UJE Concludes Babyn Yar Commemorative Program

UJE board member, Adrian Karatnycky at the opening of UJE's Babyn Yar program.
UJE board member, Adrian Karatnycky at the opening of UJE's Babyn Yar program.

The Canadian-based charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter successfully presented its much-anticipated program commemorating the 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar, which was held in Kyiv from September 23-29. The program featured four distinct projects: a student conference; a public symposium, which included the introduction of a groundbreaking book on Babyn Yar; a landscape design competition; and a memorial concert.

The effort took nearly two years to plan and was widely applauded both in Ukraine and abroad. The UJE worked in cooperation with the World Jewish Congress, Ukraine’s government, and other Ukrainian Jewish and diaspora organizations to realize its program.

“Our goal was to turn the attention of Ukrainians and the world community to Babyn Yar and to show it is a very important symbol of a mass tragedy of the 20th century,” said UJE board member Paul Robert Magocsi, who along with his colleague Adrian Karatnycky spearheaded the program. “All of this was done to leave concrete things behind us.”

Babyn Yar, located in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, was the site of one of the worse Nazi atrocities during World War II. Nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered at Babyn Yar over a two-day period from 29-30 September 1941. The location has become a symbol of what is known as The Holocaust by Bullets, when some 1.5 million Jews were shot to death on the territory of what is now modern-day Ukraine.

Nearly two hundred young people from all over the world attended the youth conference, noted its coordinator, Dr. Ihor Shchupak of Dnipro’s Tkumah Institute for Holocaust Studies.

“We were able to get away from national egoism,” he said. “We remembered that our country was touched by three genocides: the Holodomor, the Holocaust, and the deportation of Crimean Tatars. We also talked about the Holocaust against the backdrop of the contemporary Russian-Ukrainian war. We understood there is no such thing as someone else's pain.”

Participants were particularly interested in hearing a discussion by Asher Cherkassy, an Orthodox Jew who fought in the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) against Russian aggression in Ukraine's eastern region, and the remembrances of Shimon Redlich, a Holocaust survivor who was saved by a Ukrainian family.

Professor Redlich’s film, Shimon’s Return, which documents his journey back to his birthplace of Berezhany in western Ukraine and the places where he lived in Poland after the war, was part of a series of films related to the Holocaust.

Ukraine’s award-winning writer Serhiy Zhadan concluded the youth conference with a sometime intense discussion on a poet’s view of war and Ukraine’s tumultuous history during the Second World War.

A two-day public symposium, which featured Holocaust scholars Timothy Snyder, Karel Berkhoff, and Norman Naimark, drew wide interest.

“We became a platform for discussing complex questions,” said Dr. Liudmyla Hrynevych, who organized the symposium. “We were able to break the unpleasant tradition of commemorating tragedies as local ethnic dramas.”

In his keynote address, Dr. Snyder spoke about Ukraine’s place in the Holocaust. At a later press conference Snyder noted that Hitler wanted to conquer Ukraine “because it played a very special role in his thinking. When he spoke of a “living space” he primarily implied Ukraine. Therefore, the war in the West was conducted by entirely different methods than in the East, where it was a war of extermination and colonization.”

Babyn Yar also provided Nazi Germany with a method of killing.

“After Babyn Yar they understood that they can massacre,” Dr. Snyder said. “At the end of September 1941, they had a model: shooting conducted by Germans with the help of local people. This way they exterminated 95% of Jews who were under their control in the occupied territory of the Soviet Union. Auschwitz was later.”

A special component of the public symposium was the presentation of the newly published book Babyn Yar: History and Memory. Presenting essays written by ten authors, including several who were symposium participants, the tome looks at the treatment of Babyn Yar in art, culture, and literature. It was published in both English- and Ukrainian-language editions by Kyiv’s Dukh i Litera Publishers.

“This book is not about death but about life, and about the battle for memory about Babyn Yar,” said Dr. Vladislav Hrynevych, who co-edited the book with Dr. Magocsi. “It also raises the question of what is the future of Babyn Yar. How is it to be organized?”

Videos of the public symposium will be posted on the UJE website in the coming weeks as will be a photo essay.

Another highlight of the week was the presentation of winning entries of an international landscape competition sponsored by the UJE as a first step in the expected creation of a necropolis at Babyn Yar.

There was no first place winner as the jury did not feel any of the entries fulfilled all its requirements. However, two second-place winners and a third-place winner provided a promising foundation for the creation of a memorial park at Babyn Yar, said Vitaliy Nakhmanovych, one of Ukraine’s leading Babyn Yar historians, who oversaw the competition management.

The competition winners were presented with awards by the UJE board chairman James C. Temerty.

On September 28, 2016, Mr. Temerty also presented Ivan Dziuba, the writer and former dissident, with the Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky Medal for 2016 at a dinner. The award was conferred by the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

The commemorative week concluded with a memorial concert, which featured the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra with performances by the renowned Ukrainian Dumka Chorus, operatic stars Gal James of Israel, Canada’s Benjamin Butterfield, Pavlo Hunka of England, and Canada’s Roman Borys. Ukraine native Oksana Lyniv, who currently works with the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, was conductor and the opera director Annechien Koerselman of the Netherlands staged the powerful performance.

Approximately 160 people were involved in the performance comprised of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, a form of Jewish prayer; the Kaddish-Requiem by Yevhen Stankovych, based on the poems of Dmytro Pavlychko; and A German Requiem by Johannes Brahms.

“We created a very strong statement,” said Mr. Hunka, who was responsible for putting the memorial concert together. “We don't learn from the lessons of history. But through music we can better understand the world. Our concert united artists from the entire world. If we all unite then maybe, we can correct something.”