The Holocaust has become part of Ukraine’s history: Marianna Kiyanovska talks about “Babyn Yar. In Voices”

Marianna Kiyanovska. (Copyright: Natalia Rainyk)

Marianna Kiyanovska talks about her new poetry collection Babyn Yar. In Voices and reads some poems from her book. The focus of our conversation is the degree to which the Holocaust theme is represented in Ukrainian culture.

Iryna Slavinska:  A little over a year ago we began talking about the collection Babyn Yar. In Voices. I remember that this was a joint interview with Boris Khersonsky, and we talked generally about the presence of the Holocaust theme in Ukrainian literature and Ukrainian culture, poetry. So, now we will return to this topic. In your estimation, as that of a careful reader and festival visitor, where do debuts of many poems take place? To what extent is the Holocaust theme present in Ukrainian literature or Ukrainian poetry today?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  It seems to me that it is at the level of readiness for discourse. I think that in terms of real books read, this topic is still not developed at all. In other words, there is no comparison either with Germany or the United States. But on the level of readiness for discourse, this already exists. I once thought about this theme of readiness for discourse. I think that it can be compared, for example, with [Friedrich] Nietzsche’s appearance in European culture. That is, Nietzsche was practically not read, but everyone suddenly began talking about him. And in five, eight, fifteen, twenty years Nietzsche will finally be read. But at first there was this readiness for discourse.

It seems to me that our society at this moment is at the point where over the next ten to fifteen years the topic of the Holocaust, the Holodomor, and other difficult subjects will become discourses; full-fledged discourses with read books, with a certain background, with a certain number of written books. Because I began counting inadvertently what had come out, and also what Neda Nezhdanova had written and staged for the theater, and, maybe, two or three book titles. In 25 years this is very little.

Iryna Slavinska:  Here and there small episodes take place, but of course there are very few texts about the Holocaust or about the memory of the Holocaust. Just as there were no films in cinematography until the first Ukrainian film about the Holocaust came out, and this was a film by the Crimean Tatar director Akhtem Seitablaev. 

Straightaway I have a few questions on the motifs related to your first response. One I will definitely link up with the recent interview with the French historian Philippe de Lara. He and I talked about the specifics of memory. And he drew attention to the fact that before 1991 people in Ukraine didn’t know either about the Holocaust or the Holodomor, or about the deportation of the Crimean Tatars. The genocides on the territory of Ukraine were generally not talked about very much. Do you agree with this, and why the date of 1991 in particular? Did independence and the thawing of human rights movements play a role, or did something else change?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  I will try to give three different answers, if I may. One thing is the biological factor. About myself I can say that part of my childhood was spent in the Jewish center of Zhovkva. It was quite close to my house, there was a market there. And from time to time we would come across matsevahs [gravestones], and we had no idea what they were.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is the market still there?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  Yes, and there are still matsevahs beneath the soil. It is simply because the soil was not tamped down very much, and they kept getting disinterred. So, we used to play “Treasure Island” there, and other games. This relates to the question of the scale of displacement. I did not think about until around 1992 or 1993. And when I suddenly began thinking about this, I thought about it in a different sense. It occurred to me that Zhovkva had stopped being a city because the Jews had left Zhovkva. It was the early 1990s, when Jews were leaving small towns; at least in western Ukraine it had quite a mass character. And suddenly all the concerts that had taken place there occasionally at the Building of Culture disappeared. Suddenly the used-book trade vanished from the city.

Iryna Slavinska:  Were these specific types of occupations in which the population was employed, or was it simply that a need—culture—disappeared upon their departure?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  This is a space of added interest, will, certain efforts, intentions. Then it also occurred to me that the Jews had always been here, but we did not see them. There was a synagogue, a unique Renaissance monument in Zhovkva. And later I realized that І was the first of several families, streets, to be interested in the Jews. This was purely on the level of curiosity; it had no other contexts whatsoever. Later, when I began reading regional histories, I started thinking: Where are the Jews in our regional histories? And suddenly it became clear that in Zhovkva, long before Ivan Fedorov in Lviv, there existed a printing house that did not work simply with the Cyrillic alphabet, because it was a Jewish printing house.

