Often cited as the largest single massacre of the Holocaust, the murder of 33,771 Jews between September 29 and 30 in 1941 at the Babi Yar ravine outside Kiev – subsequently used as a site for the killing of between 100,000 and 150,000 Ukrainians, Jews, Roma, and Soviet POWs in the following months – is of great significance not only in terms of its historical context of the Holocaust, but also in terms of the responses to the event after the fact.
In the first half of the symposium, the speakers dealt with the event by examining it through the lenses of the current level of knowledge about what happened prior to and during the main massacre from the 29th to 30th, as well as how it was discussed in Yiddish press in the following years and decades. Professor Karel Berkhoff began the symposium, discussing the body of knowledge that is and is not known about events at Babi Yar. What is startling is both the amount known and the rareness of the sources. As he pointed out, the massacre from the 29th to the 30th virtually wiped out the entire Jewish population of Kiev, leaving very few survivors. As a result, very little is known about Jewish responses in the days leading to the massacre, as well as details of the event itself. The details that are known, perhaps in part because of their rareness, are remarkably clear synecdoche of the event, with two in particular standing out.
The first elicits not only a sense of the horror but also offers insight into the total number killed. He describes that from the testimony of one individual they now know that at a certain point the German soldiers took the identification papers from the Jews and burned them, coldly cementing the fact that they would not be surviving the day as well as complicating the assumption that because no papers were found in the site, the Germans must have saved them for more accurate records. The second is much smaller, but far greater in magnitude because of its specificity. It comes from recently found writings describing the night before the massacre, and the guilt and terror felt by parents that they had not taken their children away from the city and the impending events.
Professor Gennady Estraikh followed Berkhoff, but between the speakers two Brandeis students – David Benger ’14 and Daniel Shpolyansky ’14 – read the poem “I (Untitled)” by Ilya Ehrenburg (introducted by Professor ChaeRan Freeze). Read in both Russian and English, the poem vividly captured the horror and tragedy of the event, as well as dovetailed into a discussion of the ability to talk about the event in a public setting. Through this poem of a survivor Freeze introduced the idea of Babi Yar as a symbol, with different meanings to all Soviet citizens, paving the way for further discussion regarding the treatment of the event as such.
Estraikh centered his talk around notions of resistance and Kiddush Hashem in relation to the events at Babi Yar. Kiddush Hashem is a Hebrew term meaning the sanctification of the name [of God], and in practice is a descriptor for any act by a Jew that brings honor or respect to God. In particular, the treatment of the massacre at Babi Yar and the actions of victims acted as a symbol for the ongoing issue of resistance and victimization. He specifically focused on Yiddish newspapers, and describes that within them very little attention was paid to the incident. He describes individual instances in the 1940s in which Babi Yar was either alluded to or outright mentioned in print and film, but in each case either discussion of the event was either so muted as to be unrecognizable or censored outright.
From the 1960s the notion of resistance came more into play. In one question, it was noted that some writings seemed to imply that the majority of those killed at Babi
Yar were women, children, and older individuals, in a sense trying to justify the seeming inability of people to make any form of resistance or fighting. His answer exemplified the problems with dealing with Babi Yar in the Soviet context. He described that at the time there were very public notions that in World War II Jews were, for the most part, hiding, and did not participate. Thus, there was a movement on the part of the community to show that this idea was fundamentally flawed, leading to a number of articles on the well established tradition of Jewish fighting and shying away from discussing circumstances in which no resistance was possible, like Babi Yar.
The first half of the event certainly opened the door for major discussions beginning from the events at Babi Yar but touching on issues far beyond. The research being done is astonishing, and given the short nature of the symposium is a great credit to the speakers that they were able to so eloquently convey their research, but also emphasizes the magnitude of research being done and yet to be done.