Rabbi Mendelevich leading group of Jewish youth in prayer in forest in Kiev
Rabbi Mendelevich leading group of Jewish youth in prayer in forest in KievCourtesy

Last week, I received a phone call from a Jewish activist in Kiev concerning the proposed building of a memorial site and museum in the Babi Yar ravine, located not far from the Kiev city center. There, over 100 thousand people were murdered and buried in mass graves by the Nazis during their occupation of Kiev during the Second World War, including the massacre of 33,771 Jews, on September 29-30, 1941. Besides the overall slaughter of over 50,000 Jews, other victims include Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists, gypsies, and homosexuals. The activist maintains that the proposed Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, initiated by three Jewish billionaires who have vast financial ties to Russia, is slated to be constructed in a location where there are five acres of Jewish graves. The 100,000 victims were not all killed in the same spot, he explains, but rather over a large area, covering 175 acres. Before the World War, there were several cemeteries around the Babi Yar ravine, the biggest of which was the Jewish Cemetery. There was also a large Orthodox Christian Cemetery, a Muslim Cemetery, and a Karite Cemetery. In addition, within the boundaries of Babi Yar, there is the site where over 1,500 people were killed in a landslide. To support his claims, he sent me maps of the site, official documents, and letters related to the controversy.

One of the documents that I received is a letter, dated August 2, 2020, from Israel Chief Rabbi David Lau to Mr. Mikhail Fridman, one of the chief sponsors of the proposed, “Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center,” and to Mr. Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Advisory Commission of the Center. The letter begins: “I have recently heard about the intention to establish a large memorial on the site of Babi Yar, in the city of Kiev, where some 50,000 Jews were murdered in the ravine simply because they were Jews. An effort was made to erase from the chronicles of history that Babi Yar was the site where the largest massacre was perpetrated in the shortest amount of time, within two days on the eve of Yom Kippur, when almost 34,000 Jews were slaughtered…. According to Jewish Law, since the area in question is the site of an old Jewish cemetery, measures must be taken to prevent the construction of the memorial over a place that may contain the remains of the victims, and efforts should be made to find a suitable location so that, G-d forbid, the reward for the endeavor will not be overshadowed by the loss.”

In response, Natan Sharansky sent a letter to Chief Rabbi David Lau, dated September 2, 2020, insisting that the proposed Holocaust Memorial Center does not infringe on any prohibited ground. As Head of the Project Supervisory Committee, he writes: “We are in agreement with you completely concerning the issue you cited. Therefore, our first steps were to conduct an authorized examination in order to prevent constructing the memorial in a location where there might be found the buried remains of the corpses of the victims. The Memorial Foundation turned to the Atra Kadisha organization to conduct an investigation, with the goal of determining the boundaries of the Jewish Cemetery in Babi Yar. After concluding the thorough examination in June of 2016, we received their conclusions and recommendations, along with a detailed map depicting the boundaries of the cemetery and the location where the building could be conducted. Likewise, it was agreed that Atra Kadisha would accompany the project until the Center was built.”

A group of former residents of Kiev, now residing in Israel, signed on a rebuttal letter written by former Prisoner of Zion, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich and sent to Chief Rabbi David Lau, disagreeing with Sharansky’s assertions. In the letter dated November 19, 2020, they state: “In Mr. Sharansky's response to your letter, it was claimed that as early as 2016, Atra Kadisha conducted an in-depth inspection of the planned construction site and that no damage was found to the burial sites of the martyrs. Unfortunately, Mr. Sharansky's remarks do not reflect published documentation.”

This Wednesday evening, December 9, 2020, Rabbi Mendelevich was interviewed on Channel 20 regarding the controversy. I asked him where the disagreement is currently holding.

