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Outrage as Ukraine’s Culture Minister allows synagogue to be built on graveyard at Babyn Yar

29.01.2021
Halya Coynash

The Menorah at Babyn Yar Photo Glavcom

Despite assurances that there would be public discussion before any final decision, Ukraine’s leaders are clearly giving support to the highly contentious Russian-funded Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex.  Ukraine’s Culture Minister, Oleksandr Tkachenko, has given permission for a synagogue to be built on the site of the former Kyrylivske Christian Orthodox graveyard which falls within the territory of Babyn Yar. This is something which prominent Ukrainian Jewish figures had recently condemned as deliberate provocation and which the Ukrainian project* for memorializing Babyn Yar specifically prohibits.

Vitaly Nakhmanovych, historian and one of the authors of the Ukrainian project, reports that on 28 January, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex [BYHMC] began construction work for a synagogue on the territory of the Kyrylivske Christian Orthodox graveyard, with the permission from Tkachenko issued on 22 January.  Nakhmanovych notes that there was a meeting a while back at the Office of President Volodymyr Zelensky, where it was agreed that prior consent for such building work would first be obtained from the leaders of Christian faiths.  Since the prospects for receiving such consent were extremely remote, he says, BYHMC have tried to bypass this by renaming the synagogue which is now entitled “Place for Contemplation’.

It seems quite clear that this is a mere ruse as a new creative concept for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Complex was presented on 25 January, with this clearly referring to a ‘Synagogue at Babyn Yar’

In addition, Nakhmanovych reports, employees of BYHMC were, on the direct instructions of the Minister of Culture, given all the drawings for the office of the former Jewish Cemetery on Melnyk St, where they plan to build a museum in memory of the victims of Babyn Yar.  He believes it is clear that Tkachenko was not acting at his own discretion but was following the general direction taken by the country’s leaders.  On 27 January, the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and International Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Holocaust, President Zelensky did not visit Babyn Yar. Instead he chose to be present at the opening of the latest BYHMC installation.   

In a bitter address to Zelensky just after the President in late July 2020 first openly declared support for BYHMC,  Nakhmanovych expressed horror that BYHMC was planning to build on old burial sites.  He wrote that those who can so flagrantly ignore the prohibition of such desecration grew up on the Soviet disregard for graves, and asked how we can hope to preserve hundreds of Jewish cemeteries and places of mass burial if Jews themselves begin to build on them.  

Unlike the Ukrainian project, the BYHMC complex would build on Jewish, Kyrylivske Orthodox and Karaim graveyards.  

Like others who have expressed support for BYHMC, Zelensky spoke of the need for a memorial to remember the victims of the Holocaust.  This, however, is not in question, as Zelensky has every reason to know since the Ukrainian project was prepared at the request of Ukraine’s government.  Even if President Zelensky was initially unaware that there was a very good project and no reason to bypass it,  there have been several major appeals – first from Ukrainian public figures; then from Ukrainian Jews, as well as one initiated by Ukrainian Jews and open to everyone. Zelensky talks so much about heeding public opinion, yet here he is running roughshod over it. 

There has, in general, been a very worrying lack of openness about the plans for Babyn Yar. Excavations began without any announcement on 25 December 2020, while many Ukrainians were celebrating Christmas, at the site (behind the Menorah) where, until 1929, there was a Kyrylivske Orthodox cemetery.  Although Max Yakover, BYHMC General Director, told Radio Svoboda that the work had been to ascertain if there were graves and that they had dug only a metre deep, the videos shared on social media were interpreted by many as suggesting that graves were being dug up. 

Josef Zisels, Co-President of the Vaad, or Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine and former Soviet dissident, called the excavations “shameful”.  On 29 December, in a post entitled ‘Vandalism in action’, he wrote that excavation work had been continuing that day with the use of heavy equipment.  It was carried out by the Kyiv expedition of the Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Archaeology  (headed by Vsevolod Ivakin) which had received a permit in January 2020 from the Ministry of Culture.  This, however, was for carrying out archaeological investigations in Kyiv with the help of a metal detector.  The equipment seen in the video here is assuredly no metal detector.

