IN The Jews of Silence, Elie Wiesel writes that there is only one reason why a Jew travels to Kiev. That is to see Babi Yar. So it was for me when a few years ago, I returned to Kiev, 30 years after my family had surrendered their Soviet passports, became stateless, emerged through the gauntlet of abuse and ritual humiliation that applying to abandon the Soviet Union entailed, and quit that place forever.
The material aggregate of centuries of family history there was a few canvas bags crammed with photo albums and the necessities that my parents and grandparents assumed could not be obtained outside the Soviet sphere, ceramic containers adorned with little moles and hedgehogs, and a couple of Zenit wristwatches that my family thought could be pawned if circumstances necessitated.
When I landed back in Kiev, after successfully making it through passport control without being denounced as a rootless cosmopolitan or a Zionist agitator (the clerk was in fact genial bordering on flirtatious), I felt a great anxiety to get to Babi Yar immediately as if to see a frail relative for whom time was limited. Kiev is a glorious city, particularly in late September when I arrived. The weather is still mild, the air is sharp and filled with the smell of chestnuts that leaves you heady, and the sites are powerful and evocative. But none of this interested me. Not even the black caviar in the Bessarabian Market or the statue of Bulgakov and the debauched feline from The Master and Margarita at his feet. All I wanted was to be at the killing field known as Babi Yar.
Just a few years ago, what happened in that place was virtually unknown in our community, except by scholars and deep readers of the Holocaust. But every Jew from the Soviet Union knows the words “Babi Yar” and is immediately frozen into panic by them. Babi Yar stands for the culmination of centuries of debasing the Jew in the eyes of the wider population. The church, the Tsars, the intelligentsia, Communist propaganda and the lionised nationalist butchers like Bogdan Chmelnitsky all bear responsibility for this.
When I travelled to Babi Yar, it was in part an act of commemoration to honour the memories of our sacred dead across Europe. To remember the lives of the Jews of Kiev, people indistinguishable from me in appearance, in native tongue, in cuisine, and to contemplate by what chance my family had the fortune to be evacuated a few weeks before the city fell, a turn of fate through which I was born, and 33,771 wretched souls went to that ravine in late September 1941 joined by tens of thousands more over the remainder of the war.
I also came in hope of grasping how the events that happened there could occur. How within days of the withdrawal of the Red Army, a peaceful, well-integrated civilian community could simply be plucked from ordinary lives and led to that ravine, looted, stripped and murdered by their tens of thousands. How could their Ukrainian neighbours line the streets to watch the howling Jewish children being taken to die, old women carrying their bundles to nowhere, while the unceasing staccato of gunfire played the beat of their slow death march? How could they have cheered and taunted, helped themselves to the possessions of people among whom they had lived for generations, and deposited more tip-offs to the Germans about hiding Jews than the Nazis could process? And how could these scenes be repeated, day after day, in towns and cities and villages across thousands of miles of Soviet territory until 1.5 million Soviet Jews lay dead?
I left no closer to understanding. Only with a fear that everything we think we know about one another, the rationalism and underlying goodness that we claim for ourselves and thus impute to others, is a mirage. And upheaval, the erosion of order and the emergence of opportunity is all it takes for aspects of humanity that we pretend don’t exist to overwhelm everything.
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Nazi invasion and murder of over one million Jews in the Soviet Union – many…
I returned home with a renewed determination to ensure that what happened to the Jews of the Soviet Union during the Holocaust, the identities of their killers, the depravity of their methods and the stories of their victims should be known to every Jew. I am not alone in this. Over the past few years, articles have been published in journals and newspapers, commemoration ceremonies have been held, a monument was unveiled in Sydney, and a spectacular production of Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony was staged in Melbourne. The decision by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies to focus this year’s Yom Hashoah event on the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union will mean a great deal to every Australian Jew of Soviet descent. More than that, it will mean that through these acts of remembrance, in some small way, we have thwarted the killers who sought to obliterate not only Jewish life but any memory that our people ever lived and died.
Alex Ryvchin is the co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the author of Zionism – The Concise History. He will be delivering the keynote address at the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Yom Hashoah commemoration on April 7. For more information, visit nswjbd.org/events/yom-hashoah-commemorations-2021.