As 2022 begins, this might not feel like the happiest of new years, with Omicron cases surging and another wave of Covid restrictions in many countries. But spare a thought for the inhabitants of Leningrad (now St Petersburg) who attempted to celebrate the new year 80 years ago in their besieged city back in 1941-42. For those suffering mass starvation, cakes made from potato peel, a thin soup, aspic derived from wood glue, a slice of bread and a spoonful of jelly amounted to a genuine feast.
The Nazis’ Siege of Leningrad – the Soviet Union's second largest city – lasted from September 1941 to January 1944, with enemy forces encircling the city and attempting to bomb and starve it into submission. Hundreds of thousands of residents died of hunger and cold during the first winter of the blockade.
Lake Ladoga, the so-called Road of Life, provided the city's only link with the outside world, enabling precarious deliveries of urgent supplies by boat in summer and by truck over its frozen surface in winter, under constant enemy fire. The driver's door was removed from all the trucks making the crossing to enable the driver to leap to safety if the truck broke through the ice and sank. The ice road was busy day and night, but this was not enough to provide sufficient food supplies for such a large city.
Bread rations were constantly being reduced and soon Leningrad faced mass hunger in spite of the makeshift canteens set up across the city. People fainted at their workplaces from exhaustion and some resorted to cannibalism or murder to attain extra food ration cards. By the beginning of the winter, there was no electricity, no running water and no heating; and the hundreds of corpses lying on the streets no longer shocked anyone.
Residents rarely ventured out unless absolutely necessary, too emaciated to walk even a short distance. Faint with hunger, many collapsed and died from exposure to the cold. But the need to find food and water still drove people into the streets. The city's water supply was disrupted, so residents collected water from cracks in the asphalt on Nevsky Prospect – the city’s main thoroughfare – caused by artillery fire.
More than 2.5 million residents and 500,000 soldiers of the Leningrad front were trapped in the city, with around 780,000 dying of cold and hunger during the first winter of the siege.
In a bid to boost morale, the municipal authorities attempted to hold some semblance of new year celebrations to usher in the year 1942. This was considered particularly important for the tens of thousands of children who had not been evacuated from Leningrad in time.
Despite the shortage of fuel, a thousand fir trees were brought to the city from nearby forests to be erected in schools, kindergartens, theatres and houses of culture. Plays and performances were put on – even though they were often interrupted by air raids and children had too little energy to follow what was happening on the stage. But everyone was glad for the holiday and especially for the opportunity to get a hot meal after the show.
“First, they showed us a concert, then they gave us soup – several noodles in a bowl of almost clear water – and vermicelli with a cutlet for the main course,” one schoolboy recalled. “Since I was so very skinny, they divided one extra portion between me and another equally skinny boy. Apparently, someone could not make it to school and there was a spare portion... After that new year party, I began to somehow get out of my nearly dying state, that get-together and the meal saved me.”
“The piece of bread turned out to be small, weighing no more than 50 grams. A better gift could not have been imagined. The boys understood it and treated a piece of bread as the most precious delicacy. Bread was eaten separately from lunch dishes, as everyone tried to savour it for as long as possible,” another schoolboy remembered.
A factory foreman described another festive event in the besieged city. “Polina baked one potato peel cake for each of us. I have no idea where she managed to get the peel from. I brought two cubes of wood glue, from which we cooked aspic and there was a bowl of broth for each of us. In the evening, we went to the theatre and watched a production. But it was not much fun, it was as cold inside as it was outside and all the spectators were covered in hoarfrost.”
A new year miracle was the appearance of tangerines, sent from Georgia especially for the children of Leningrad. A truck transporting the exotic fruit along the ice road on Lake Ladoga came under fire from two Messerschmitts. Their bullets hit the radiator and the windshield and the driver himself was wounded in the arm, but he managed to deliver his precious cargo. When the truck was examined afterwards, there were 49 bullet holes in it.
But not everyone could work up a festive mood for the new year. “That was the first time we celebrated the new year that way. There was not even a crumb of black bread and instead of having fun around a Christmas tree, we went to sleep because there was nothing to eat. When, last night, I said that the old year was ending, I heard in response: ‘To hell with this year, good riddance!’ Indeed, I am of the same opinion and I will never forget the year 1941,” one 16-year-old wrote in his diary, not long before his untimely death in February 1942.
By the spring of 1942, Leningrad and its remaining residents began slowly to come back to life. Farms were established in the suburbs to grow vegetables, the streets were cleared of rubbish, intermittent electricity supplies resumed in residential districts and some public transport began operating again.
