Josef Zissels ponders what the Babyn Yar Museum should be like
The history behind the creation of various projects to memorialize Babyn Yar is recounted by Josef Zissels, a former dissident and the current co-president of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, the VAAD of Ukraine. We talked about memories and the commemorative space that is connected with the territory of Babyn Yar in Kyiv.
Iryna Slavinska: Of course, we have discussed this topic on Hromadske Radio’s Encounters program many times, and on several occasions we discussed projects aimed at reorganizing the Babyn Yar space. This may even be called an accomplishment that includes elements of memory and various markers which will help people who are simply strolling through the park to recall what happened in Kyiv, when dramatic events were unfolding in Babyn Yar.
But today we will be discussing several projects, with a view to generalizing the existing situation. We begin with the project with which the VAAD of Ukraine had a direct relationship. This is a preserve, if I am using the proper term. Mr. Zissels, please tell us a bit more about it.
Josef Zissels: In recent decades a lot of stories have been spun around Babyn Yar, mostly dramatic stories, and to recount all of them in real time is very difficult because it will take a lot of time. But I would still like to remind people that it is worth complicating what is at first glance a simple picture, where there are pros and cons; a black-and-white picture. There are actually a lot of intermediate shadings between them. There are different attitudes to different projects. In 2006, under President [Viktor] Yushchenko, the well-known historian Vitaly Nakhmanovych, who is the executive secretary of the Babyn Yar Civic Committee, of which I am a member, together with me, came up with the idea to create a preserve. And we did this. He wrote the draft of a presidential ukase, I carried out appropriate lobbying activities, and the presidential ukase about creating a preserve came about in 2007. But, as often happens in our country, even great ideas are subsequently leveled by implementation—by the unnecessary implementation of these ideas. A bureaucratic structure was created with a certain workforce and schedule, but it was a purely economic structure, although no one had anticipated this because when we had Babyn Yar in mind, we had in mind, first and foremost, the preservation of memory. In other words, the project required the concentration of efforts on the part of academics, historians, and designers, who would work on this territory, on the preserve, in order to turn it into a memorial complex over time.
Iryna Slavinska: The address was at this location? Some kind of premises?
Josef Zissels: Various intrigues began after the ukase was issued, because an ukase is a piece of paper. Land should have been allocated for this preserve.
Iryna Slavinska: That’s always the main point.
Josef Zissels: Yes. And various games began, because there was the Kyiv Municipal Council; the Mayor’s Office took part in this. And various people who were already trying to acquire certain plots in Babyn Yar and had already acquired them. And all our efforts to ensure that all the land of Babyn Yar would be turned into a preserve failed. Only one section, 28 hectares, was reserved for the preserve, but it didn’t even abut on those plots where Russian businessmen are now trying to build their own memorial.
Iryna Slavinska: We’ll get to this point. In your column in Istorychna Pravda I read about the premises at 44 Melnykov Street; this is the former office of the Jewish Cemetery. Did people want to establish a preserve in this spot, which the VAAD of Ukraine is working to create?
Josef Zissels: No, at the time the preserve did not have a definite location. The issue was generally that a preserve was necessary, so that there would not be a wild grab of those lands and construction on them, because this is a very convenient area for construction. It’s nearly in the center of the city. But it was necessary to safeguard at least something. And at first we managed [to hang onto] these 28 hectares, but we were very dissatisfied. We wanted much more [land] to be part of the preserve; this will definitely be a problem for those who want to build. I’m not saying that these problems are insurmountable, because some people even resolve such problems, but at least this was something.
Iryna Slavinska: Yes, there are precedents for building on preserves.
Josef Zissels: We have known about this building for a long time. But the decision to create a Babyn Yar memorial museum there emerged only recently, when an organizing committee was working on marking the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Babyn Yar tragedy. That’s when the idea came about to create a state museum there to honor the memory of the victims of Babyn Yar. And the committee adopted such a decision. But, again, like always, the ends do not converge. A decision was adopted, but there was no financing at all for this. Moreover, in the seventeenth year, when the government finally allocated funds to restore this building, they [the funds] were in no way connected with the future museum because the decision about the museum was the organizing committee’s, but the government’s decision simply concerned the restoration. And this slowed down our actions to formulate a concept for the museum, because if this is the restoration of a building, then what’s the point of a museum? I met with the vice-premier on two occasion. I said: We have the decision of the organizing committee, there is a government decision. Connect them, so that it will be understood that these funds are being allocated for the restoration of the building, but in order to create a museum there.
Iryna Slavinska: How much money was there—those 27 million hryvnias?
