70 Years since Babi Yar the Holocaust still has a Lesson to teach
“Shoah by Bullets: Mass Shootings of Jews in Ukraine 1941-1944” Exhibit
On September 8th, I attended the opening of the exhibit “Shoah by Bullets: Mass shootings of Jews in Ukraine 1941–1944” at the Ukrainian House in central Kyiv. Although the Shoah by Bullets exhibit has been shown in Paris, Brussels, New York and other cities, this is the first time it has appeared in Ukraine. Establishing the exhibit in Kyiv was truly an international effort. TheVictor Pinchuk Foundationprovided key support, in partnership with the Memorial de la Shoah, Yahad – In Unum and the Embassies of Israel, France, Germany and the United States. Other contributors included the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies, University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and the Center of Studies of History and Culture of Eastern-European Jews.
This year the international community will join Ukraine in commemorating the 70thyear since the massacre at Babi Yar. The opening of the Shoah by Bullets exhibit in Kyiv provides a rare space for Ukrainians to learn and reflect upon a difficult and searing moment in their nation’s history that received short shrift or was outright censored in the Soviet era. That Ukraine experienced staggering human losses during World War II is well documented, but the impact of the Holocaust, and particularly the mass murder of Jews and other victims by Nazi soldiers in Ukraine, is still a relatively new subject for history books and an uncomfortable moment in history for many. It is really only through events such as the Shoah by Bullets exhibit that public awareness and understanding of the Holocaust can be introduced to younger generations.
Shoah by Bullets is based on the work of French Catholic priest Father Patrick Desbois and his association, Yahad – In Unum. One of the most remarkable and humanizing aspects of the exhibit are the testimonies, recorded on video, of everyday Ukrainians who witnessed or were somehow implicated in the Ukrainian Holocaust. When my wife Mariella and I visited the exhibit, my first thought while watching the testimonies was how close the flame of collective memory was to going out when Father Dubois began these interviews. The interviewees are all in the twilight of their lives and are the last of the generation that was alive during this period. The juxtaposition of the ordinariness of the story tellers – grandmothers, grandfathers, village elders, old couples who finish each other’s sentences – against the grim nature of their recollections – shootings, dead bodies, hidden neighbors, lost friends – is startling and haunting. There is also the sinking feeling of reading each witness’s age in the subtitles, doing the math in your head, and realizing that they were mere children when they saw these terrible events, many of them not even ten years old.
To date, Yahad – In Unum teams have interviewed more than 2, 000 witnesses of the massacres and identified the location of hundreds of mass graves, many previously unknown. In 2010, our Embassy issued a grant to USC’s Shoah Foundation Institute and the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies to develop an educational program called “Facing the Past.” Facing the Past extends the lessons of the Holocaust beyond the walls of the Shoah by Bullets exhibit by allowing Ukrainian teachers and students to access its testimonies and materials. The program also builds on the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies’s network of 3, 200 teachers who have been trained in the methods of using video testimony in the classroom. Teachers who participate in the “Facing the Past” seminars learn how to incorporate comparative source analysis (i.e., using various video testimonials from witnesses), and other critical thinking skills into their teaching of the Holocaust. This allows students to interact with the material and develop their own conclusions. The “Facing the Past” curriculum is also used to train the guides who provide the group tours at the Shoah by Bullets exhibit. These are young History and Education majors from local universities who volunteer their time to learn more about what happened during the Holocaust and educate their fellow Ukrainians.
Mariella and I recently had the distinct honor of hosting a dinner for the visiting delegation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The delegation was in Kyiv as part of a ten day trip to Holocaust sites in Austria, Ukraine and Poland. During their visit they too made time to go to the Shoah by Bullets exhibit. Although many in the delegation were familiar with Father Dubois’s work (photos and other documents from the Museum’s archives are part of the exhibit) they nonetheless were interested in seeing the project through a Ukrainian lens and learning how Ukraine is grappling with this chapter of its history.
A highlight of the delegation’s visit to Shoah by Bullets was the chance for its members, including veteran activists and supporters of Holocaust education, to take tours of the exhibit led by four young university students: Oleksandra Diduh, Olga Kolesnyk, Igor Podolsky, and Maryna Batsman. Oleksandra, Olga, Igor and Maryna had just recently completed their training through the “Facing the Past” project and gave their maiden tours of the exhibit (in English!) to the delegation. I should note that the USHMM delegation was especially keen to meet these remarkable young people and during the dinner reception at my residence the guides spent several hours speaking with the museum members about their work and motivation for getting involved with the Shoah by Bullets exhibit. One of the guides commented on why she got involved with the project: “The ability of Ukraine to accept and understand Holocaust and how it treats minorities tells us how the country can progress as an open society.”
Part of our reception for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum was a short musical performance by one of its members. Mark Ludwig is a violinist with the Boston Symphony but also a musical historian who has spent much of his professional career researching and performing music written during the Holocaust. With our invited guests and the museum delegation gathered around Mark played a lullaby written by the Gideon Klein. A gifted Czech pianist and composer, Klein was only 25 years old when he died in Fürstengrube, a subcamp of Auschwitz, in January 1945. Four two minutes we listened to the sweetly melancholic notes of Gideon’s music and we could understand how much had been lost. Earlier in the trip Mark had also played Klein’s piece during the delegation’s visit to Babi Yar; a fitting memorial to a horrible tragedy.