This blog post is largely based on an article from Russia Beyond, which you can read here.
The Siege of Leningrad is the backdrop for several historical novels, including Ice Road by Gillian Slovo; The Siege by Helen Dunmore and The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simmons, among others.
My final article of this year is also the last in a series I have written in recent months to honour the memories of those murdered at the ravine of Babi Yar on the outskirts of Kiev, Ukraine, 80 years ago. This time, I will end on a forward-looking note, discussing a new, thought-provoking piece of music theatre designed to move, challenge and inspire.
In September 1941, the occupying Nazi forces and their Ukrainian collaborators murdered more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar over just two days, beginning on the eve of Yom Kippur. In the following two years of Nazi occupation, Babi Yar became the scene of over 100,000 deaths.
This year a group of three Ukrainian musicians journeyed deep into their shared history, drawing on survivors' testimonies, traditional Yiddish and Ukrainian folk songs, poetry and storytelling to produce a new music theatre performance – Songs for Babyn Yar (to use the Ukrainian name for the killing site). The production weaves languages, harmonies and cultures to reveal the forgotten stories and silenced songs from one of the most devastating periods in Ukraine’s past and questions how we can move forward.
Songs for Babyn Yar features haunting music from Svetlana Kundish, Yuriy Gurzhy and Mariana Sadovska, all originally from Ukraine but now based in Germany. They are ethnically Jewish and Russian Orthodox and between them perform in Ukrainian, Russian, English, German, Yiddish and Hebrew. Artistic director Josephine Burton, from the British cultural charity Dash Arts, has helped, in her words, “to tease out a narrative that will encompass this shared joy in each other, whilst not shrinking away from the darkness and the horrific tragedy at its heart”.
In an interview with the London-based Jewish Chronicle in November, Kundish described the deeply personal link she feels to Babi Yar thanks to a 94-year-old survivor among the congregants of the synagogue in Braunschweig, Lower Saxony - where she serves as the first female cantor - and the close friendship they formed.
When the Nazis occupied Soviet Ukraine in the summer of 1941, 13-year-old Rachil Blankman’s parents sent her away from Kiev to Siberia with a sick aunt, while they stayed behind to wait for Rachil’s missing brother to come home. The family that she left behind in Kiev were murdered at Babi Yar.
The orphaned teenager eventually returned to Kiev and struggled through many years of hunger and of poverty, but eventually gained a university degree and became an engineer. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Rachil moved to Germany. “Her whole life story is a statement that despite everything, she found a way not only to survive, but also to live a happy life,” Kundish says.
Rachil represents the “main voice” of Songs for Babyn Yar. “We have excerpts from the story of her life incorporated into the body of the show, so her voice comes in and out at certain moments, and the music is in a dialogue with her memories,” Kundish says.
The willingness in Ukraine today to recognise the atrocities committed at Babi Yar, with major research projects and a new memorial centre underway (which I have written about here) contrasts sharply with the Soviet era, when Jewish memory and culture were all but erased.
The Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was banned from reading his 1961 poem Babi Yar (which was later used by the composer Dmitry Shostakovich in his 13th symphony) in Ukraine until the 1980s. And Lithuanian soprano Nechama Lifshitz was barred from performing in Kiev after she sang Shike Driz’ Yiddish Lullaby to Babi Yar at a concert in the city in 1959.
Kundish hopes that Songs for Babyn Yar will reach out to as wide an audience as possible and will be part of an ongoing conversation. “I want [people] to tell their children or grandchildren about it. I want them to keep the memory alive because this is a hard chapter of history and it should not be forgotten. And people who live in Ukraine, especially the young generation, they should know about it…I want it to be broadcast on Ukrainian television. I want people to accidentally push the button and end up on this channel and just listen. That’s what I want.”
Songs for Babyn Yar debuted at JW3 in London on 21 November 2021 and will be performed at Theatre on Podol in Kiev on 7 December. A short extract is available on YouTube.
Until I was asked, a few weeks ago, to lay a wreath of white poppies at this year’s ceremony of remembrance in our local village, I hadn’t been aware of the symbolism of the white poppy. Unlike the red poppy, it commemorates all victims of war, civilian as well as military, in conflicts past and present, anywhere in the world. White poppies also symbolise a commitment to peace and challenge efforts to glamorise or celebrate war.