Josef Zissels: Twenty-seven million for 2017, but since the group had still not formulated a concept, there were no requirements for the territory, for the building, for the interior, for the content, for engineering communications. All these funds were rolled over to this year, 2018, but eight months have already passed, and very little has been done. Although the first steps have already been taken: the concept has been published. The Institute of History at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine gathered sixteen historians, and they have done the first part, a narrative. It was published on the website of the Institute of History at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and it is slated for public discussion. Now we actually need some uncomplicated things: to translate it into English and send it to prominent scholars around the world for reviewing. But we have been at a standstill for three months.
Iryna Slavinska: Why? Are there no translators?
Josef Zissels: There are translators, but the ministry cannot decide who will conclude the agreement, because it so happens that everything is dealt with by the preserve. And the preserve, as I have already said, is not a scholarly institution, not an academic one, but an economic one.
Iryna Slavinska: Who heads this preserve? You say that this is an economic structure, it’s called the Babyn Yar National Historical-Memorial Preserve. You already mentioned a certain staff list. Are there people who are working?
Josef Zissels: Of course, there’s quite a large workforce, up to thirty people. It is headed by the director of the preserve. There is a large staff, but this is an economic structure. They are cleaning up there, they are doing renovations. They are not engaged in scholarly pursuits, in memorialization, etc. In other words, they have practically nothing to do. And when the ministry saddled them with the task of creating a museum, they were simply bewildered. They don’t know how to do this. And those structures that are ready to assist—we created a special fund to assist this project. We have funds. I say: let me do the translation. With this money we will pay for the reviewers’ services.
So far, the Ministry of Culture is still managing, because the preserve should be doing this. But for some reason the preserve does not want to do this. It’s impossible to get to the bottom of this. In other words, the usual. The state project is advancing very slowly, because there is no constant pressure from above, which would oblige them to do this work in a prompt and persistent manner.
Iryna Slavinska: Did you try speaking in person with the Minister of Culture, Yevhen Nyshchuk?
Josef Zissels: Of course. I spoke many times with him and his deputy, who is assigned to deal with this, and with people in the government, and I spoke with [Prime Minister] Groysman, and with [President] Poroshenko—I speak with whomever I can…
Iryna Slavinska: Then why isn’t it working out?
Josef Zissels: Because there are more important issues; there is the war, there’s the economic crisis; the elections are in the offing. And Babyn Yar is not the foremost issue.
But for us it is a very important issue, one of the most important ones because 77 years have nearly passed, and there is still no worthy memorial in that place. The area is in disorder. That’s precisely why the idea arose to tidy up the territory by means of a separate project. And it’s good that sponsors were found: our partners in Canada, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, which first allocated funds for holding a competition of ideas, landscape design ideas for arranging the features of this large, seventy-hectare territory.
Iryna Slavinska: Yes, I mentioned this competition at the beginning of our talk. How are things going with implementing the design project that won the competition?
Josef Zissels: A competition was held. Vitaly Nakhmanovych was the coordinator of this competition. It took place with the assistance of the International Union of Architects from Paris and other serious structures. Initially, 96 designs were submitted, I think. More than thirty were scrutinized by a jury, and second place through the seventh place was awarded; no one was awarded first place. Ideas for designing this territory came from various countries. It should include Babyn Yar itself and all the cemeteries around it, so that it will be a kind of provisional project called Babyn Yar: the Dorohozhychi Necropolis. In order to design not only the Babyn Yar area but all the surrounding cemeteries as well.
What nudged me toward this idea was what I saw once in Yerevan. It is a mountain of memory, which in the space of one day is visited by half the population of Armenia and visitors. A million people can cross this mountain in one day. All these small paths are built in such a way that the streams of people do not cross each other. At the summit the memorial itself is small, but the mountain makes a vivid impression. It is planted with trees; it’s like a mountain park. I remember it well. I was there for the ninetieth anniversary of the destruction of the Armenians by the Turks. And it made a big impression on me and nudged me toward doing something similar here. I explained the idea of holding a competition to the head of the Canadian foundation, James Temertey, and he agreed, and they did this. But then the same question arose: What is the state’s connection to this?
Iryna Slavinska: The state or the city.
Josef Zissels: Yes, the state and the city, because the land belongs to it; they should be interested. We discussed this idea in the organizing committee as well, but we have not received any reaction, positive and official. For the president to say: Yes, we like this idea, and for the city mayor to say, we too are allocating funds in order to realize this project. Because this project is basic; it concerns the entire territory. And later it will be possible to build something on this territory, arrange what is already there. There are already more than thirty makeshift monuments there.
