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Photo: Babiy Yar, Michael Zvyagin, commons.wikimedia.org Photo: Babiy Yar, Michael Zvyagin, commons.wikimedia.org

It is 74 years since the tragedy in Babi Yar. Every fourth victim of the Holocaust was from Ukraine

Boris Zabarko on how to deal with a complex history and difficult memories

Boris Zabarko is the head of the Ukrainian Association of Jews, former prisoners of ghettos and Nazi concentration camps. In early childhood he experienced the horror of the Holocaust as a prisoner of the Shargorod ghetto. After the war, he graduated from the History faculty of the Chernovtsy state university, worked as a senior researcher at the Institute of History of the National Academy of Science of Ukraine and at the Institute of the world economy and international relations. He has won a prize from the National academy of sciences of Ukraine, and is the author and complier of a number of books and publications dedicated to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.

Discussions about building a memorial complex in the area of Babi Yar have been going on for many years. What should be built there?

In Babi Yar there should be a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust. Additionally, as this is an international gravesite, there should be a place to consecrate the memory of Nazi victims of different nationalities.

There is discussion about creating alleys of the Righteous among Nations, Ukraine and Babi Yar. In some countries Jewish organizations are opposed to putting these alleys in former sites of ghettos or executions. People believe that this place should be in Babi Yar. But this must be done as quickly as possible. People who risked their lives to save the Jews, like the victims of the Holocaust themselves, are fewer and fewer. I would very much like to see that this alley is built during their lifetimes.

Not only Jews should carry out all of this work. This is a common European, common Ukrainian tragedy, so in the preparation and construction of the museum, the state should take part, and all Ukrainian society. This tragedy took place in Ukraine, here the Jews were killed – children of Ukraine. They also died at the hands of Ukrainian collaborationists. And Ukrainians also saved Jews, risking their lives. This all shows that this tragedy does not just concern Jews – it is a tragedy on a national scale. The state should build a museum of Babi Yar and a state museum of the Holocaust.

Every fourth victim of the six million Jews killed was from Ukraine. All over the world there is not a place where as many Jews were killed as in Babi Yar. This is not about quantity, but that an entire community of a large European city was exterminated, and the total Holocaust of European Jews began.

How do you think discussion about the memory of Babi Yar should be held with city residents? Today there is a park there, which does not at all resemble the scene of a tragedy, and besides monuments nothing reminds us of it…

This discussion should not be held by activists of Jewish organizations. This work should be done by the city intelligentsia, the city authorities and the entire community. We highly value the role played by the recently created Assembly of nationalities of Ukraine. If we stand up for our rights together and talk about such things, then our opponents will decrease in number.

Recalling the school history curriculum, I’m surprised that the history of Babi Yar only got half a paragraph. One gets the feeling that Ukraine is ashamed of this topic…

Ukraine is not so much “ashamed” of this topic as of mentioning the real victims of the tragedy. And this began after the liberation of Kiev by Soviet troops, when they began to determine the damage and describe the consequences of the occupation. The Community Party appointed a special commission. Then representatives of the Emergency State Commission worked to establish the atrocities of the occupiers and their accomplices.

The draft version of the section concerning the events in Babi Yar stated: “Hitler’s gangsters carried out the mass brutal extermination of the Jewish population. They issued an announcement in which all Jews were requested to appear on 29 September 1941 on the corner of Melnikovaya and Dokterevskaya Streets, taking documents, money and valuables with them. The Jews who gathered were driven by the executioners to Babi Yar, had all their valuables taken, and were then shot.” But then the complex procedure began of approving this statement by the leadership of the Communist party. After “reactionary statements” by Alexandrov, Shcherbakov, Lozovsky, Molotov, Vyshinsky, Shvernik and Khrushchev, the document looked completely different: “Hitler’s gangsters” no longer carried out “the mass brutal extermination of the Jewish population.” They only drove “thousands of peaceful Soviet citizens on 29 September to the corner of Melnikovaya and Dokterevskaya Streets.” It continued in the same vein: “the Jews who gathered” were not to be mentioned, and only the “people who gathered” remained. The new text read: “Hitler’s gangsters drove thousands of peaceful Soviet citizens to the corner of Melnikovaya and Doktereveskaya Streets on 29 September 1941. The executioners led the people who gathered to Babi Yar, took all their valuables from them, and then shot them.”

