KIEV, Ukraine — Babi Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, symbolizes one of the worst massacres to take place during World War II.
But some young Ukrainians have never heard about the tragedy.
“I know nothing about that ravine. Probably some people were killed there but I’m not sure who, by whom and when,” said Anna, 21, when asked this week near the site where some 33,000 were killed between Sept. 29-30, 1941 — and an estimated 100,000 were shot and their bodies burnt during the 1941-1943 Nazi occupation of Ukraine.
This week’s high-profile commemoration in Kiev, marking the 65th anniversary of the Babi Yar tragedy, was aimed at educating young Ukrainians like Anna.
At the invitation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko, international leaders and Jewish officials and activists from 41 countries attended Tuesday and Wednesday’s events, which included an exhibition, a memorial ceremony at the site and a conference titled “Let My People Live.”
At these events, Yuschenko was joined by Israeli President Moshe Katsav and his Croatian and Montenegrin counterparts, as well as rabbis and Christian clerics, senior government delegations from Europe and North America, and members of the Ukrainian political elite.
Most speakers at the ceremony and the conference spoke about how to turn the memory of Babi Yar into an educational lesson.
“The Holocaust and Babi Yar killings wounded our nations. Babi Yar should be that injection preventing aggressive bloody xenophobia,” Yuschenko said Tuesday at the opening ceremony of the exhibition.
And speaking at the conference on Wednesday he added: “I clearly and straightforwardly promise that there will never be ethnic intolerance and religious hatred in Ukraine. Like all Ukrainians, I refuse to accept and tolerate the slightest manifestation of xenophobia and anti-Semitism.”
Moshe Katsav also said people must never forget the Holocaust.
“We must pass on the memory of the Holocaust to the young for the sake of posterity and to preserve kindness and human values,” said Katsav.
On Wednesday, Yuschenko, joined by Ukrainian officials and the leaders of foreign delegations, placed candles at the memorial. This was followed by prayers conducted by Christian clerics and Jewish rabbis.
Hundreds of mourners — many of them Jews from around the world — watched, some holding red and white carnations. Others carried small stones, which Jews traditionally leave at gravesites.
This week’s events in Kiev are the brainchild of Russian Jewish leader and business magnate Vyacheslav “Moshe” Kantor.
Kantor said the idea came to him a few years ago when on a visit to Kiev he noticed young boys playing soccer near the site of the Babi Yar massacre.
“Most people today simply don’t know what happened there,” said Kantor, who is the founder of the World Holocaust Forum, the president of the Russian Jewish Congress and the chairman of the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress.
Kantor and other organizers are hoping the widely covered events will help to overcome that ignorance, which is a legacy of the Soviet era, when any references to the specific Jewish tragedy of the Holocaust were avoided.
In the years since Ukrainian independence in 1991, no major government-sponsored events have ever taken place at Babi Yar — with the exception of a few state visits to Kiev by Israeli and U.S. leaders.
Even the main events this week took place at a monument to all of Babi Yar’s victims and not near the Jewish one — a 10-foot menorah that Jewish groups erected at Babi Yar in 1991.
Some Ukrainian officials who attended the ceremony said tributes to victims of Babi Yar should take place regularly to educate Ukrainians, especially the younger generation.
“We must regularly commemorate the Babi Yar victims because people must remember this tragedy,” Alexander Moroz, the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, told JTA “This is a grave for the victims of different nationalities, but only Jews were killed only because they were Jews.”
Thousands of Soviet prisoners of war, members of the Ukrainian national resistance movement, Communists, gypsies and mentally disabled persons were also killed at Babi Yar.
Others said it was hard for Ukrainians to remember the killings apart from another catastrophe for Ukraine, a Soviet-induced famine, known as the Holodomor, that took millions of lives in 1932-1933.
Babi Yar “is our tribute to the tragedy suffered by people in Ukraine. I personally do not separate the Holocaust” from the famine. “It doesn’t matter how many people were killed because even one man is important for us,” Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s minister of interior affairs, told JTA.
Responding to the concern that after independence Ukraine failed to remember and teach about the tragedy, Yuschenko announced a decision to turn the area into a state historical and cultural reserve.
Some Jewish and non-Jewish activists have long pressed for the designation.
“Babi Yar will get the status of a reserve and a museum to the Babi Yar victims will be build there,” Yuschenko told JTA. “At the same time, a memorial to the Holodomor victims will be built at another place in Kiev.”
Four years ago, a protest staged by a group of Jewish and non-Jewish activists led the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to scrap its plan for a Jewish community center that was to be built near Babi Yar with funds raised with North American federations.
Those who objected to that plan have this year staged another protest campaign against a plan by a Ukrainian business magnate and Jewish leader, Vadim Rabinovich, to build a museum, a synagogue and a yeshiva at Babi Yar.
That group, known as the Babi Yar Public Committee, believes that perpetuating the memory of the victims should become a government concern and not a private or sectarian initiative that may undermine the importance of the tragedy for the entire nation.
“If Ukrainians are the united nation, they must have a common memory and a common memorial,” said Vitaly Nakhmanovich, secretary of the Babi Yar Public Committee.
Tatiana Zelenskaya, 24 agrees:
“Babi Yar is our one common pain,” she said. “This is a symbol of the tragedy of the whole Ukrainian people: Ukrainians, Jews, Russians and others.”
By Vladimir Matveyev