Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Welcome To The Babi Yar Hotel
There's a place in the Ukraine that was originally on the outskirts of Kiev, but has become a suburb of the city as it has expanded. To the Kiev city council,it was an ideal site for a tourist hotel to service the expected trade for the 2012 European soccer championship.
It's called Babi Yar.
Sixty eight years ago, it was the scene of something uniquely horrible in a time of horrors. The Nazis, with the cheerful assistance of Ukrainian 'Blue' police rounded up 33,741 Jewish men, women and children who lived in Kiev, made them strip naked and then forced them into a ravine and machine gunned them to death in one mass grave.
While the killing was going on, some of the Jews' Ukrainian neighbors looked on, enjoyed the show and ate a picnic lunch.
Babi Yar was part of the War Against the Jews in the Ukraine.It was the culmination of an effort that murdered over 700,000 Ukrainian Jews at the hands of the Germans and their Romanian and Ukrainian allies. The ravine itself became a favorite killing ground of the Nazis and their collaborators, and the site for the murder of Gypsies and Russian POWs as well as Jews, although it was overwhelmingly Jews whose corpses populated the ravine.
Babi Yar was never the site of any kind of memorial, although dissident Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a haunting poem in 1961 decrying the massacre and the attitude of the locals to what happened to the Jews there.
The Soviets finally put a memorial there in 1976, but it referred to 'the murder of innocent Soviet citizens by the fascist occupiers', and there was no mention of the fact that the victims were mostly Jews or about the extensive collaboration by the locals. The Soviets weren't interested in memorializing victims or regurgitating old memories. They had their own ghosts in the Ukraine they wanted forgotten, several million people they deliberately starved to death with an artificially created famine.
The first prominent Ukrainian to address Babi Yar honestly was the first president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, who made a fiery speech at a memorial gathering in October 1991. He actually admitted that Ukrainians shared some responsibility for carrying out the massacre, something that evoked a decidedly mixed response among his countrymen.
Babi Yar popped back into the news again when the Kiev City Council voted to build a tourist hotel on the site of the old killing ground. The original plans actually called for the place to be called the Hotel Babi Yar, believe it or not.
I'm sure the hotel theme restaurants and gift shops would be unique.
Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this sordid story. After the plans leaked out, widespread outrage from around the world caused the city's mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky to veto the plan. I don't doubt that took considerable courage on his part.
After all, this is a country where mass murderer and anti-Semite Bohdan Chmielicki is still regarded as a national hero, memorialized with a statue in the middle of Kiev.
Why write about this? Well, time passes for all things, and that is how it should be. But there are things we need to remember, simply to make sure they don't occur again.
There have been some very recent and public attempts to pave over history or deny it ever happened in the first place. Seeing that, I think that remembering is a more pressing need for human society just now than another spiffy new hotel. Not so much just to memorialize the dead, as to help save the living.