In The Jews of Silence, Elie Wiesel writes that there is only one reason why a Jew travels to Kiev. That is to see Babi Yar. So it was for me when a few years ago, I returned to Kiev, thirty years after my family had surrendered their Soviet passports, became stateless, emerged through the gauntlet of abuse and ritual humiliation that applying to abandon the Soviet Union entailed, and quit that place forever. My family had lived and toiled and fallen in defence of that soil for as many generations as we can trace. Yet the material aggregate of our family history was a few canvas bags crammed with photo albums and the necessities that my parents and grandparents assumed could not be obtained outside the Soviet sphere, ceramic containers adorned with little moles and hedgehogs and a couple of Zenit wristwatches that could be pawned if circumstances necessitated.
When I landed back in Kiev, after successfully making it through passport control without being denounced as a rootless cosmopolitan or interrogated as a Zionist agitator (the clerk was in fact genial bordering on flirtatious), I felt a great anxiety to get to Babi Yar immediately as if to see a frail relative for whom time was limited. Kiev is a glorious city, particularly in late September when I arrived. The weather is still mild, the air is sharp and filled with the smell of chestnuts that leaves you heady, the food is sensational, the sites are powerful and evocative. But none of this interested me. Not even the black caviar in the Bessarabian Market or the statue of Bulgakov and the debauched feline from The Master and Margarita, at his feet. All I wanted was to be at the killing field known as Babi Yar.
Just a few years ago, the story of what happened in that place, was virtually unknown, except by scholars and deep readers of the Holocaust. But every Jew from the Soviet Union knows the words “Babi Yar” and is immediately frozen into panic by them. Babi Yar stands for the culmination of centuries of degrading the Jew in the eyes of the wider population. The church, the Tsars, the intelligentsia, the propaganda of the Communist Party and the lionised nationalist butchers like Bogdan Chmelnitsky all bear responsibility for this.
When I travelled to Babi Yar, it was in part an act of commemoration to honour the memories of our sacred dead across Europe. To remember the lives of the Jews of Kiev, people indistinguishable from me in appearance, in native tongue, in cuisine, and to contemplate by what chance my family had the fortune to be evacuated a few weeks before the city fell, a turn of fate through which I was born, and 33,771 wretched souls went to that ravine in late September 1941 joined by tens of thousands more over the remainder of the war.
I also came in hope of grasping how the events that happened there could occur. How it could be that within days of the withdrawal of the Red Army from the city, a peaceful, well-integrated civilian community could simply be plucked from their ordinary lives and led to that ravine, looted, stripped naked and murdered in their tens of thousands. How could their Ukrainian neighbours line the streets to watch the spectacle of howling Jewish children being taken to die, of old women carrying their bundles to nowhere, while the unceasing staccato of gunfire played the beat of their slow death march? How could they have cheered and taunted, helped themselves to the possessions of people among whom they had lived for generations, and deposited more tip-offs to the Germans about hiding Jews than the Nazis could process? And how could these scenes be repeated, day after day, in towns and cities and villages across thousands of miles of Soviet territory?
How was it that a force of 3,000 killers of the Einsatzgruppen could be allowed to carry out the murders of 1.5 million people in a land they did not know? How could it pass that the well-educated, cultured men that filled the ranks of the killing squads could perform their work of hunting and terminating every single Jew, not only with a deathly efficiency but with an unmistakable sadism?
What cowardice, what malice, what mania lurks within ordinary men and women that such crimes, rendered on the weak and defenceless, could occur?
It was my vain attempt to gain some insight into these questions that had drawn me to Kiev. And I left no closer to understanding. Only with a fear that everything we think we know about one another, the rationalism and underlying goodness that we claim for ourselves and thus impute to others, is a mirage. That all it takes is upheaval, the erosion of order and the emergence of opportunity for aspects of humanity that we pretend don’t exist, to overwhelm everything.
I nevertheless returned home with a renewed determination to ensure that what happened to the Jews of the Soviet Union during the Holocaust, the identities of their killers, the depravity of their methods and the stories of their victims should be known to every Jew. I am not alone in this undertaking. Over the past few years, articles have been published in journals and newspapers, commemoration ceremonies have been held, a monument was unveiled in Sydney, and a spectacular production of Shostakovich’s Babi Yar Symphony was staged in Melbourne. The decision by the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies to focus this year’s Yom HaShoah event on the Holocaust in the former Soviet Union will mean a great deal to every Australian Jew of Soviet descent. More than that, it will mean that through these acts of remembrance and education, in some small way, we have thwarted the killers who sought to obliterate not only Jewish life but any memory that our people ever lived and died.
Alex Ryvchin is the Co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the author of Zionism – The Concise History. He will be delivering the keynote address at the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 7.