The Ukrainian government is facing allegations of historical revisionism after announcing plans to revamp the Babi Yar massacre site to turn it into a generic symbol of human suffering rather than a quintessential emblem of the Holocaust.
In preparation for September’s 75th anniversary of the massacre at the ravine in Kiev where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered in a two-day period in 1941, a government- backed design competition invited architectural proposals to resolve what it sees as a “problem” of a “discrepancy between the world’s view and Jewry’s exclusive view of Babi Yar as a symbol of the Holocaust.”
But the contest’s rules were revised on Monday after an outpouring of anger by Jewish groups around the world against a perceived attempt to diminish the site’s Jewish significance, including questions put by The Jerusalem Post to Ukrainian officials about the project.
Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial said the language initially used by competition organizers was “very problematic,” and indicated an attempt to distort history and redefine the massacre as “a universal tragedy and not a unique Jewish tragedy” caused as a result of a German policy to eradicate the Jewish people.
“Given the sanctity of the grounds at Babi Yar, the final resting place of tens of thousands of Jews who suffered an unimaginably horrifying end, any attempt to ‘universalize’ or ‘contextualize’ their suffering and death would constitute an unacceptable distortion of the truth,” said World Jewish Congress CEO Robert Singer.
Singer called on Kiev to “rethink this idea and memorialize the Jewish victims of Babi Yar in a way that neither obscures their identity nor the historical truth [that] they were murdered for no other reason than the fact that they were Jews.”
Jerusalem-based Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Center said that given the uniquely Jewish nature of the massacre, it should not be linked to the fate of other victims, who should be commemorated “separately, in a differentway, elsewhere.”
UJE co-director Adrian Karatnycky, an ethnic Ukrainian, told the Post that the initial intent of the contest had been to make the park in which Babi Yar is located a “more respectful place and a more dignified place of memory.”
Karatnycky said that when the UJE became aware of the language, it made the rounds of governmental and civil society partners in Ukraine to emphasize that the wording was unacceptable.
However, due to issues of bureaucracy, it took several weeks before a change could be made. “There should be no equivocation. It must be understood that the Holocaust was a unique historical event intended to wipe out an entire ethno-cultural people, and [that] it’s intent was global,” Karatnycky said.
The new text, which went online on Monday afternoon, acknowledged Babi Yar as “a symbol of the Holocaust” and “Nazi Germany’s ambition to destroy all Jews throughout the world, a unique atrocity in human history.”
Since the site is both a Jewish pilgrimage site as well a “place of remembrance for all citizens of Ukraine and Kyivans who recall the crimes of the Jewish Shoah as well as other horrors of the Nazi occupation and Soviet totalitarian rule,” as well as a recreational park, “the aim of the competition should be to create a clearly marked out space” for remembrance.
“After the competition was already announced, the competition brief generated an important discussion among international and North American Jewish and Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations,” the organizers wrote explaining the revised text.
“These constructive consultations resulted in edits to the competition brief, aimed chiefly at underscoring the particular significance of the tragedy of the Holocaust for the history of Babi Yar.
“At the same time, the edits focused the attention of the competition entrants on providing aesthetic and architectural solutions, rather than ideological ones, for creating a holistic memorial space which would be open for further memorial efforts that would follow a dialogue and result from cooperation of different communities and segments of the Ukrainian society. The composition of the jury was also broadened to include wellknown historians specializing in the history of World War II, the Holocaust, and the politics of memory.”
While Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko did admit to Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust during a speech before the Knesset in December, his signing of a bill honoring the UPA, a nationalist militia that historians say took part in the Holocaust has ruffled feathers in the West.
One of the principle architects of that bill is Volodymyr Viatrovych, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, also sits on the National Organizing Committee backing the contest.
Both the UPA law and the current Babi Yar initiative are symptomatic of a larger issue in Ukrainian society, according to committee member Eduard Dolinsky, the head of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee.
While the contest organizers did acknowledge the role of Ukrainians who betrayed Jews to the Nazis so that they could be killed, he told the Post that the presence of those he described as Ukrainian nationalists on the committee has led to efforts to revise history in more than one way.
Some members of the committee stated their intention during their meetings to also bring guests at commemorations to the graves of members of the national movement who were later killed at the site after their factions split with the Germans, or, as he put it, “to recognize the fight of those who collaborated with Nazis.”
It has also been proposed to erect an “Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations,” to honor non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. However, since Yad Vashem has only recognized 100 such people from Kiev, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk instructed Viatrovych to “create our own Ukrainian standards criteria for righteous of the world in order to enlarge this number,” Dolinsky said.
“In recent years Viatrovych has been trying to whitewash the UPA by providing fake stories of Jews fighting for the UPA, and he is behind the law banning of criticism of the UPA. We are against Babi Yar being turned into another pit, just a simple pit where everyone was killed and thrown into it. First of all it was a place of the Holocaust,” Dolinsky said.
A spokesman for Yad Vashem confirmed to the Post that chairman Avner Shalev will meet with Kiev Mayor Vitali Klitschko in Jerusalem on Tuesday to discuss the former’s proposal, unrelated to the contest, to construct a memorial museum at Babi Yar.
“Babi Yar is Holocaust symbol for the world and for Ukraine,” Viatrovych told the Post on Monday.
“That is why state events are planned this year to commemorate the memory of Jews, mass shooting victims, killed at this place in September 1941. The Ukrainian Remembrance Institute, preparing a special exhibition on the topic, has supported an idea of an open competition to create holistic Babi Yar memorial.
“Ukrainian Jewish Encounter will be competition organizer. It has prepared competition rules resulting in identification of the need to memorize Babi Yar as a Holocaust symbol. The rules were corrected specifically for this purpose, and the Institute supports the suggested changes. Memories about the Holocaust are an integral part of Ukraine’s history.”