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Babi Yar massacre remembered

By Allyson Cartter and Jennie Bromberg
On October 11, 2011

  • Estraikh discussed the difficulty of dealing with the lack of resistance from victims of the massacre. Joshua Linton

The Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry commemorated the 70th anniversary of Babi Yar in a symposium last Wednesday.

Babi Yar is a ravine in Kiev, Ukraine, where the largest mass murder of Soviet Jews during World War II took place from Sept. 29 to 30, 1941.

In addition to commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacre, Prof. ChaeRan Freeze (NEJS) said that the symposium was organized to bring together scholars and "begin a conversation" about the event; she also hoped to "honor [the victims'] memory and existence and how they suffered."

The symposium was co-sponsored by the Sarnat Canter for the Study of Anti-Jewishness, the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry, the Center for German and European Studies and the Brandeis Russian Club. It was held in the International Lounge in the Usdan Student Center.

The event began with an introduction by Freeze in which she read an excerpt from a poem by Olga Anstei, who was a young Jewish woman in Kiev at the time. She "escaped the carnage but remained haunted" by the mass murder at Babi Yar. In the poem, Anstei refers to Babi Yar as a "most terrible place of terrible places."

Babi Yar became a symbol, Freeze said, of "the reawakening of Jewish identities and collective mourning" for the Jews and of "rejection of anti-Semitism and protest against Soviet repression" for the Soviet intelligentsia. The goal of the symposium was to "explore Babi Yar through different lenses," continued Freeze.

Speakers at the event included Freeze; Dr. Karel C. Berkhoff, senior researcher at the NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies; Gennady Estraikh, associate professor of Yiddish Studies at New York University; Alice Nakhimovsky, professor of Russian and Jewish Studies at Colgate University; and Olga Litvak, who holds the Leffell Chair in Modern Jewish History at Clark University.

Berkhoff discussed the event in greater historical depth. In June 1941, he said, one quarter of Kiev residents were Jews; it was the first large city where the Nazis killed all Jews, he continued.

Word of other mass killings in the surrounding area had reached Kiev, Berkhoff continued. "We will probably never know which sentiment prevailed among the Jews, but I think mortal fear is a good candidate," he said.

On the massacre itself, Berkhoff said that the Jews would have had little doubt that they were about to be killed. "The Germans demanded [the Jews'] documents and burned them before their own eyes," he explained. "The shooting began at 10 in the morning and lasted until 5 or 6 p.m.," he said, and continued again the following morning. According to Berkhoff, killings at the site continued until late October.

When asked if Babi Yar is taught in schools, Berkhoff said that it is represented in Ukrainian textbooks as a tragedy, a word choice that he does not think is fitting because it does not imply human actions.

Estraikh then said that many of his students, who were mostly Jewish and mostly had American education, had never heard of Babi Yar. "On this side of the Atlantic," he said that Babi Yar is discussed mainly in academic settings.

Due primarily to censorship in the Soviet Union, "before 1961, Babi Yar simply couldn't enter the domain of public knowledge," Estraikh explained. He continued, discussing how it was an "ideologically difficult issue for the Jews," because of the lack of resistance. Unlike most mass murders during the Holocaust, young men were not separated from women, children and elders, he explained. The concept that there were strong, young men who did not try to resist is difficult to comprehend, because there is a Jewish history of resisting oppressors, he said.

In an interview with the Justice, Freeze said that the symposium "really opened up [her] eyes to the very diverse and multilayered expression of Babi Yar as symbol, Babi Yar as event, Babi Yar as history [and] Babi Yar as memory." She explained that the idea of the symposium came to her after she received an email last spring from the granddaughter of a Soviet artist, Felix Lembersky, who created a series of paintings on Babi Yar. Soon after, the Rose Art Museum displayed three of Lembersky's pieces, two of which were from the Babi Yar series.

Sylvia Fuks Fried, the executive director of the Tauber Institute for the Study of European Jewry, reflected on the event during an interview with the Justice. "It's always exciting to see students there who are engaged," she said, also acknowledging the great questions the students asked during the symposium.

Fried also discussed how the opportunity to sit down with the presenters after the symposium "raised issues and questions that we hadn't even thought about" regarding Babi Yar.

The lectures were interspersed with student performances, including poems "1 (Untitled)" by Ilya Ehrenburg, read by David Benger '14 and Daniel Shpolyansky '14, and "Babi Yar" by Yevgeni Yevtushenko, read by Karina Gaft '14 and Nera Lerner '12.

The symposium was also a step in the research for Freeze's upcoming book about Babi Yar, which will be published by the Brandeis University Press, and brought up many things that Freeze hopes to include in the book. "We are at the beginning, not the end, of Babi Yar research," she said. 

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