Iryna Slavinska: We have been talking about two existing but unrealized projects that contain different strategies for preserving memory in Babyn Yar. We are talking in particular along the lines of Mr. Zissels’s column entitled “What is happening around Babyn Yar today,” which was published in Istorychna Pravda. Now we will move to the most polemical part. The debate around yet another project, the design of the Babyn Yar Memorial and Museum, has been going on for years. I remember that there was a long, open letter signed by Ukrainian historians, who condemned the concept that was proposed for that museum or memorial. It must be clarified for our listeners that at the present time it does not exist. We are only talking about the concept, the idea of how this can exist, how this memory can be constructed. But, as far as I recall, this is the only such project that elicited an open letter written by Ukrainian historians, who opposed it. Tell us a bit about this project. What is this memorial?
Josef Zissels: In the spring of 2016, when the organizing committee was already working on marking the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, I had a meeting in Kyiv with a businessman named Pavel Fuchs. He’s from Russia, from Moscow. He is a big developer in Moscow. At the time, I had already heard from someone that [Mikhail] Fridman and [German] Khan of Alfa-Group and Pavel Fuchs had an idea about building a Holocaust memorial in Kyiv. And Fuchs informed me at the time that they wanted to do a global project in Kyiv, better than the Holocaust Museum in Washington, better than Yad Vashem in Israel; a very global one. That they were prepared to bring and invest 100 million dollars in this.
Iryna Slavinska: An ambitious idea.
Josef Zissels: Super-ambitious. Since I have already acquired some experience in the various wars over Babyn Yar…
Iryna Slavinska: Memory wars?
Josef Zissels: Yes, memory wars. I said straightaway, right at this meeting, that before building something, you have to define the principles underpinning this project. Because, I say, we see a lot of obstacles on this path. If we come to an agreement right away, then cooperation is possible; if we don’t come to an agreement, opposition awaits us, unfortunately, like in 2002–2005, when a Jewish American organization wanted to build a Heritage Center in Babyn Yar. And I laid out these basic questions to him.
The first question was that the plot on which they want to build the memorial is located on the site of the former Jewish Cemetery. But, according to Jewish tradition, nothing can be built on it. Furthermore, there had already been attempts to build there. The businessman Vadim Rabinovich wanted to build something there in 2006. In fact, at the time he obtained the right to lease this territory. The issue then was that it was a cemetery, and in 2010 a letter arrived from the head of a rabbinical authority, the London-based Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe; his surname is [Rabbi Elyakim] Schlesinger. He is very elderly now, but he is still the formal head, and we are already dealing with his assistants. And there is this letter; it was published on the website of the Babyn Yar Civic Committee, and it states that, in accordance with Jewish law, nothing can be built on this territory.
But, but as always in our life, such bans are ignored, because, for example, opposite me sits a person, this Pavel Fuchs, who is worth billions of dollars, and behind him are Fridman and Khan, who are worth even more—and there I am. Who am I to them? Some civic activist from Ukraine, of whom there are many, without money, without anything. They think: Talk, talk, we have money, we’ll get through this. But the same thing happened in 2002. At the time, we issued a warning that you cannot build in a place where people were being killed. That Heritage Center was supposed to have 26 programs, including youth programs. But young people need to amuse themselves a bit, they can’t walk around being sad all the time. And here is the cemetery. We warned them about this.
Iryna Slavinska: This probably merits a comment. The issue is about religious precepts. For those same reasons, exhumation is impossible, reburial is impossible. There is a whole number of bans in this regard.
Josef Zissels: Of course. For this you need specific decisions handed down by a rabbinical court. For example, if necessary, if someone wants to move the remains of relatives, say, to another country, to rebury them. Yes, this can be done, but not easily. We warned about this at the time, but they brought in some kind of rabbinical office from Israel, paid big money in 2003, and they said that construction is possible, you only have to lay down a concrete slab. In other words, with money everything is possible.
So, these fellows decide that with money everything is possible. But two and a half years ago I explained to them that this will not work because this stirs up public opinion, and civic society will increasingly oppose this idea that was put forward in 2005. Above all, there will be a serious conflict. This is precisely the first question that will crop up, if you don’t find another plot of land. Later, once there was a general director of this memorial, Marek Siwiec—I knew him earlier from various angles; he’s a well-known politician in Poland and in Europe—I showed him five spots in that district, where a memorial could be built, without affecting the cemetery. Nevertheless, they decided to build on the site of the cemetery.
But that was not the only thing. I said: How can we proceed to the construction without a concept. In other words, we live in Ukraine, you are coming from Russia, with whom we already have problems.
Iryna Slavinska: The war was already going on in 2016.
Josef Zissels: The war is being waged by Russia. You are proposing something incomprehensible to us. How can you? Show us your project concept, we’ll talk later.
Iryna Slavinska: What is known about the concept at the present time? You have already talked about one reason behind the rejection, that is, the location. In terms of concept, what is it about this preserve that sparks your doubt?
