moved fast. By the end of 1941, “the Germans (along with local auxiliaries and Romanian troops) had killed a million Jews in the Soviet Union and the Baltics,” writes Timothy Snyder. “That is the equivalent of the total number of Jews killed in Auschwitz during the entire war.”
By the end of 1942, another 700,000 had been shot. And so Jews in Nazi-occupied Soviet territories ceased to exist long before the destruction of European Jewry got into full swing.
And yet, their story is not quite part of our collective memory. Who was Ukraine’s Anne Frank? Was there a Yanusz Korczak in Russia? What did life in the starvation camp of Pechora look like? Even if we know the facts, we don’t have images and human stories to make them come alive. Why do we come up so short?
One reason – shockingly simple – is that so few survived. Some 25 to 27 percent of Amsterdam’s Jews and 75 percent of French Jews who found themselves under occupation survived. In contrast, a bare 2-3 percent of Jews in Nazi-occupied USSR lived.
And so there were precious few to tell the stories. Those who had managed to escape ahead of the advancing German armies came back to find nothing and no one. And in the decades that followed, they were not allowed to remember, to mourn, to commemorate.
By the time the USSR itself disappeared from the map in 1991, nearly all living memory of the Shoah within its borders had been wiped out. The act of forgetting, neglect, desecration, and cover up was so complete that as late as in 2006, Yad Vashem had only 10-15 percent of the names of the 1.5 million who had perished in Ukraine. (In contrast, 90 percent of the names of those who had died in Europe was known.)
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It is often creative endeavors that give meaning to history. Memoirs, works of literary fiction, films, paintings, music, theater productions, dance performances allow us to process and find meaning in traumatic events, to turn them into collective memory.
The Holocaust genre describing the fate of European Jewry is richly textured. Some films and novels have become international sensations and touched the hearts of millions. But we are still waiting for a Stephen Spielberg or a Roman Polanski to come along and tell the story of Soviet Jews in the Shoah.
The list of films that Haaretz recommends to watch this Yom HaShoah illustrates the problem. Out of the 17 films on the list, only one takes place in Ukraine. Which one? Wait for it… “Fiddler on the Roof.” Why on earth? Because through this film, says the article, “we begin to understand the tragedy of… a world that is no more.” (Had it made it to the list, Defiance would have been the exception that proves the rule.)
Without artistic interpretations of what had happened during the Holocaust in the Soviet Union, we are left with nothing but bare facts and figures. But collective memory isn’t built on dry statistics: it is made up from human stories that evoke empathy, convey emotion, help create meaning.
Can we imagine what it was like to be a Jew in Kyiv in September of 1941? Can we put ourselves in the shoes of someone trying to decide whether or not to obey the order for “all the Yids of the city of Kyiv” to gather at a specified location (but for an unspecified purpose) with documents, money, valuables, warm clothes, and bed linens?
Can we imagine what it must have felt like to walk through Kyiv on those September days, along with thousands of others, on the way to the appointed place? Can we visualize what it was like to see your path narrow, to notice local guards line up on both sides, gradually forcing you down a specific lane, to feel the atmosphere of threat thicken?
When did it hit you that something catastrophic was about to happen? Was it when you saw your passport thrown into the fire? Was it when they ordered you to set your suitcase down and leave it with all the other luggage? Was it when they told you to remove your coat? What was it like to be the first to step up to the edge of the ravine? What was it like to be last?
There are stories of those who climbed out of the pit in the middle of the night. Some sat on top of the earth that was still moving, waiting for the murderers to come back. After the horror they witnessed, they didn’t want to live any more.
There are stories of children – few, too few – who managed to escape and make their way back home. Some were taken in by neighbors who fed them, put them to sleep, and in the morning handed them over to the police. And, of course, there were stories of rescue. (But few, too few…)
Around the Holocaust country of the former USSR, there are hundreds of sites, each waiting for its stories to be told.
And the stories are there. Israeli documentary filmmaker Boris Maftsir has been collecting some of them in his spellbinding documentary series on Holocaust in the USSR. His films are online, available to be discovered, watched, processed, made a part of our inner world.
Another Israeli, Anna Kopaev of Israel’s Ghetto Fighters’ House museum, is incorporating the information into the museum’s educational programs. For most children who come to visit and hear about that part of the Shoah, she told me, “it’s a revelation.”
Many archives in former Soviet states are now open. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is now making the study of Holocaust in the Soviet Union a point of focus.
Can our collective memory still incorporate these additional stories? Some believe it’s too late. They argue that the space is already occupied, that there is no room for more.
I allow myself to be optimistic. I believe that our memory, along with our hearts and minds, is capacious enough to accommodate these additional stories of our people.
I personally am waiting for a filmmaker to come along who would make a film about the fate of Jews in Nazi-occupied USSR that would change the conversation in the same way “Schindler’s List” did with the story of European Jewry. Or maybe it would be a writer who would write a bestselling novel to add new images and understanding to our collective inner landscape of the Shoah.
Until then, I will keep doing what I can to tell the story. And I will keep saying my personal prayers for them all at Yizkor. Maybe not the entire 2.8 million. That may be hard. But for the 33,771 souls at Babi Yar who were executed in those early days, as the murder machine of the Holocaust was just starting to shift into high gear – that I can do. After all, some of them were my family.