Biologically, I am the first generation, that is, people born in my time, who entered university in independent Ukraine; [a generation] whose curiosity has not been crushed by a biological fear that says if I become interested in other destroyed people, then I will be killed. This is the biological aspect.

Iryna Slavinska:  What is the second one?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  The second one is connected to Ukraine’s openness to Europe in a different way than the way Russia, for example, is open to Europe. In our country the space of interaction is different; we are not tourists in Europe. We are people in Europe who are communicating, studying somewhere in universities in some programs, and we have an opportunity to read books. In other words, we are interacting with Europe on the level of the history of ideas.

And suddenly it became clear that there was a whole number of blank spots where I can’t be an interlocutor. How can this be that I can’t talk about the Holocaust? And I don’t know about the Holocaust. And then I begin to read about the Holocaust. And it seems to me that many people had a more or less similar experience, and many began to be interested in what they had not been interested earlier, not for reasons of empathy but a different empathy: You had a need to understand what this is about. The third subject is the subject of empathy. For me, especially after the Maidan, although certain things had evolved before that, it suddenly became clear that all this is actually “we,” it’s a multilevel “I.” At one time, when Mariana Savka and I were taking part in a writers marathon in Lviv pegged to Mother Language Day, there was one thing that we clearly omitted in our message. We did not write “Ukrainians”; we wrote “citizens of Ukraine.”

Iryna Slavinska:  Thereby expanding the framework.

Marianna Kiyanovska:  Absolutely expanding the framework of this Mother Language Day to identity, not mother language. There were people who understood this, there were people who did not understand this, and right now it is a principled stand to underline that language correlates with identity, but language is not reduced to identity, and identity is not reduced to language.

After 2014 I undertook a conscious study of the history of the Jews, Crimean Tatars, Poles, and Silesians, masses of whom worked here, in western Ukraine, during the era of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a shared environment that, together, created Ukraine.

Iryna Slavinska:  Like a kind of mirror for oneself and for someone who lives next to you.

Marianna Kiyanovska:  This third answer is entirely connected to the Maidan. That is, certain things were formed, they were in play, but crystallization and comprehension took place on the Maidan. I still remember the events tied to the Open Library, when the Maidan suddenly realized the need for books, when this library was being formed out of books in various languages, when there were very many English-language books.

I remember my interlocutor on the Maidan saying: “My identity is freedom.” And I committed this to memory. The identity of a Ukrainian as a bearer of freedom, the idea of freedom not just as an idea but as joint action—this was very important to me at the time. And at that moment the Holocaust became part of the history of Ukraine for me.

Iryna Slavinska:  We concluded the previous part of our conversation with some very valuable reflections on a number of reasons that allow us to understand and see the Holocaust as part of Ukrainian history. And we are getting close to Marianna Kiyanovska’s poetry collection. Of course, there is the eternal question, “How did everything begin?” How did the Holocaust theme come to you as a poet? How did you begin writing about this?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  I didn’t come to it at all. It so happened that my Dad died. Before this, I had obtained confirmation stating that I was a participant in the Gaude Polonia scholarship program in Warsaw, and I went to translate Bolesław Leśmian. I am translating Leśmian, internally I was mourning the loss of my father, I lived in absolute numbness from December to the beginning of July, and in early July I began writing poems about the ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation Zone, the term denoting the war in eastern Ukraine—Trans.]. I wrote two short stories about children from the Donbas, so I was strongly embedded in the subject of what was going on in the Donbas.

And all of a sudden, I began to realize that a few poems written about the ATO, which I had been thinking about, are simply urban stories about the Donbas.

Iryna Slavinska:  And they’re not about the ATO.

Marianna Kiyanovska:  And they’re not about the ATO. I posted several of them. At the same time a few people reacted, [saying] that this is about Babyn Yar. In other words, in posting them on Facebook, I myself had not fully understood. Eventually Tania Teren invited me to read my poems at Babyn Yar; poems that had been written before they were read at Babyn Yar. They can be recognized easily in the book; they are completely different, they are still a bit literary. And in Babyn Yar something simply clicked. A connection simply happened.

