Fifty years after the Nazis slaughtered tens of thousands of people, mostly Jews, in a ravine outside Kiev, a Ukrainian leader stood at Babi Yar and vowed that such an atrocity must never happen again.
“Anti-Semitism still finds in some places its speakers, but they will have to know they will get no support on Ukrainian lands,” Leonid Kravchuk, the president of the Ukrainian Parliament, told a crowd of about 10,000 who gathered on a chilly autumn evening to honor those killed.
“The history of the relations between the Ukrainian and Jewish peoples . . . has both brilliant and black pages,” Kravchuk continued. “But let us remember not just to preserve old wounds but to ensure this does not happen in the future.”
Kravchuk’s speech was the first time that the Ukrainian government has so publicly and unequivocally acknowledged before the world the anti-Semitism that led some Ukrainians to collaborate with the Nazis during World War II.
Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, in a message read to the memorial ceremony, strongly condemned the anti-Semitism that persists in his country today and criticized those government bodies and political groups that have failed to use perestroika (restructuring) to “create an atmosphere of rejection and condemnation of the manifestations of anti-Semitism.”
“Babi Yar shows that Jews were among the first Nazi victims, both in our country and in all of Europe,” Gorbachev declared. “The Nazis speculated on the lowest feelings of envy, national intolerance and hatred. They used anti-Semitism as a major means to infect people’s minds with chauvinism and racism.
“Venomous sprouts of anti-Semitism sprang in the Soviet Union. The Stalin bureaucracy, which publicly dissociated itself from anti-Semitism, in fact used it as a means to isolate the country from the outside world and strengthen their dictatorial position with the help of chauvinism.
“The years of perestroika and renovation have radically changed the social atmosphere in the country,” Gorbachev’s message added. “However, manifestations of anti-Semitism that still exist in our everyday life play into the hands of some reactionary circles.”
The statements were greeted with cheers from the crowd, who included survivors of Babi Yar, and their relatives occupying seats of honor in the outdoor amphitheater.
Israeli flags mingled there with Ukrainian ones. Some people lit candles, others carried signs that proclaimed “Vilnius Ghetto” or “Riga Ghetto.” Thousands of visitors stood patiently under poplar trees for more than three hours as night fell to hear speeches by dignitaries and delegations from Israel, Germany and the United States.
“Babi Yar is a place of shame to us as Germans,” said Rita Lissmuth, vice president of the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s Parliament, adding that her entire country and not just the Nazis shared the blame.
Although the Soviet government erected monuments to Babi Yar in 1966, it was not until this year that it acknowledged that the majority of those killed were Jews.
But the new Ukrainian government has begun correcting the historical record. Schoolbooks are being revised to teach children the true history. The grand boulevards of Kiev were hung with banners last week commemorating the tragedy at Babi Yar, where the massacres began Sept. 29, 1941.
And along Kreshchatik, Kiev’s main thoroughfare, the government has mounted a large exhibit of historical photographs and eyewitness accounts by survivors of the massacres.
Passersby stop in their tracks as if mesmerized by the public airing of this once-forbidden topic. Most linger over the exhibit. Some clutch their chests, then move on in silence. Others turn to neighbors to relate their own memories of the days when Kiev’s Jews were rounded up on the streets and marched off to their deaths.
Ukrainian partisans, Gypsies and war prisoners were also killed at Babi Yar, but the first--and the most--to die were Jews.
“It touches the very bottom of my heart,” said Yuri Prekhodko, 21, a student, staring at a photo of women clutching their ragged infants even in death. “It is very good that they have this exhibit. They should also put it in every town in the Soviet Union.
“It is important for the people to know, especially in the dangerous political time we are living through now.”
The week’s events also recognized Ukrainians who risked their lives to help Jews escape the Nazis.
Bartuk Abranovich, 63, one of those present at Babi Yar on Saturday, said he owed his life to Ukrainians who sheltered him as a teen-ager.
“Thank you to the Ukrainian people who saved us,” Abranovich said, smiling and waving a commemorative banner. “It is very great happiness for Ukrainians that we can observe this day together.”
After Kravchuk finished speaking, two friends from Kiev stomped their feet to keep warm and accent their different views about what the Ukrainian leader’s speech meant for their country.
“I want to believe Kravchuk to be sincere,” said Simon Tusdelovsky, a concert producer, who is Jewish. “But politics is politics, and in December the presidential elections will come.”
He suggested that Kravchuk might have been courting votes from Kiev’s 120,000 Jews.
His friend Gennady Korzh, editor of a youth newspaper in Kiev, was more optimistic. “It was a very good gesture toward Jews here,” said Korzh, who is not Jewish.
“It seems the government understands that anti-Semitism has to be killed and that Jews are a necessary part of Ukrainian culture.”