Ukraine & Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich

Marking Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Jewish calendar, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) today unveiled the very first Jewish prayer space at Babyn Yar. The symbolic synagogue structure was opened at a ceremony, which included special prayers led by Ukraine & Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich alongside nine other rabbis (numbers limited due to COVID-19 restrictions in Ukraine). The event was addressed by Jewish world leaders and other dignitaries.

33,771 Jewish victims were shot at the Babyn Yar ravine by the Nazis during just two days, 29 and 30 September 1941. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Roma, mentally ill and others were shot thereafter at Babyn Yar throughout the Nazi occupation of Kyiv. The estimated number of victims murdered at Babyn Yar is around 100,000, making it Europe’s largest mass grave.

Designed by renowned international architect Manuel Herz, the symbolic synagogue takes its inspiration from the pop-up book and from 17th and 18th century wooden Ukrainian synagogues. When closed, the building is a flat structure that is manually opened, and then unfolds into the three-dimensional space of the synagogue structure. The imaginative, one-of-a-kind design also features an interior which references two destroyed 17th and 18th century Ukrainian synagogues. It forms part of a planned wider multi-faith space for prayer and reflection, to be completed in due course.

Herz’s previous projects include the Synagogue of Mainz and “Ballet Mécanique” in Zurich with moving facades. Presently under development are a hospital in Tambacounda in eastern Senegal, plus other projects in Europe and Africa. Herz has been published widely on Jewish architecture in Germany and has taught at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London and KTH Stockholm.

The symbolic synagogue is the first construction to be completed in the planned Babyn Yar memorial complex, which will stretch over an area of 150 hectares, making it one of the world’s largest Holocaust memorial centers. A dozen buildings will eventually be erected as part of the complex including: A museum to commemorate the Babyn Yar massacre; a museum to commemorate the Holocaust of Ukrainian and Eastern European Jewry as a whole; a structure depicting the names of the victims; a religious/spiritual center; an educational and scientific research center; a multi-media center; a learning and recreational space for children; an information and conference center and more.

Manuel Hertz said: “My intention was to design a synagogue that opens a new world to the visitors and the congregation. A visit to the synagogue will be a moment of awe, a moment of wonder and maybe even rejoice. The dynamic quality of the building is important. Not only because it is a a new ritual, and collective process. But also because it has a subtle quality, The building does not impose itself on the territory. In a way it has a very tender approach to the ground. This ground which is almost sacred. The synagogue commemorates the past, but also points to a new future. It celebrates a rebirth of living Jewry on the site.”

Ilya Khrzhanovsky, BYHMC’s Artistic Director said: “Babyn Yar is a place of memory. History is literally absorbed in the ground here. We wanted to create a space that enables the story of Babyn Yar to be closer and relevant to everyone, regardless of nationality, gender, age or religion. People who visit this complex will inevitably find themselves exposed to and better understand the Babyn Yar tragedy. The last survivors of the Holocaust, who bear witness to those horrors are passing away. In a short period of time the direct connection to past events will disappear, future generations will lose the opportunity to know, understand and to feel what happened 80 years ago. The Babyn Yar tragedy and the tragedy of the Second World War will fade into history and become an abstract event. Our task is to avoid it.”

The symbolic synagogue was unveiled at a ceremony attended by dignitaries including Kyiv Mayor Vitaly Klitschko; Natan Sharansky, Chair of BYHMC’s Supervisory Board; Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel; Rabbi David Lau, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel; Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Holocaust survivor, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and currently President of Yad Vashem; Yoel Leon, Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine; Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich Chief Rabbi of Ukraine & Kyiv and BYHMC Supervisory Board member; Dan S. Mariaschin, CEO of B’nai Brith International; Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of the National Coalition Supporting Euro-Asian Jewry.

The unveiling of the symbolic synagogue marked Holocaust Remembrance Day in the Jewish calendar. The ceremony included the reading of Psalms from attending rabbis, while Jewish world leaders also delivered remarks. The unveiling is an important component of BYHMC’s commemorations of this year’s 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre, which will culminate in an international event including global leaders in September.

Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said: “For many years Babyn Yar has had no proper stone or memorial, I find it telling that the first structure of the Memorial will be a place for introspection and prayer designed symbolically as a Synagogue. This will help visitors relate to the mass murder that took place in Babyn Yar and not forget the spirituality or the origins of those Jews murdered on the eve of Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur itself.”

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Holocaust survivor, former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and currently Chair of Yad Vashem commented on the opening of the symbolic synagogue on Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying “The world has not recovered from the Holocaust, with anti-Semitism on the rise across the world. This is the reason for the establishment of Holocaust memorial centers, even 80 years later. Commemorating through the establishment of a synagogue is a wonderful thing. The Nazis knew that so long as the Jewish faith exists, the Jewish people cannot be destroyed.” Rabbi Lau added that there are countless stories of Jews who were murdered while attempting to maintain their faith and religion, and that he could not forget the cries from the train carriages of mothers to their children, “Do not forget that you are Jewish,” moments before they were murdered.