Iryna Slavinska:  What do you mean by “something clicked”?

Marianna Kiyanovska:  I think that this was my physical presence at that moment, because I was already riding that wave. And these voices truly began to speak to me. In fact, I wrote 302 poems, and 64 were included in the book, because for me the point was to make this book possible for the psyche. It made no sense to put all 302 poems in the book; no one would be able to read this. I will publish them later somehow.

Incidentally, among those 302, not all are Jews. Babyn Yar is not reduced to Jews. There are also concrete people there, but at a certain point the voices went…. I have two poems that are written in the voices of the Roma. Moreover, to me they are so terrible and heavy that I have never read them.

Intensive writing lasted the entire autumn, until December 2016; this is the anniversary of my Dad’s death. Then I wrote the last eight poems—and that was it. They were being written by me in such a way that I was writing several poems at a time, then for several days I would simply lie in bed without being able to get up. And my family told me that they would have taken me to hospital if not for the fact that at the very moment that it was time to sit down and write, I would get up, sit down marvellously, write marvellously, and then lie down again and stare at the ceiling.

These poems were written entirely without corrections. There is a huge number of names in them. I didn’t think about this earlier. Ira Starovoit told me during a moderated discussion in Lviv that, obviously, these dead who are always joined together, that is, nearly 34,000 [shot] in two days, these are the dead who forfeited the dignity of death. They were deprived of that dignity; they are talked about only in terms of the immense number of victims, but these are concrete people.

At first, I didn’t understand where all these names had come from. There are tons of Aliks there. Then, after writing, I even began thinking that Alik is Oleksii, Oleksandr, and even Arkadii.

Iryna Slavinska:  Even Oleh.

Marianna Kiyanovska:  There was an immense number of Aliks, as well as a huge number of poems in which the topic of denunciations figured. Later, once I had written this, I began thinking. I talked about this with a few people, that in actuality the phenomenon of Kyiv and the roundup operations after the shootings in Babyn Yar lay in the fact that these roundup operations were based on denunciations, because society had been taught that if you denounce [someone], you will somehow save yourself.

See also the interview with Leonid Finberg about Ukrainian Righteous Among the Nations. On the procedure of granting the title of Righteous Among the Nations, see the interview with the historian Andriy Rukkas.

Iryna Slavinska:  Although the Stalinist repressions were supposed to reveal the falsity of this rule, it doesn’t always work that way.

Marianna Kiyanovska:  But there were people who believed that it did work. Perhaps the number of victims after the main shootings might have been much smaller if not for these denunciations. At first, I thought that this is an entirely different story—where did these denunciations come from? Denunciations, followed by denunciations, denunciations followed by denunciations…

And another thing that I couldn’t understand is where did the map of prewar Kyiv in my head come from? I remember that I telephoned Yuri Volodarsky and said: “Listen, what is Yevbaz [Jewish Market]? Yevbaz is in my fourth poem, but I don’t know what it is.” For me this was proof that they appropriated me. I think that some sort of very strange mystical thing, which had begun earlier, was at work here.

Philippe Sands’s book East West Street was showcased at the 2017 Publishers’ Forum; a very important book that reveals the history, among other things, of the presence of Jewry and other things. Philippe Sands said that the key concepts of the Nuremberg trials came from Lviv and Zhovkva: genocide and crimes against humanity; from Lviv and Zhovkva. And here is a very interesting thing. Mariana Savka begins working on Philippe Sands’s book when my Babyn Yar does not exist yet. I, too, am from Zhovkva. Zhovkva encompasses two stories. On the one hand, these are the people about whom Philippe Sands writes, and, on the other is I, who did not have any Jews in my family. The ancestors of Philippe Sands were born in Zhovkva, when he came to Lviv the first time and decided that he would write a book about this, when it turned out that he and Mariana Savka have mutual friends. Mariana Savka and I have been friends for 27 years. When you begin to think about these interlacements, you begin to think that this story began, in fact, in 1882, and for me this is also a very interesting subject that did not exist until the Publishers’ Forum. Before the Forum, I simply could not know about it.

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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