Babi Yar and the Russian invasion

As I had been concentrating on photographs of people fleeing the war in Ukraine in the last post, one photograph that was left out was the bombing of the TV mast at Babi Yar on the edge of Kiev. Babi Yar is an enormous filled in ravine where about 34,000 Jews were killed during two days in 1941, the largest single massacre during the war. Apparently there was also a very old Jewish cemetery at the site next to the TV aerial which was damaged by the shelling.

Blast at Babi Yar

Every Sunday morning on BBC Radio 4 just after the 7 o’clock news, there is a religious programme which had concentrated on the war in Ukraine for the past two weeks and I suddenly heard someone talking about Babi Yar and how the Soviets had tried to suppress all memory of the slaughter of the Jews, wanting to concentrate, if at all, on the Russian heroism of World War II, so the ravine was filled in and turned into a park. In the 1970s, the Soviets put up a memorial to all who died at the ravine during the war, possibly another 60,000, including more Jews, gypsies and Ukrainians, not mentioning the Jews specifically, although they were by far the majority. It was not until after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, the 50th anniversary of the slaughter, that a memorial in the shape of a Menorah was put at the site.

Menorah memorial at Babi Yar
Monument Babi Yar

There were only a couple of Jewish survivors, who never spoke of having been at the ravine, although one was persuaded to give evidence at a war crimes trial. But there was also one witness, a 14-year-old boy, A Anatoli (Kuznetsov), who lived nearby and kept a notebook about what was happening in the ravine near his house, his playground, which had become forbidden territory throughout the war. In the 1960s, having become a writer and realising that no one was willing to talk about what had happened at the ravine and there were virtually no survivors, he put together a book of his memories and other research, called ‘Babi Yar, a document in the form of a novel‘. It was first printed in the Soviet Union highly censored in 1966. The full manuscript was published in the UK in 1970 after Anatoli sought asylum in the UK. My second-hand edition of the book was published in 1973 and although I did see a 1990 edition on Amazon, I expect there are not many copies around to keep this event alive in such vivid detail.

At the moment, with a new horrific tragedy unfolding in Ukraine, there is tremendous unity in the country as they try to save themselves, their heritage and their independence, but this will mean something different to elderly Jews who still have  memories of their childhood during World War II and the Holocaust. While Putin tries to capture ports along the south coast, the people in Odessa prepare for the worst, many women and children leaving for nearby Moldova. When Russia entered World War II, around 100,000 Jews managed to flee Odessa into exile before the Romanians, collaborating with the Nazis, took over the city in 1941. Many of the remaining 80 or 90,000 Jews were shot, burned alive, or starved in ghettos. Any still remaining were taken to camps in Transnistria, part of Romania, in 1942 and had all been starved or murdered by 1943.

After Putin has gone back on his promise of ceasefires to let civilians escape from towns being bombed over the last few days, finally some people are getting out of some of the cities. Unfortunately the worst bombed city, Mariupol, which has spent days without electricity, water or food, has not had a safe corridor out. Ukraine has a long history of hardship, starvation during the early communist years and enormous losses in World War II, so they have incredible strength and determination to keep the freedom they have only had for a few years.

Recent photographs in Ukraine

Schastia, Luhansk
Kyiv
Kherson
Destroyed apartment building

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