A United Nations Conference Room teemed with over 600 Russian Jews, most of them quite elderly and some wearing Soviet army uniforms with colorful military decorations. Images of the mass graves testifying to the Babi Yar massacre of September 1941, when 33,771 Jews were killed, flashed on two huge screens as the Jan. 25 conference commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day opened.
Seeming to arise out of the anonymous piles of skeletal bodies on the screen were photographs of some who had died 70 years ago in the Babi Yar slaughter, in a ravine on the outskirts of Kiev.
The conference brought together representatives of Ukraine, Israel, and American Jewish and Ukrainian organizations to recall this horrific past. The moderator, Valery Kuchinsky—former permanent representative of Ukraine to the United Nations and professor of international relations at Columbia University—called Babi Yar “the largest massacre in the history of the Holocaust—evil at its worst.”
Participants pledged to act for a better future. Yuri Sergeyev, permanent representative of Ukraine to the United Nations, said, “Today’s gathering in the UN is not only for the sake of memory but to demonstrate our solidarity to prevent any Holocaust in the future.” Along those lines, Alexander L. Levin, president of the Greater Kiev Jewish Community, announced the formation of a new organization, the World Forum of Russian-Speaking Jewry. The group’s purpose is “to bring together the Russian-speaking Jews of the world and save us and others from the next catastrophe and to protect our national land and the State of Israel.
“We stand ready to unite against the nuclear program of Iran,” Levin said. “We will not let another Holocaust engulf us.”
The new world forum can serve as “a bridge between East and West, between the U.S. and Russia and Ukraine, and save the people of this planet from the impending danger of the new genocide,” Levin said.
In the months that followed the two-day Babi Yar slaughter, more than 100,000 Jews, Russians, gypsies, and others were killed. However, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, the truth about this horrific event had been kept secret. Sergeyev noted, “The official monument in 1976 did not include Jews as victims, because of Soviet anti-Semitism. But on Sept. 29, 1991, Ukraine remembered the horror with a week-long series of commemorations that ended 50 years of Soviet silence on the Nazi killing of Jews at Babi Yar.”
Ron Prosor, permanent representative of Israel to the UN, lamented the fact that the Babi Yar murders happened in a populated area, but no one responded. Prosor’s father fled Nazi Germany. “This massacre was not carried out in a concentration camp or in forests beyond the public eye,” he said. “It happened where everyone could see it.”
Prosor noted that in today’s world, state-sponsored anti-Semitism persists through hated-filled textbooks and religious leaders spouting racism, and that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was able to deny the Holocaust before the UN. As Jews, he said, we must know not just what we stand for, but what we stand against. “Those who call for our destruction must be taken at their word,” he said. “We must know what we do when we face evil.”
Ukrainian-Jewish artist Mikhael Turovsky escaped with his mother and brother from Kiev, where he was born in 1933, just before the Nazis arrived. However, he explained, “most of my relatives, close and distant, died at Babi Yar.” Because the official Soviet story did not mention Jews as victims, he felt he needed to create his own artistic monument. “As an artist,” he said, “I was responsible to help these men and women live in the minds of those who still live and to help a new generation understand that they were not just numbers and footnotes in the books of history.”
After presenting a folio of reproductions of his Babi Yar paintings, he said the events of this year “are not just a Jewish tragedy, but a human tragedy.”
David Harris, president of the American Jewish Committee and a child of survivors, spoke about three artists who have tried to remember Babi Yar: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich, and Anatoly Kuznetzov. Kuznetsov’s documentary novel is based largely on the saga of actress Dina Pronicheva, who had been left for dead at Babi Yar.
Chillingly, Harris quoted from the end of Kuznetsov’s book: “Let me emphasize again that I have not told anything about anything exceptional, but ordinary things that were part of a system…People were exactly as they are today.”
Harris described how in September, when Ahmadinejad spoke before the 194 member nations of the UN and proclaimed that the Holocaust did not happen, a number of principled countries walked out, but most stayed and applauded him. “Why does President Ahmadinejad seek to extinguish memory of the Holocaust?” Harris asked. “Because it makes it easier to target and villainize the Jewish people and their collective and sovereign expression, the state of Israel.”
Dr. Taras Hunczak, a Ukrainian professor emeritus of history and political science at Rutgers University, spoke to some of the ironies of history and the fickleness of human beings. Because the Ukrainians, for example, had great hopes that the Nazis would help them create their own state, they had been willing to collaborate with the Nazis. But six days after the Ukrainians declared an independent Ukrainian state, the Nazis arrested the head of the nationalist organization and sent him to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. “The German reaction was the beginning of the Ukrainian resistance movement against the Nazis; had they not done that, there would probably would have been millions of Ukrainian collaborators,” Hunczak said.
Hunczak also urged those present to remember the righteous gentiles who helped save Jews during the war. His own father risked his son’s life, by making him a courier to the ghetto to save the lives of some Jewish families.
“I asked my father before he died, ‘Dad, do you remember you sent me to the ghetto? They could have killed me,’” Hunczak recalled. “He replied, ‘I know, son, but people had to help people.’”