Josef Zissels: A large group of international scholars is working on the concept; it is headed by Karel Berkhoff from the Netherlands. He is a fine scholar; he specializes in the Second World War. And they were involved in creating a concept; work on the concept is happening. We know that there is supposedly a concept; furthermore, there is even a 500-page narrative, but it is seen only by those who have access to this document. We were only shown 30–40 pages, I think; only 10 percent; extracts from this narrative. This text was discussed at the university in February.
Iryna Slavinska: Based on these pages, Ukrainian historians published an open letter. Correct?
Josef Zissels: In fact, there were, I think, even two letters written by Ukrainian academics. And this year we saw a small part of this narrative, and this is what we discussed, because there was nothing else to discuss; nothing else was published.
So, in that narrative that we were shown (as I understand it, they tried to show us the most positive part of this narrative, because they didn’t show anything else) there are many problems impeding acceptance by Ukrainians and Ukrainian scholars. And even for me, as a Ukrainian Jew, there are also big problems in accepting this narrative. For example, the concept of “Holocaust by Bullets” is used very actively. This term was introduced by Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest, who was researching burial sites in Ukraine. “Holocaust by Bullets” is actually an artificial concept…
Iryna Slavinska: But today it is fairly common, and there is a fair number of texts in which it is used.
Josef Zissels: People were shot everywhere. If more people were shot here than in other places, you have to think why. Because when the Germans were carrying out the Holocaust in Europe, perhaps they were a bit ashamed before public opinion and that’s why they transported…shot people in secret, sent them to death camps, to Auschwitz and others. And there, behind walls, they exterminated the Jews, so that information about this would not reach other countries. Once they reached the east, they stopped feeling ashamed. And here there are very important circumstances explaining why. Not only because it was farther away from the world but because this was the Soviet Union. Over the twenty years of its existence the Soviet Union had accustomed people to mass repressions. It had accustomed them to being indifferent to these repressions, that you must not react to this, otherwise you will be there, together with them, and this was taken into consideration. They were no longer ashamed of anything. And that’s why the specific circumstances, the specific features of the Holocaust in Ukraine were also determined, in my view, by the fact that Soviet power had been here for twenty years.
Josef Zissels: That is correct. Incidentally, Snyder, whom they wanted to recruit to their group, refused to join it, the reason being that it is impossible to write the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine without taking into account the preceding twenty years; it is simply impossible. In the narrative there was absolutely nothing said about this.
Iryna Slavinska: Another very important topic of discussion, I think—we’ll conclude with this thesis—is a conversation about whether Babyn Yar is a place of exclusively Jewish memory or not. Perhaps you remember the discussions surrounding the erection of the monument to Olena Teliha in Babyn Yar, which in the same way activates the memory of non-Jewish victims who were in Babyn Yar. To what extent does the concept of the memorial, which we are discussing, work with this topic?
Josef Zissels: This is mentioned in the part of the narrative that we saw. In other words, they realized that the memorial would not be accepted that way, let alone by the Ukrainian population. This is mentioned there, but the problem lies in the proportions of this memory, and the problem of whether this narrative will be realized—this very part of it. Because this is a closed project; it is a private one, the state does not figure in it; it is not known who will be admitted. There are only loyal people there, who will implement whatever appeals to those who are supplying the money. This is what troubles us.
I would like to continue talking about the concept, because there is another dubious mission that alarmed us. And that is: They are using the design motif of concentric circles in the center of Babyn Yar, and these circles then expand, then all of Kyiv, then the closest districts around Kyiv, then the periphery of Ukraine, then the countries that are outside Ukraine. In other words, the impression is created that, with this design, Kyiv and Babyn Yar are at the center of the Holocaust. Not Germany, which created the Holocaust, by implementing its racial theory of zoological Nazism, but Kyiv and Ukraine. In no way could we accept this. I am not a historian, but I too opposed this idea of concentric circles. And to this day—half a year has passed—to this day we don’t know if they rejected this design or not—they’re keeping quiet. But they are generating big PR throughout the world. They are going to Israel, they have been in Brussels, in the United States; the promotional efforts are intense. They are not even mentioning the scholars’ letters, the discussions of the narrative, which was roundly criticized.
Finally, one more thing. Why are big Russian businessmen, who are earning money in Russia and have large fortunes in Russia, where everything is controlled by Putin and his milieu, building a memorial in Ukraine, a country against whom Russia is waging a war?
Iryna Slavinska: I think that we will conclude with this. I should mention that if the representatives of the memorial have any feedback on some of the comments made today, it will be possible to do this live on Hromadske Radio. We have been talking about various memory strategies concerning the commemoration of the events in Babyn Yar in the context of the Holocaust in Ukraine and, of course, not just in Ukraine. I remind our listeners that our guest in the studio was Josef Zissels, who described the three projects that exist at this time and are being developed.
This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.
Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.
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