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BCB Classics, Nov 4, 2013

Music from the former USSR

Babi Yar

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  • Official Nazi photographs of the Babi Yar killings
English: Monument to the murdered ones in Babi...

Monument to the murdered ones in Babi Yar, Kiev Deutsch: Mahnmal an die Ermordeten in Babi Yar, Kiew (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On September 19, 1941
the Wehrmacht occupied Kiev. The city was criss-crossed with trenches and barricades,
and everyone was expecting a pitched battle
such as was to devastate Stalingrad.
Instead, the Soviet forces vanished;
no one knew they had secretly mined buildings in the centre of the city,
leaving personnel behind to blow them up.
Not understanding this strategy,
some of those left behind resisted the fascist occupation,
though others collaborated enthusiastically.
The Ukrainian police, the black-uniformed Ukrainische Hilfspolizei Schutzmannschaft assisted the Nazis in rounding up the city’s Jews.
One hundred thousand of them had fled,
but sixty thousand Jews were still there when the Nazi troops arrived,
and some of them acted individually against the invaders.
A Jewish girl ran down the street with a revolver,
killing two German officers and then herself.
Three days later, the explosions began.
First to go, at four in the afternoon, was the German headquarters on the corner of the Kreshchatik and Proreznaya Street.
A cafe and cake shop opposite went next,
then the Continental hotel and the Doctors’ club, which had become a club for German officers.
The whole centre of the city was in flames,
and when the Germans laid hosepipes to bring water from the Dnieper river,
someone cut them.
Apartment buildings, the radio station, the cinemas and big stores,
all were destroyed.
Explosions continued for four days
and the Germans gave up trying to fight the fires,
which raged for another two weeks.Some of the explosions were caused by suicide bombers.
One man blew himself up in the vestibule of the Continental, another in the Shantser cinema when it was full of German soldiers.
The leader of the mission, who died in German hands,
was posthumously awarded the title
of Hero of the Soviet Union in 1965.No one knew for sure who had caused the explosions,
but SS-Standartenfuhrer Paul Blobel, commander of the mobile killing squad, decided to blame the Jews, whom he described in official announcements as all “Soviet spies and criminals”.
On September 28 he ordered all Jews to report the next morning:
“All living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 29th, 1941, at the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc.
“Any not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot.”
Most of the Jews did as they were told. Many who tried to hide were handed over to the SS by their Ukrainian neighbours.
After the war, a German officer testified that his Kiev office received so many letters from the Ukrainian population informing on Jews
– “by the bushel” – that his office did not have the staff to deal with them all.
The Jews were taken to the Babi Yar ravine on the north-western outskirts of the city, by the side of the Jewish cemetery.
They were forced to hand over any valuables in their possession, to take off all their clothes, and to advance towards the ravine edge, in groups of ten.
When they reached the edge, they were gunned down by automatic fire from Blobel’s
Sonderkommando 4a.
According to the
Einsatzgruppe Operational Situation Report No. 101, 33,771 Jews were killed at Babi Yar on September 29 and 30.
In the months that followed thousands more were taken to Babi Yar and shot, alongside Gypsies and captured Red Army men. Patients from the Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital were gassed and then dumped into the ravine.
Official Soviet estimates totalled the numbers killed there as one hundred thousand.
In July 1943, when the Red Army was driving the Wehrmacht out of the USSR, Paul Blobel came back to Kiev to erase all traces of the massacre.
Prisoners from the nearby Syretsk concentration camp were employed to exhume the corpses, and incinerate them.
After they were burnt, the ashes were sifted for traces of gold or silver.
The work took six weeks.
On September 19, the prisoners learned they were about to be shot the next day to complete the erasure. Three hundred and twenty-five of them broke out under cover of a foggy night from the cell hewn into the side of the ravine, though all but fifteen died in the attempt.
Today, people are still blowing themselves up in the fight against invaders,
and terrible retaliation is wreaked upon those described as terrorists.
Like the people of Kiev,
they are mostly unarmed,
mostly uninvolved in anything that can be described as terrorism.
People like Salama Adibis, who was shot by a sniper
as he leaned out of his window to call his children in from the street
where they had been playing near the invaders’ tanks.
Like the man shot while trying to extinguish a fire
by the side of a church.
They are numbered in hundreds, not thousands.
But the death toll mounts daily.

And this is not Kiev in 1942. It is Palestine, 2002.

April 10, 2002

On Yevtushenko’s Babi Yar

Your poem aroused the conscience of your nation.
Before you wrote,
there was no monument to the dead of Babi Yar.

One thing puzzles me, however.
Why did you write of Russian guilt for the crime?
You speak of
“jeers of ‘Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!’
and you say
“There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!”
Quite correctly, you declare:
“O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature”.
You express the hope:
“May ‘Internationale’ thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.”

But there is a strange omission here.
You rightly identify true patriotism with internationalism.
But you ignore the corollary.

And Babi Yar is such evidence of its opposite:
how nationalism and racism can go hand in hand.
For while there is no evidence that Russians participated in the crime,
it would have been impossible without the enthusiastic co-operation
of Ukrainian nationalists.
Not only the black-clad Ukrainische Hilfspolizei Schutzmannschaft,
but also the ordinary folk
who overloaded the Nazi postal system
with denunciations of their Jewish neighbours,
the ones who summoned the Germans to recapture
the few who escaped from Babi Yar
and turned to them for sanctuary,
even a child of ten.

Today, when the cross of St George is being appropriated by English fascists,
we need to learn the lessons of Babi Yar.
There is no danger from the Ukrainians
who gather in our markets to talk,
whose delicatessens sell us sausages and exotic pickles.
The danger lies in our own hearts.

Your verse identifies with the Jewish victims of the holocaust,
and it is right that you should do this.
But we need to identify also
with the canker in our own souls
that could permit us,
at the very least,
to close our eyes to what has happened in Srebrenica,
and even as I write,
in the refugee camps of Jenin.

April 12, 2002


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