“Let it be known that I am not against the establishment of a memorial center to honor the victims of atrocities committed at Babi Yar,” he responded. “I only want to make sure that no construction is carried out over Jewish graves. I learned about the history of Babi Yar from the Ukrainian historian Vitaly Nakhmanovich, who first alerted the public to the problem of building a large memorial center over the gravesites throughout the ravine. There are so many bodies buried in the area, scattered all over, in old cemeteries and mass graves, that from a Jewish point of view, construction is next to impossible. A letter from Atra Kadisha, dated 2010, bans development on the site, stating: ‘Even the slightest encroachment into the true boundaries of the cemetery or mass grave could lead to removing the graves outside of the protected site. All construction and development on these burial sites could lead to physical harm to those buried there, which we have a firm duty to prevent from occurring.’ According to reliable historical maps, the planned construction site is to be at least partially located on the site of the old Jewish cemetery that had been in use for many years…. In 2016, as Natan Sharansky notes in his letter to Chief Rabbi Lau, a letter from the Atra Kadisha organization cites an area where construction might be allowed if a long list of conditions are met, but, to the best of my knowledge, no confirmation or signature of the Atra Kadisha organization has ever been displayed on the proposed site map, or any other official document, which confirms that the pre-construction conditions were carried out by the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center as required, in order to prove that the construction site does not overlap the old Jewish Cemetery. Jewish activists in Kiev, who regularly monitor what is happening in the planned construction area, are not aware of any ‘research and testing work’ conducted, according to Mr. Sharansky, in 2016 in the area. Some three weeks ago, we sent a representative to the office of Atra Kadisha in Israel and requested to see some documentation from them indicating they certified that the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial project did not encroach upon any area with graves. They couldn’t produce such a paper. When we asked to meet with Sharansky to discuss the matter in hope of finding a solution, he refused. Then I personally asked to meet with Natan. We have known each other ever since our incarceration in Soviet prisons, and we have remained friends and co-workers on several projects in Israel. He refused to meet with me and wrote me a letter asking why I am poking my nose into something that isn’t my business. I think that perhaps Natan has been led astray and has not been given the facts on the ground, or that he hasn’t studied the issue in enough depth. I don’t understand why he is unwilling to meet with us and listen to our questions. I feel that he needs to see the maps we have and to compare them with any of their maps depicting the plans of the project. In fact, this is the position he accepted on the project as a supervisor and advisor. He knows that there is a question of halacha which requires clarification. Perhaps, indeed, recent inspections and exploratory diggings have been conducted which support the project’s claims that construction will not encroach on forbidden areas, or perhaps they changed the area where they originally thought to build, after consulting with halachic authorities. Halevi. Let it be so. But no one has seen any proof of that. So I say, let’s meet and put all the documents on the table, and be done with the issue, one way or the other. Better yet, let all of the parties in question meet in Kiev, along with representatives of the organizations authorized to decide on halachic questions concerning Jewish Cemeteries around the world. Let us visit the proposed site together and compare our maps. How can Natan Sharansky give advice on the project when he agrees to the management’s position without investigating opposing opinions? For instance, I learned recently that the Rebbe of Belz in the Ukraine has requested Hasidim in Israel to enter a claim in the Bet Din of ‘Chazon Eish’ in Bnei Brak against Atra Kadisha for allowing Fridman’s group to publicize that there is no halachic problem in their plans to build in an area where there might be Jewish Graves.”

“What are the halachic organizations dealing with Jewish cemeteries worldwide?” I asked him.

“In Rabbi Lau’s letter to Sharansky and Fridman, he writes that the authorized groups are ‘Atra Kadisha for the Preservation of Holy Sites,’ and the London-based, ‘The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.’ In a letter from 2010, the head of that organization, Rabbi Schlesinger, writes that he sent one of their experts to inspect the location and found that it was cemetery ground and filled with graves, thus prohibiting any construction on the site. As with the Atra Kadisha, a follow-up letter from 2016 notes that building may be possible if certain steps are taken certifying that no bones have been located during preliminary digging. If all of the pre-building conditions set down by the halachic organizations have been met, then the publication of such authorized documents must be made available in order to put the matter to rest, along with the victims who were murdered at Babi Yar.”

I wrote to Mr. Sharansky to learn his position. He forwarded my request to the public relations office which deals with the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. They put me in touch with Rabbi Yaakov Bleich from Kiev, who also serves on the supervisory board of the project. He insists that the halachic questions have all been carefully examined by the Rabbinical authorities involved, that he himself has visited the site with their representatives, and that permission to build has been granted. However, to the best of my understanding, the validating letters which the project’s PR office sent to me, dated 2016, from the Atra Kadisha for the Preservation of Holy Sites, and from The Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, condition their approval on a stringent list of pre-building demands, making certain that Jewish graves are not violated. Rabbi Mendelevich is asking for proof that these demands have indeed been carried out as requested. I wrote to the two Rabbinical organizations, asking to see documentation of final approval that construction may begin on the proposed Babi Yar site, but, to date, no such confirmation has been forwarded.