My guide for this difficult tour was Idan Peysachovich, a Siberian Jew who made aliyah in 1992 and now works for the Jewish Agency. Locally, the primary mission of the Jewish Agency is to strengthen both Jewish identity and build connectivity to Israel. Within minutes of meeting him, I felt an immediate bond with Idan, who informed me that the work he does is more than a job but entirely bound up in his personal life. He comes to his work on behalf of the Jewish Agency based on the journey he has undertaken as well as a sobering acknowledgement of the history of Jews in his native region.
As we walked towards Babi Yar, Idan told me that he is constantly engaged in the task of looking forward and backwards… at once. The forward glance he casts is towards the hopeful future he is building in Israel with his young family and two children who have rock solid Jewish identities. But he is compelled to look backwards also and contemplate the black pages of the Jewish experience in Kiev.
While Jews have been in Kiev since before the 11th century, there has always been an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in this part of the world, Idan told me. Russian princes would go through towns and let go of their pent-up feeling, looting villages and causing pogroms. These early pogroms culminated in the later pogroms of the 19th and 20th centuries. The pogroms in Odessa were especially fierce.
This was Idan’s way of contextualizing Babi Yar, his way of trying to explain the horror, the inhumanity; the sheer lunacy that led local Ukrainians to massacre their neighbors with their Nazi invaders over the course of three winter days more than seventy years ago.
Approaching the site, Idan wanted to make sure that I, an American Jew, born into the sanity and safety of the second half of the 20th Century, might come to understand where anti- Semitism and hatred can go when unchecked, where people can go when they lose their moral compass and people lose their bearings.
What struck me about Babi Yar is that it is a park, a ravine, in the middle of the city. That surprised me. Babi Yar is a park. It struck me that it could be Central Park. In the days before the massacre, Jews were told to show up with their belongings and papers and they did. They showed up, thinking they would get on a train to another city or be taken to a ship to Palestine or elsewhere.
They had no idea what awaited them.
Babi Yar – where tens of thousands of Jewish men, women and children were gunned down -- is a park. There’s an office building to one side. There are families strolling through it. I took a picture of a man sun bathing. The dissonance of past and presence overwhelmed me.
Idan told me that the doomed Jews encountered three rings of processing when they entered. First there were Ukrainians. Then Ukrainians and German soldiers, regular soldiers with German Shepherds and then, there were the SS Einsatzgruppen.
It was this last group that did the actual shootings into the ravine. Over three days, 34,000 Jews were shot and then thrown into the ravine. Afterwards, the Germans made the townspeople come and burn the bodies to destroy the evidence and protect against disease.
Here’s the thing. In the summer of 2013, Babi Yar seems so normal. I cannot get my head around it. Clearly, at the time of the mass murder of the Jews, the local people knew what was going on. They heard the shooting and the screaming even through the Germans played classical music very loudly and they helped, either in turning in families or in serving as guards or in simply turning a blind eye and allowing their neighbors to be butchered.
Today, there is not much to see in Babi Yar, but there is much to feel and to imagine: the terror of the victims; the cries and pleading and disbelief and desperate hope for a last-minute miracle; the horror of watching loved ones killed before your own eyes; the powerlessness of parents to save their children.
So, what remains of Babi Yar today? There’s a ravine. There’s a menorah and a platform where you can have a memorial ceremony, as we did. And there are the ghosts of the victims and their descendants, the millions of unborn Jews whose lives, as well, were taken by the Nazis.
Yet, it was very moving to be at Babi Yar with the Jewish Agency because thanks to their efforts, it is possible to stand at the very foot of the ravine and look forward with hope about Jewish life in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.
At the beautiful ceremony I attended, members of the IDF choir sang, Natan Sharansky and Israel’s Minister of Housing spoke, and one of the rabbis of the many local, newly-reinvigorated synagogues led the el maley rachamim prayer and kaddish.
A local young man also recited the words of a four-year-old survivor of Babi Yar whose entire family was betrayed by their nanny while he was inexplicably saved.
Among the songs performed by the IDF choir was Hatikvah.
Awash in so many dark feelings – sorrow, anger, fear of the modern-day anti-Semites now possessed with weapons of mass destruction – I tried to retain a sense of hopefulness.
What I found myself struggling with at Babi Yar was the tension between my fear of resurgent anti-Semitism (as it gets expressed in countries like Iran who call for Israel’s annihilation) and a real deep desire to want to believe – as Anne Frank did -- that deep down, people are good and moral.
I want to believe that through building relationships we can build a better, more just society yet when one goes to a place like Babi Yar, this belief appears naïve. The troubling truth I know is that as Jews, we need to be vigilant.
Leaving Babi Yar we went to the community center of the Jewish Agency and met spirited young people – from their teens to their 30’s – who were part of five different programs that the Jewish Agency sponsors here and in Ukraine. We visited a summer camp for 10-14 year olds and an ulpan for anyone who wants to learn Hebrew.
As I spoke with the proud and enthusiastic young people I met, that elusive sense of hope began to assert itself. Here, Jewish identity burns strongly. It gets expressed through so many ways -- through Taglit/Birthright trips for college-age and young adults; through Masa/through 10-month internship programs and so many other means.
Here, there is a burgeoning Jewish community made up of many communities of many denominations – Reform, Masorti, Chabad, Haredi. Here, there are synagogues and minyanim and prayer services and celebrations: brises, bar mitzvahs and weddings.
It was so uplifting to hear stories of how young Ukrainian Jews – 70-plus years after Babi Yar – are discovering their Jewish identity and wanting to find out more. The summer camps of the Jewish Agency really work. A staggering 6,000 young people attended summer camps this summer through Jewish Agency. Through this experience, they come in contact with their Jewish heritage and were inspired.
And I was inspired to find this outpost of Jewish spiritual reawakening in a place that tried to annihilate Jewish life. No one could have foreseen a flourishing Jewish community after Babi Yar and yet when the Jewish Agency opened their first office in Kiev in 1990, they were betting on hope instead of fear.
My trip to Kiev led me to Israel where I joined hundreds of my colleagues at the Rabbinical Assembly convention yesterday. One person we met with was Yuli Edelstein; once a Soviet Refusnik; now Speaker of the Knesset. This represents the miracle of the Jewish people; the miracle of Israel. This is the definition of hatikvah.
It is now erev Shabbat in Jerusalem, the most beautiful and tranquil moment of the week in the most beautiful city in the world. It has been an eventful and emotional week. As I look out over the quiet city, I think back to my visit to Babi Yar and all the people whom I met through the Jewish Agency.
I hear Idan’s voice and it mingles with the memory of the IDF Choir singing Hatikva at the site of that terrible tragedy of our people.
Od lo avda tikvatenu.
We have not lost our hope.
We will never lose our hope.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.