The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko died at the beginning of this month, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, aged 84. Yevtushenko was among the best known of a group of Soviet poets that flourished during Nikita Khrushchev’s ‘thaw’ of the 1950s and 60s – a period of relative liberalism sandwiched between the brutality of Stalin and Leonid Brezhnev’s more hard-line rule. He is perhaps best remembered for his 1961 poem Babi Yar, whose title refers to the ravine on the edge of Kiev where nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators in 1941. Check out my blog entry of 27 January for more detail about Babi Yar and the Holocaust in Ukraine.
Yevtushenko’s poem recounts episodes of anti-Semitism through history and denounces Russia for failing to condemn the slaughter at Babi Yar and for other anti-Semitic outrages. It was later picked up by Dmitri Shostakovich, who used it in his 13th symphony.
Despite having been expelled from the Soviet Union’s literary institute and other organisations, Yevtushenko had a vast following and recited the poem at huge public rallies, but he was banned from reading it in Ukraine until the 1980s. His fame helped raise awareness of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. More than 20 million Soviet citizens died in World War II, or the Great Patriotic War as it is known, and the Soviet narrative of the war is one of sacrifice and heroism to conquer fascism – the siege of Leningrad and the battle for Stalingrad are understandably the key events. But the plight of the Jews was never part of this story.
Ironically, Kiev is marking a separate Holocaust-related event this week, with the opening of a new play entitled The Trials of John Demjanjuk: A Holocaust Cabaret. Signs for the performance were erected while Israel was commemorating Holocaust Remembrance Day on 24 April and provoked an outcry from Ukraine’s chief Rabbi, Moshe Azman. “This horror (I cannot find another was to describe it) was hung in the centre of Kiev on Holocaust Remembrance Day, in the city where Babi Yar is located, opposite the central synagogue!” the Rabbi wrote on social media. The signs were later removed.
The play was written by Jewish Canadian playwright Jonathan Garfinkel and delves into the life of John Demjanjuk, a former guard at the Sobibor extermination camp in Poland during World War II. Demjanjuk was tried in Israel as the bloodthirsty guard “Ivan the Terrible” at the Treblinka camp and sentenced to death in 1988, but his conviction was quashed. In 2011 he was convicted in Germany for his role at Sobibor, but died before his appeal could be heard.
Garfinkel insists that the play is a satire and denies that it is anti-Semitic.
By Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!
History repeats itself
The death of Rabbi Mendel Deitsch last week resonated through the Jewish community and throws up parallels with the past. The Rabbi was beaten up in the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir at in October last year, at Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. He was robbed of his money and mobile phone at the city’s train station, suffering multiple head injuries and brain trauma. He was not discovered until hours later and was airlifted to hospital in Israel, where he remained unconscious until his death on 14 April.
Ukraine continues to suffer high levels of anti-Semitic crime, despite the appointment of a Jewish prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, last year. Incidents include the desecration of Holocaust memorials and Jewish cemeteries with Swastikas and Nazi slogans, and an attack on a former synagogue in Uzhgorod, western Ukraine, which was daubed with red paint and anti-Semitic pamphlets. Most shockingly, the grave of one of Judaism’s most revered figures, Rabbi Nachman of Breslav in Uman was vandalised on the eve of Hannukah and adorned with a pig’s head. In Zhitomir, the scene of Rabbi Deitsch’s attack, the mass graves of holocaust victims were dug up earlier this year by thieves looking for gold teeth.
In early 1919, Zhitomir was the scene of one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks of Russia’s Civil War. Just like the assault on Rabbi Deitsch almost 100 years later, the initial attacks took place at the city’s train station, where followers of Symon Petlyura, one of the leaders of Ukraine’s fight for independence and a vicious anti-Semite, carried out a massacre, killing 17 Jews, many of them old men on their way home from synagogue.
But it didn’t stop there. Local peasants started a rumour that spread around the whole of Zhitomir in a matter of hours. They said that during the recent brief period that the Red Army had occupied the city, the Jews who had taken charge of the civil authorities had put to death nearly two thousand Christians. Who were these condemned men? Why and where were they killed? Nobody knew the answer to these questions – because there had been no mass execution. The rumours were pure fantasy, aimed at inciting hatred against the Jews. Thankfully the stories of Christian carnage provided a warning and when the pogrom began, all those who were able had already scattered to the wind or sought refuge with Ukrainian friends or neighbours. The only Jews left were the elderly or infirm, pregnant women and nursing mothers.
But the slaughter went ahead regardless. An old man on his way to synagogue with his prayer shawl over his arm was the first to die. He was propped against a tree and shot. But the bullet didn’t kill him. The old man dragged himself towards the synagogue on his hands and knees, but collapsed and died in the street just yards from the door, while Petlyura’s men stood and watched.
Witnesses spoke of seeing people having their eyes gouged out, their clothes torn off and the skin of their shoulders engraved by knife-blade with the badge of rank of their killer. The pogrom lasted for five days. Over three hundred Jews were killed.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.