Remembering Babi Yar

September 29, 2014 by Henry Benjamin
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On September 29 and 30, 1941, 33,771 Jews perished at the Babi Yar ravine near Kiev at the hands of the Germans…yesterday they were remembered  in Australia and a new memorial was unveiled in Sydney.

Malcolm Turnbull

Malcolm Turnbull     Sydney pix: Henry Benjamin

In a rare moment of bipartisanship, Federal Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull stood alongside Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Tanya Plibersek on a warm spring day in Sydney as the horrific events of 74 years ago were recalled in front of a mainly Russian gathering in the park bordering Waverley Council Chambers in Bondi.

Both politicians gave emotional addresses before the memorial was unveiled by Turnbull and Waverley Mayor Sally Betts.

The history of Babi Yar was recounted by Professor Konrad Kwiet a leading authority on the Holocaust.

Tanya Plibersek

Tanya Plibersek

The edict posted in Kiev by the Germans in 1941 ordered:

All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Doktorivska streets (near the cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids[a] and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

—Order posted in Kiev in Russian, on or around September 26, 1941

The idea of establishing a permanent memorial in a country so far away from the event came from The Executive Council of Australian Jewry’s Public Affairs director Alex Ryvchin who MC’d the event. He told J-Wire: “The terrible murders of those two days should never be forgotten…and this memorial will remain a permanent symbol of the suffering of Kiev’s Jews and other dissenting citizens who were murdered in that ravine by the Germans and their Nazi collaborators.”

Alex Ryvchin

Alex Ryvchin

Ryvchin said: “We each have a duty to remember the dead and to preserve their stories”.  He said the site was being used by revisionists in an attempt to deny the Holocaust stating that war criminals are being now acclaimed as being great patriots.” The hushed crowd heard from Ryvchin that over Rosh Hashanah the memorial at Babi Yar itself was desecrated…daubed with a swastika.

Bipartisa

Bipartisan

In his address Malcolm Turnbull said: “All of us are united, as are the Australian people, in saying we must have here today and every day zero tolerance for racism and racial hatred. We know where it ends. It ends at Babi Yar. It ends in death ” He added that the Liberal and Labor parties have many disagreements “but on this matter we are absolutely shoulder to shoulder in opposing racial hatred and racism wherever it is found”.

Tanya Plibersek concurred with Turnbull. She informed the audience that whereas almost 34,000 Jews had lost their lives on those two days, the final number killed in Babi Yar during the war topped 150,000. She said “We must never allow the hatred that drove the massacre at Babi Yar to be unleashed again”.

Following a speech in Russian and English, Rabbi Yehoram Ulman recited the memorial prayer.

 

Gabriel Ben, 8, and Natalie Ulitsky, 14, excerpts from the Yevtushenko poem in Russian and in English.

The history of Babi Yar was related by Professor Konrad Kwiet.

Professor Konrad Kwiet

Professor Konrad Kwiet

The plaque

The plaque

He said it had been one the largest and most horrific massacres of the Holocaust and highlighted the link between Babi Yar and Australia with alleged Nazi war criminals being investigated by the Special Crimes Unit set up by the Federal Government. Professor Kwiet said that there had been no successful prosecutions. Some of the crimes had been focused on Babi Yar.

He spoke of Operation Barbarossa unleashed by the Germans against the Russians in June 1941. Following the operation, Kwiet said that “special killing units were sent to Russia”. The German killing squads reached Kiev at the end of September 1941 and utilised the services of local authorities in the operation to  shoot  33,771 Jews.

In describing Babi Yar, Kwiet quoted from testimonial accounts from trials in the 1950s.

“The terrain was sandy. The ravine was about 10m deep about 400m long about 80m wide at the top and about 10m wide at the bottom. As soon as I arrived at the ravine, Iwas sent down to the bottom. It was not long before the first Jews were brought to us over the side of the ravine. The Jews had to lie face down on the earth by the ravine walls. There were three groups of marksmen.”

Remembering Babi Yar

The old remember Babi Yar

He said that the Jews were shot in the back of the neck and others were forced to lay on top of them awaiting their execution.”

The younger generation remembers

The young remember Babi Yar

Those involved in perpetrating the killings were taken back to their barracks at the end of each of the two days and served alcohol.

Professor Kwiet also related the testimony of another German who said they had been given the task of flattening out banknotes taken from the Jews adding that the money was packed in sacks and that he did not know what happened to it

The ravine was bulldozed and levelled after the operation with locals helping themselves to belongings left scattered around the site.

The event was attended by a plethora of politicians, religious leaders, human rights officials and Holocaust survivors and was organised by The Executive Council of Australian Jewry in conjunction with Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, NSWJBD, the Sydney Jewish Museum and the Association of Holocaust Survivors and Descendants.

At the Jewish Holocaust Centre in Melbourne, the Victorian Jewish community commemorated the massacre at Babi Yar.

The commemoration was a joint project of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV), Kangarusskis, the Australian Forum of Russian Speaking Jewry, Russian Sunday School LIDER and the Association of Nazi Victims.

Nearly eighty members of the Victorian Russian-speaking Jewish community attended the commemoration, which focused on the dangers of antisemitism, the importance of remembrance and the celebration of freedom for new generations.

Nina Bassat

Nina Bassat

Highlights included performances by Russian Sunday School students and Kangarusskis representing the young members of the community, and the future.  Helena Gorodetski, a survivor of the massacre, brought soil from Babi Yar to the stage as a symbol of the link to the past.

Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s famous Babi Yar poem was movingly read in Russian and English by Larry Fudim and Tania Shvartsman, and book extracts telling the story of Babi Yar were read by Ella Apter and Roy Tzur.

Nina Bassat, President of the JCCV and Gennadi Vilkov, President of the Association of Nazi Victims spoke about the importance of remembering Babi Yar and other tragedies that befell the Jews of the Former Soviet Union.

Ms Bassat said, “Memory is all that we have left of those who perished in the Shoah.  To remember is the mandate of the survivors and of all the generations which follow. If we forget, we negate the very existence of those who perished; it is as if they had never been participants in the world in which they lived. If we fail to remember, the lives have not just been lost; they have also been obliterated.”

The Babi Yar poem

No monument stands over Babi Yar.

A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander over the roads of ancient Egypt

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and

I see myself a boy in Bialystok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,

-“They come!”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fibre of my body will forget this.

 

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