On Babi Yar – Jennifer Wilson in NYT:
‘On Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, in a ravine just outside Kyiv called Babyn Yar (“Babi Yar” in Russian), Nazis executed nearly 34,000 Jews over the course of 36 hours. It was the deadliest mass execution in what came to be known as the “Holocaust by Bullets.” We were never supposed to know it happened. In 1943, as the Nazis fled Kyiv, they ordered the bodies in Babyn Yar to be dug up and burned, to erase all memory of what they’d done.
The Nazis planned to kill the workers they tasked with destroying the bodies. “But they didn’t succeed,” one declared proudly. The Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa included newsreel footage in his documentary “Babi Yar. Context” (2021) of one of the men giving an interview. He and 12 others (out of 300) escaped “and can now testify,” he tells the camera, “to the whole world and our motherland to the acts of barbarity committed by those fascist dogs in our beloved Kyiv.” And yet, not everyone believed the story. In October 1943, the Soviets invited a delegation of American journalists to Babyn Yar, gave them a tour of the ravine and told them of the atrocities that had occurred there. Their reports were bafflingly contradictory. Though hair and bones were mixed in with the dirt under their feet, some of the journalists considered these fragments just that: pieces of some bigger, unclear whole. Others dissented. In a frustrated letter to his parents, Bill Downs (Newsweek, CBS) concluded: “It seems that the Presbyterian mind of the average American cannot accept the fact that any group of people can coolly sit down and decide to torture thousands of people. … This refusal to believe these facts,” he noted, “is probably the greatest weapon the Nazis have.” On that September day in 1941, a 12-year-old boy named Anatoly Kuznetsov was in his Kyiv courtyard with his grandfather. They lived a stone’s throw from the ravine and could hear a sound: “ta-ta-ta, ta-ta.” “They’re shooting ’em,” his grandfather realized. All morning the city had been abuzz with rumor: “Where are they taking them? What are they doing with them?” The city’s Jewish population had been told to report at 8 o’clock, to bring valuables and warm clothing. Many assumed — hoped — this meant deportation. However, others could feel the truth even if they had not seen it yet. Earlier that morning, Kuznetsov recalled, a young girl threw herself from a window. After the war, a witness said he had seen a woman that morning standing in front of her home crying out in Yiddish.’
‘This is material he never bothered to submit for approval, including his speculation that part of why Kyiv’s Jewish population obediently followed the German ordinance had to do with the Soviet press. “Right up to the outbreak of war,” he puts in brackets, “Soviet newspapers had been doing nothing but praising and glorifying Hitler as the Soviet Union’s best friend, and had said nothing about the position of the Jews in Germany and Poland.” The roots of disbelief are a major theme for Kuznetsov, one that most directly lends the novel its contemporary relevance.
In the introduction, Masha Gessen observes that Kuznetsov “created a layered text that told several stories: the story of the Babyn Yar massacre,” as well as that of “Soviet efforts to suppress this history.” In the Soviet Union and today in Russia, World War II has largely been recast as a story of victory, of wins not losses, of Red Army heroes without nationality. Attempts to specify any of the victims as Jewish were met with charges of “bourgeois nationalism.” In 1944, the Soviet Jewish writers Vasily Grossman and Ilya Ehrenburg, who both covered the war as reporters embedded with the Red Army, attempted to publish a book documenting the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. That volume, “The Black Book of Soviet Jewry,” was banned and members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, which helped compile it, were accused of “rootless cosmopolitanism” and executed under Stalin.
In 2016, on the 75th anniversary of the mass execution at Babyn Yar, Petro Poroshenko, then the president of Ukraine, announced plans to establish the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. Though privately funded, the center was seen as part of the Ukrainian government’s efforts to build closer ties to Europe and reject Russia’s legacy of Holocaust suppression. The project has been besieged by creative differences, many stemming from the involvement of the immersive filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky. In 2021, he took Gessen on a tour of one of the exhibits in progress, which Gessen later described as a column of mirrors riddled with bullet holes matching “the caliber of the bullets used by the executioners” and a soundscape devised of “frequencies that involved the numerical expression of the letters that made up the names of the dead.”’
Read the review here.
It’s good that this book is being published in the US, and in other countries, (later this spring it will be published in the Netherlands). There are far less testimonies, for obvious reasons, about the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ than about the camps.
The Soviet press might have played a role in the obedience of the Jewish population in Kyiv, but the article doesn’t mention that many of the younger Jews, especially of the younger male Jews had left Kyiv with the Red Army.
In Babi Yar mostly women, children and the elderly have been killed.
Disbelief played a role, the failure to imagine the worst, but disbelief played a role everywhere. Even in Auschwitz the prisoners in the so-called family camp, (Jews from the camp Theresienstadt who thought that they were privileged, and they were privileged, sort of, until they were gassed) refused to believe that Nazi’s were going to exterminate the family camp. (See: Filip Müller)
Also, the article itself suggests that quite a few Jews of Kyiv didn’t harbor any illusion about the Nazis.