Although public opinion regarding plans for the memorial complex were partly galvanised by the appointment late in 2019 of a controversial Russian art director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky and his disturbing proposals for Babyn Yar, there is another absolutely pivotal concern.  The financial strings behind an essentially private project are pulled by Russian businessmen, known for their success under the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  It became obvious that the initial appeal regarding the need to stay with the Ukrainian project, from May 2020, had been noted when the sponsors of BYHMC seemed to change nationality.  Mikhail Fridman and German Khan went from being referred to as Russian businessmen to being described as ‘Ukrainian Jews’,  They and Pavel Fuks were certainly born in Soviet Ukraine, but all made their money in Russia, with only Fuks having, reportedly, severed his business interests in Russia because of the latter’s aggression against Ukraine.  In 2018,  Fridman, the main sponsor, was reportedly placed by the US State Department on a list of figures with ties to the Kremlin. 

In September 2020, BYHMC erected an ‘installation’ to mark the 79th anniversary of the Babyn Yar Massacre by the Nazis of over 33 thousand Jewish men, women and children.  As well as doubts about the work itself, there were serious concerns about where it was placed.  Zisels dismisses the BYHMC assertions that the installation was beyond the boundaries of the former Jewish gravesite and says that independent researchers have found documentary evidence showing that the plot of land where construction is planned lies on the territory of that Jewish graveyard.

Zisels was one of the initiators of what began as a Second Appeal of Ukrainian Jews to Ukraine’s Civil Society in support of the Ukrainian project for the memorialization of Babyn Yar, following the first such appeal, summarized in English here. It now, in fact, has become a general appeal, and can be endorsed by leaving your name here.   The signatories express their support for the need “to honour the memory of the tens of thousands of Jews and people of other nationalities and faiths killed by the Nazis at Babyn Yar during the Second World War. The best representatives of our and other peoples have struggled for this over many years. However it is not a matter of indifference how and at what a price this idea is brought to life. We consider any solution to be inadmissible and impossible if it envisages construction work on the sites of cemeteries and places of mass burial, this runs entirely counter to Jewish and general human tradition and morality. We therefore support the Ukrainian project for comprehensive memorialization of Babyn Yar which does not envisage any fundamental construction work on the land where there were Orthodox; Jewish; Karaim or Muslim graveyards, and where the last remains are buried of tens of thousands of victims of the Nazi executioners.”

“Jewish religious tradition unequivocally prohibits any construction on the sites of graveyards and mass burials. The attempt to build a synagogue on the land of an Orthodox cemetery is an affront to Jewish spiritual and moral values, as well as overt provocation against Orthodox Christian believers, against all of those whose relatives lie buried at the Kyrylivske Cemetery.

Impunity is a spur.  It would seem that the Russian billionaires who are the sponsors of the project (Mikhail Fridman; German Khan and Pavel Fuks) are less interested in building the memorial, than in provoking public outrage against the creation of the memorial,  The aim of such provocation is to disrupt inter-faith and inter-ethnic peace in Ukraine and to claim to the whole world that those protesting against such sacrilegious construction are ‘terrible Ukrainian anti-Semites’.

People who declare themselves to be the protectors of the memory of victims of the Holocaust should, even more than others, not dare to desecrate places of burial – neither the places where the victims of the Nazis died a terrible death, nor the territory of graveyards, destroyed by the Soviet regime.

No decent person can, nor has the right to accept such sacrilege.

We call on those who share our position and our fears to endorse this appeal.”

 

*   The Ukrainian concept can be found here in Ukrainian and in English (press under the name in English, where it says ‘PDF’).

The website of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center can be found here in UkrainianEnglish and Russian.  

 

 

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