This may be considered to be the “birth” at the level of the Communist Party of the official version of all future mentions – or rather lack of mentions about the extermination of the Jews. From now on people would have to write only about “peaceful Soviet citizens” or “citizens of European countries”. Even in the report on Auschwitz, where 90% of the victims were Jews, the word “Jews” was only used once.

We expected that when here, in independent Ukraine, the events of the Second World War would be remembered, attention would also be given to the Jewish aspect of the tragedy. And accordingly, also to the people who helped and saved the Jews. For if the Jews are not discussed, then it is not possible to speak of the noble and decent Ukrainians as well, who in the atmosphere of terror and repressions of the Nazis and their accomplices, often at risk to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, came to the rescue of the Jews, showed sympathy and kindness, prevented Jewish pogroms, warned about imminent executions, joined partisan divisions, and in some regions of Transnistria, where the Jews’ situation was somewhat safer at one time, they brought food to the ghetto, hid Jews in their homes, made forged documents for them etc. etc. Even at a terrible time they maintained the honesty and dignity of the nation.

Until recently it was not done to mention them. Perhaps because the courage of these people is a rebuke to the passive, proof that even in the gloom of the Holocaust it is possible to make a different choice besides silent obedience to a criminal regime or cooperation with it, and remain a decent person. Vasily Grossman, in the preface to the “Black Book” called their deeds “eternal undying stars of reason, kindness and humanism” among the “black clouds of racial madness”.

At the same time, if we make a Museum with honest content, then we must admit that without the collaborationists who made their plans based on the prospect of the victory of Nazi Germany, without local police, whom the Germans used to organize and directly take part in pogroms, the robbery and murder of the Jewish population, without anti-Semitic propaganda, without anti-Jewish punitive acts by the militia, without the denunciation and handing over of Jews (the former head of the security service in Kiev, Schumacher, giving testimony after the war, said that so many reports about Jews hiding in the city were received by his department than the clerks did not have time to react to them), the Nazis would not have been able to achieve such astounding “successes” in carrying out the misanthropic program of the “final solution of the Jewish question”. This is what happened in our dramatic history. And God forbid it should ever be repeated.

Perhaps, according to the western media, a memorial of Babi Yar does not yet exist for this reason.

You have devoted that last 20 years to work on books that call for the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust. What was the most difficult thing about collecting materials and the process of recording the words of survivors?

It is very difficult for people to return to their tragic past. When we first started recording these stories on a Dictaphone in 1993, sometimes we even had to call the ambulance…

Later, when I received letters of recollections, there were tearstains on the pages. Some of the letters ended with the words: “Sorry, Boris Mikhailovich, I do not have the strength to write about this anymore…” I still cannot forget how hard it was for people to talk about it.

You were a prisoner of the ghetto in Shargorod, a town with an incredible Jewish history, and one of the oldest preserved synagogues in Europe. In Shargorod tragedies have taken place several times – the pogroms of Khmelnitsky and the Gaidamaks, but the Jews still returned to the town. Today there are practically no Jews in Shargorod. Has the town lost its Jewish presence forever?

I believe that unfortunately this town has ceased to be Jewish. It is difficult and distressing for me to say this, but everything Jewish that was in Shargorod will never return.

There is a synagogue, but there are no Jews in this synagogue. I was invited by Boris Matsfir from Yad Vashem, he is making a documentary film about the Holocaust in Transnistria, and he asked me to show him my house. Not only could I not find my house, I didn’t recognize my street. The street was a part of the ghetto, and today there is not a single Jew there, and not a single Jewish building.

The 20th century was one of the bloodiest in the history of humanity. But researchers of genocides say that the 21st century may be no less tragic…

Unfortunately, we are witnesses of the conflicts which led to genocides in the past. I believe that the migration processes that are happening now, all of these events in the Maghreb countries, hatred of one group of people towards another, do not inspire positive forecasts.

It is hard to say what will happen in the future, including in the former Soviet Union and Ukraine.

What messages to future generations can a person give who lived through one of the most terrible tragedies in human history?

People need to learn to carry out one of the most important commandments of the Jewish wise men – to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.

Other words such as “Never again” are all very well, but unfortunately they do not work.

 

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