Babi Yar. Afterword

Thank you Sofia Diak, Viktor Yelenskyi, Volodymyr Biehlov, Vasyl Rasevych, Andriy Portnov for our long conversations. Thank you for your contribution to my personal “inclusion” in the process and thanks to all the anti-Semites and Ukrainophobs from social networks. Without all of you, I would be “excluded”.

Commemorations have come to an end, and the next time we are going to remember about the Holocaust and Babi Yar at a high official level will be probably in five years. It is no news that information booms and discussions within a society on teaser topics occur in connection with some anniversaries – Volyn, Holodomor, or the Holocaust. These are the delicate bittersweet teasers, which enable everybody (in our conditions, these are mainly victims of the Soviet and post-Soviet system of education) to become a martyr-hero, to point at the offender, the executioner and, if possible and necessary, to curse someone and all their ancestors and descendants no matter how many dozens of years have passed since the damage done.

This year, in the social networks and the media there have been a lot of discussions about the Holocaust. There has been both anti-Semitic and Ukrainophobic mud. The slums of the collective unconscious heated by cynical manipulators and populists, including publicpolitarist historians, have been rampaging and spewing hatred. Of course, we are a young political nation (although, given the aggressive ideological narrative, a question rises actually – so when the genesis began – from Kravchuk, Bandera, Petliura, Khmelnytskyi, or maybe from Askold and Dir), but the infantile reactions are rather disturbing, the symptoms say it’s high time we consulted a doctor.

The value of human life and human rights are the basis for coexistence in the modern world – it is an axiom, to which we came having realized the abyss into which societies and people had fallen during the Second World War and still continue to be falling. This abyss was the impetus to rethink the values, policies, objectives and means to achieve them, to rethink not only the functions of the state coercion, but also the importance to restrain the state, which is the only institution that has the right to coercion. For us in the contemporary uncertain and again and again troubled world it is important to emphasize the consequences and dangers of subordinating the values of human life to implementation of a “higher” goal or “higher” idea.

In a world full of prejudices and collective stereotypes understanding is essential, as well as avoiding ideologies and political programs which provide for collective guilt and collective responsibility.

The blood-shedding example of both approaches is Babi Yar, where for a “better future” for the “chosen ones” those for whom there was no place in the “better world” were killed: September 29-30, more than 33 thousand inhabitants of Kyiv were deprived of any choice, options, their future, their right to life – they were Jews; two days before 752 patients of Ivan Pavlov psychiatric hospital had been killed; later in Babi Yar several thousands of Roma people were killed and shot to death; in the following two years of the German occupation Babi Yar became a place of executions of prisoners of war, Soviet officials and Communist Party members, members of Ukrainian nationalist organizations who had become politically unreliable.

Babi Yar is the abyss of suffering, crimes against ethnic groups and crimes against humanity. This is one of the most famous Holocaust memorial places, this is the place of memory of genocide of Roma, this is a place of memory of thousands of people, who due to some other causes and characteristics, defined by the occupation regime and the authorities, were shot here. Our common task today is to build the culture of understanding, knowledge, and most important – sympathy and remembrance caring about the past while carrying responsibility for the future.

For Ukraine, Babi Yar is a symbol of the Holocaust, which at the greater part of our present territory took place not in death camps, but in ravines. These are the murders, which, though occurring somewhere in the suburbs, started in the centre, in the midst of life and citizens. These crimes were open, not hidden behind the fences of the camps. This is something that forever changed those who saw it and those who were involved in a variety of ways.

Babi Yar is the experience to be still discussed, a memory to be properly remembered, a memory that is haunting us. So this is also a search for the ways to talk, to ask questions, which are often painful and difficult. These are the steps towards a more humane society.

In studies of genocide the division into victims, perpetrators and observers is often used. An observer is not only an outsider, this is someone who made the choice, and projected – intentionally or not – the consequences of this choice. We must overcome the established cliches and try to understand what the actions and motivations of those who killed were, what the experience of those who miraculously survived was, and how to remember those who did not survive. What were the motivations, the expectations of those who collaborated and what were the consequences of such collaboration? How should we be speaking about these experiences, positions and traumas today? Especially, today.

