Babi Yar: Survivor of massacre that killed 33,000 Jews lives in Melbourne

September 13, 2017 by  
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Over two days in September 1941, more than 33,000 Jews were executed by Nazi soldiers in the capital of Ukraine.

Yelena Gorodetsky Photo: Fiona Pepper/ABC

Their bodies were pushed into a giant ravine known as Babi Yar, which sits on the edge of Kiev.

At that point, it was the single largest killing site of the Holocaust…and on Sunday in Melbourne Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra will perform a work Shostakovich  based on the poem Babi Yar by  Yevtushenko.

Melbourne resident Yelena Gorodetsky, 82, was one of the lucky ones — she was not executed, and is now one of only a handful of living Babi Yar survivors.

When the massacre began on September 29, 1941, Ms Gorodetsky was just six years old.

She was out walking with her mother and two older sisters. None of them realised their lives were in danger.

By chance, they encountered a close family friend, who told them about the mass shootings that were taking place, and warned them to head home.

“It was by some Jewish miracle we met Mama’s friend, Marusya Bantysh,” Gorodetsky recalls.

“She came to us and said, ‘Don’t go! Don’t go!

Heeding the advice, her mother led the family back home and waited for her husband, Vladimir, to arrive.

Ms Gorodetsky remembers her father was incredulous upon hearing the news. He insisted on walking to Babi Yar to witness the killings for himself.

Distressed not only by the bodies, but the sight of German soldiers stealing from the dead and the threat of more violence, her father fell into a deep depression.

“It was a quiet madness,” Ms Gorodetsky says.

Six months later, in March 1942, he took his own life.

In the months following Babi Yar, Nazi forces and Ukrainian collaborators are said to have killed a further 70,000 to 90,000 people, not all of whom were Jews.

The soldiers also targeted the Roma community, dissidents, communists and others deemed “undesirable”.

Despite her mother’s Jewish background and appearance, Ms Gorodetsky and her sisters stayed undetected by authorities throughout the remainder of the war.

She says their fair skin, and her red hair, allowed them to “pass” as non-Jewish Ukrainians.

Neighbours also kept the family’s secret — even as they risked their lives by lying to the Nazi soldiers.

To survive Nazi raids, the Gorodetskys dug a bunker in the floor of their kitchen, and covered it with floorboards. Within this bunker, they waited out the rest of the violence.

Even after the war, the true nature of what happened at Babi Yar remained unacknowledged by the Russian and Ukrainian authorities.

Ms Gorodetsky says that began to shift after Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko penned the 1961 poem Babi Yar.

In his work, Yevtushenko condemned the Soviet regime for its refusal to commemorate the site of Jewish genocide.

She says when a memorial was finally constructed, it did not acknowledge the deaths of Jewish people, but rather was inscribed: “Here died Soviet people.”

Years later, other memorials, including a large Jewish menorah, were added to the site.

Yevtushenko’s poem also prompted Russia’s most celebrated composer, Dimitri Shostakovich, to write the monumental Babi Yar Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor (Opus 113) in 1962.

Featuring the vocals of a 200-man chorus, the symphony is set to the poetry of Yevtushenko.

On Sunday, the Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra will perform the work at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall.

The performance will feature Opera Australia’s principal bass baritone, Adrian Tamburini, who was the driving force behind the production.

Tamburini says he was motivated to remind audiences of the massacre, and to call out the continued prevalence of religiously motivated attacks.

“Not much has changed since [1941], unfortunately,” Tamburini says.

“[We must] learn from history… keep on reminding people that this has already happened before, and that humanity should be smarter.”

The concert will also commemorate Yevtushenko, who died in April this year, at the age of 83, in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

As one of the few Babi Yar survivors left, Gorodetsky is excited for the performance, and will attend as a guest of honour.


Rachael Kohn has interviewed Yelena on ABC Radio National’s Spirit of Things…hear it here

Rachael write this report for ABC


2 Responses to “Babi Yar: Survivor of massacre that killed 33,000 Jews lives in Melbourne”
  1. Sidney bloch says:

    I have the privilege of partipating
    As a chorister. The experience of getting acquainted with this mighty symphony over recent weeks has been like no other and I have sung many I’m great works for Choir and orchestra

  2. Naomi Robertson says:

    Rachel Kohn’s interview with Yelena Gorodetsky and her daughter moved me to tears. I would highly recommend listening to it on “The Spirit of Things”.

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