Five years ago, on September 29, 2016, Ukraine marked the 75th anniversary of the World War II-era mass execution of 33,771 Jews at the Babyn Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv. World leaders attended the official commemoration, hosted by President Petro Poroshenko, which included Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who was on a working visit to Ukraine but had to return to Israel on September 28 after the death of Israeli statesman Shimon Peres.
The massacre of Jews in 1941 at Babyn Yar was an early example of the industrial-scale murder that the Nazis would employ in their annihilation of the Jewish people. More than 100,000 people were executed at Babyn Yar during the Nazi occupation of Kyiv, with some 33,000 Jews murdered on September 29-30, 1941. Ukraine’s Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman urged Ukrainians to never forget the victims of Babyn Yar. In a Facebook post, Mr. Groysman wrote: “There were Jews, Roma people, Soviet prisoners of war and fighters of the Ukrainian liberation movement among those executed by firing squads. We remember each of them.”
The weeklong observance (September 23-29) to honor the victims included three hours of hearings hosted by the Verkhovna Rada, which included addresses by Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Yaakov Dov Bleich, parliamentary deputies and political dignitaries.
Ukrainian historian Prof. Robert Magocsi, who recounted his experience visiting Babyn Yar, told The Ukrainian Weekly, “It’s essentially a cemetery, a huge killing field. It’s a necropolis, a place for reflection.” Prof. Magosci was in Ukraine assisting with preparations for the commemoration as a board member of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canada-based non-profit that works to foster understanding of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.
The commemorative symposium that was organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter attracted 1,000 foreign delegates in Kyiv that included film screenings, art shows, a commemorative book presentation (“Babyn Yar: History and Memory”), panel discussions and a commemorative concert.
Prof. Magosci underscored the need to reach the younger generation to ensure that Babyn Yar is kept at the forefront of Ukrainian historical memory, as well as that the location itself is preserved for future generations. He reiterated that the mass killing at Babyn Yar is a reminder of the plight of the Crimean Tatars that is continuing to this day in Russia-occupied Crimea.
“We need educational programs to inform – ideas that certain things shouldn’t ever happen again,” he said. “One should be aware of what happened in the past through historical knowledge. … For a millennium Ukrainians and Jews co-existed. They interacted, mostly in the Black Sea region, including in Crimea.”
Prior to the 75th anniversary commemoration, Prof. Magosci, through the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, released the book, “Jews and Ukrainians: A Millennium of Co-Existence.”
Sources: “75th anniversary of Babyn Yar,” (RFE/RL, AFP, Interfax and TASS), and “Ukraine remembers Babyn Yar” by Mark Raczkiewycz, The Ukrainian Weekly, October 2, 9, 2016.