Babi Yar is also one of the world symbols of cruelty of the Holocaust murders. Today, for us it is very important to create a place where a variety of memories – individual and private, local and city, state and global – do not only overlap, but actually coexist. The search for ways of coexistence is possible through the processes of studying, understanding, education, communication. And the result of this process is in the process itself and in its continuation.

Here the task of government agencies, experts and all the parties lies in creation and facilitation of this process, which should include different groups. Anniversary commemoration can become the impetus for such a long process, which will have provisional results, but certainly will not come to an end – for its educational part is open in time. After all, a commemorative project is not that much about realization, as it is about the very process that encompasses many dimensions: spatial, educational, research and others.

Therefore, a challenge for commemoration and educational initiatives to be implemented at Babi Yar is how not to become a “division” and a “ravine” that divides, but to be an open and accessible place where multiple memories can coexist, overlap and communicate because this is the place to which people come to give honour, to reflect, to learn, to comprehend. In this perspective it is important to avoid any competitions – like, whose victims suffered more, who was killed first – and seek a common clear message, which will include not only different but also contradictory stories, and most importantly to create a place for asking questions and getting answers, not just a place for formal occasions.

As for the interpretive and, unfortunately, modern Ukrainian political practice, there is a challenge: how to show that it is a memorial place of the Holocaust and not to forget the other victims? In my opinion, there is a long way to go, and the inclusion process will help here.

Inclusion of the museum and educational projects about Babi Yar and the city during the war in the existing museums – Museum of History of Kyiv, Museum of the Second World War, Museum of History of Ukraine, local history museums in towns and cities could and should become the museums of history of all individuals and groups of people who lived and died in what is now Ukraine. Because no monument or memorial can translate this complexity. Inclusion into Ukrainian history textbooks that are to be written on the basis of the principle of politically and ideologically neutral education, balanced history of not only Ukrainians but of all those who are still not included in the educational process, or to whom only “half a page” is devoted.

One of the challenges of this process is how to move away from a comparison of memories and avoid building a competition of victims, which has already begun. How can we build coexistence?

How to overcome the existing manifestations of competition of numbers and memories? Each man’s death is a tragedy. At the same time, Babi Yar is the place where the consequences of the murderous Nazi policies are not the same for all groups. And then this imposed “equalisation” will lead to a feeling of exclusion and threat. In Babi Yar, where so many inhabitants of Kyiv were killed, there can’t be our and someone’s memory, our and someone’s victims. This is the basis of a common memory – the place of compassion, not comparison.

Today Babi Yar for us are the steps to be taken after the official commemoration, the steps that can become the basis of a conversations of different format – focused on humanistic values, on honouring what is basic and important – life of an individual and coexistence of people with respect to their rights, different views and identities. After the blood-shedding 20th century, which is also the century of freedoms and rights, we assess state systems and societies not by their majorities (ethnic, social, cultural, religious etc.), but by how those who don’t belong to these majorities feel and fulfil themselves. Moreover, when we take a closer look, we realize that we are all in the minority, depending on the situations in which we get.

Understanding this means that we will not succumb to the ideas that promise us better future at a price of suffering and killing others, since every one of us is the other.

In my opinion, all important to us and to others places of memory, no matter where they are, should be the result of creation of a memorial culture, based on continuous communication, not authorities’ directives, rather than the result of politics only.

With regard to the awkward and controversial statements of the President of Israel at the parliamentary hearings on the anniversary of Babi Yar, my conclusion is as follows – as long as we, representatives of the Ukrainian political nation, fail to critically evaluate our past, so long the others will tell us about our past in the way that suits them.

Truth tempers, gives intellectual superiority and power.

Iryna Podoliak


“Samopomich” Union


Iryna Podoliak
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