I have just watched a remarkable clip from BBC Channel 4 News as President Zelensky was told that the Russians had bombed the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial. Babyn Yar (still best known to many as Babi Yar) is a ravine in Kyiv where nearly 34,000 Jews were killed by German troops at the end of September 1941. It was one of the worst single massacres during the Holocaust.
In other massacres at that site victims included Soviet prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists and Roma. News reached Victor Klemperer in Dresden. He noted in his diary in April 1942 the “ghastly mass murders of Jews in Kiev. The heads of small children smashed against walls, thousands of men, women, adolescents shot down in a great heap, a hillock blown up and the mass of bodies buried under the exploding earth.” Half of the victims were never named.
Babyn Yar was the subject of poems by Lev Ozerov, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Ilya Ehrenburg among others. In the first movement of Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, Shostakovich and Yevtushenko transform the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar into a denunciation of antisemitism in all its forms. In DM Thomas’s novel, The White Hotel (1981), there is a famous scene when the central character, Elisabeth (Lisa) Erdman, and her young son are sent to Babyn Yar.
On September 29, 2016, President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko, together with public figures and philanthropists, initiated the creation of the first Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre. The Memorial Centre was to be created in 2023. On 1 March 2022, the site of Babyn Yar was hit by Russian missiles and shells.
One striking feature of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has been the role of Jews. There have been moving images of orthodox Jews leaving Ukraine and of a rabbi leaving his synagogue perhaps for the last time. Volodymyr Zelensky is himself Jewish and his grandfather, Semyon (Simon), lost his father and three brothers in the Holocaust. Israel has sent doctors and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has helped evacuate a number of people from Ukraine, including Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian citizens.
Of course, Ukraine is a Christian country and has a terrible history of antisemitic violence including the famous pogrom at Kishinev and the role of Ukrainian collaborators in the murder of many Jews during the Holocaust. In his new book, In The Midst of Civilized Europe: The pogroms of 1918-1921 and the Onset of the Holocaust (2021), Jeffrey Veidlinger wrote, “Between November 1918 and March 1921, during the civil war that followed the Great War, over one thousand anti-Jewish riots and military actions — both of which were commonly referred to as pogroms — were documented in about five hundred different locales throughout what is now Ukraine…”
He goes on, “This was not the first wave of pogroms in the area, but its scope eclipsed previous bouts of violence in terms of the range of participants, the number of victims, and the depths of barbarity.”
During the Holocaust, barely twenty years later, in addition to Babyn Yar there were countless small shootings in the so-called Shoah by Bullets. In Wendy Lower’s recent book, The Ravine (2021), she tracks down the identity of the perpetrators and victims of one such shooting in Ukraine. In his book, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph (2021), historian David Shneer tells the story of another photograph of a mass shooting by Nazis in Ukraine.
The tragic history of Jews from Kishinev and Babyn Yar to President Zelensky and his family is bound up with the history of Ukraine. It is all the more puzzling that in a recent half-hour programme on BBC Radio 4, Ukraine: How did we get here? there was not one single reference to the Jews of Ukraine. In many ways, it was an excellent discussion, presented by Edward Stourton, with a fine panel including Tim Garton Ash, Anne Reid, author of Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine (2015) and Liudmyla Sharipova, a Ukrainian historian at Nottingham University. They discussed the history of Ukraine from its beginnings to the current Russian invasion. But the word Jew did not appear once. Nor the word antisemitism.
Just at the very moment when there are so many excellent history books being written about the history of antisemitism in the area Timothy Snyder famously called the “Bloodlands” (Ukraine, Poland, Belarus and the Baltic Republics), and when the first Jewish president of Ukraine openly acknowledges his Jewishness and the atrocity committed by Putin when Russia bombed Babyn Yar, the BBC broadcast a discussion which misses out Jews entirely. This is just one of a number of recent examples of what Jonathan Freedland, in a recent article, called “Jewish erasure” and what David Baddiel summed up in a pithy phrase, “Jews Don’t Count”.
But Jewish memory and history have a great deal to do with the current debate about Ukraine. As with Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, the imagery of refugees, trains and terrible violence in east Europe and Ukraine, have stirred memories of the Holocaust. Hence all the references to the first major conflict in Europe since the 1990s and arguably, going back further, since the 1940s. The West have identified with Ukraine under attack from Putin, just as we did with Kosovo under attack from Serbia. The support is universal, apart from a few members of the British Left. I am writing just after the House of Commons stood as one to applaud the Ukrainian ambassador before PMQs. The British media and experts who have been interviewed all support Ukraine. All the more reason we get the history right, in all its dark complexity.