Victims of war of course include not just those killed during conflict. They include all those who are wounded, bereaved or lose their homes and livelihoods, or live with the daily fear of stray bullets or explosions. They include refugees forced to flee their homes, those who undertake terrible journeys to try to reach a safe haven, who may find themselves held in camps in terrible conditions, locked up in detention centres abroad, or are made to feel unwelcome in the communities where they seek to make a new life. Today’s victims of war include girls in Afghanistan who have been forced to give up their education, all those suffering in war zones in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, and many others.
My children laid our homemade wreath of white poppies to honour the memories of two members of our own family in particular. The first is my grandmother’s cousin Moishe (pictured left). He was 16 in the summer of 1941 when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union where he lived. With his mother and younger sister, he fled his home town of Kiev just ahead of the advancing German army, heading east and finding refuge in the city of Kokand in Uzbekistan. On arrival, they found the city already overcrowded with evacuees and they lived in dreadful conditions, amid starvation levels of hunger and epidemics of typhus and other diseases.
In 1943 Moishe was called up to a Soviet military academy in Turkmenistan. Then in 1944, he was transferred to the front – to Poland. He died on 16 October 1944, ahead of the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive to liberate Warsaw. He was 18 years old.
But fleeing to Uzbekistan enabled Moishe’s mother and sister to escape almost certain death. Six million Jews like them were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. In much of Soviet Ukraine, the Nazis didn’t force Jews into ghettos and transport them to concentration camps, to the gas chambers, as they did in other parts of Europe. Instead, they rounded up the Jews and forced them to pits on the outskirts of towns and villages. In these pits, hundreds of thousands were shot by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators, in what is now referred to as the Holocaust by Bullets.
But this wasn’t the only means of mass murder that the Nazis used in Ukraine. Our white poppy wreath also honours the memory of another of my grandmother’s cousins, Baya (pictured right). Baya and my Grandma grew up together. They were both orphans and were brought up by their grandparents in a village about 60 miles from Kiev.
When my Grandma and most of her family managed to escape to the West in the 1920s – to Canada – Baya was the only member of the household who chose to stay behind. She was engaged to be married and was studying at university in Kiev. In 1941, when the Nazis invaded, Baya and her husband didn’t flee to the east. They stayed in Kiev, where they were among a group of Jews forced aboard a boat on the Dnieper, the river that cuts through the centre of the city. The boat was set alight. There were no survivors.
I and others in the media have written much in recent weeks about the atrocities committed at Babi Yar, the ravine on the edge of Kiev where Nazis murdered nearly 34,000 Jews in late September 1941. The 80th anniversary of the massacre, and controversy over a new memorial museum to commemorate those who perished, have focused attention on Nazi crimes in Ukraine like never before.
The participation of the local Ukrainian police in mass shootings, including those at Babi Yar, is well known and well documented. The usual perception is that a vast majority of Ukrainians were anti-Semitic and supported the German occupiers in their endeavours.
I recently came across a fascinating paper by Crispin Brooks, curator of the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, based on his presentation at a conference for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2013. The Los Angeles-based Shoah Foundation was founded by film director Steven Spielberg to preserve on videotape (and later digitise) the first-hand accounts of surviving Holocaust victims – Jews, Roma, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals and survivors of Nazi eugenics policies – as well as those of other witnesses, including rescuers, liberators and participants in war crimes trials.
In Ukraine alone, the Shoah Foundation conducted more than 3,400 interviews from 1995 to 1999, while around twice that number took place in the US, Israel and elsewhere with interviewees born in Ukraine.
The overall portrayal of the local Ukrainian police in testimonies is overwhelmingly negative and backs up our knowledge of collaboration by Ukrainians. For example, the following account from Simon Feldman in Boremel, western Rivne region.
On Friday afternoon, that particular day, which was two or three weeks after the invasion, they took my father out and nine other men to the Polish church, kościół …, and they shot all ten of them. And the ones that did the shooting, and the ones that did the arresting, and the ones that carried out these atrocities were not Germans. This was the local Ukrainian police. I’m sure that it was under German orders or with the German sanction.
But testimonies also show that Ukrainian police officers could be lax when guarding Jewish ghettos, and were often bribed. And there are occasional accounts of a member of the local police assisting Jews, including a Ukrainian policeman who was a friend of the interviewee’s father transporting the family on his cart to safety in return for their remaining possessions.
Iulii Rafilovich, a survivor from Bar in Vinnytsia region talked about the role of Ukrainians in the local administration established under German occupation.
The Ukrainians mostly had a narrow outlook. They didn’t get involved—“none of our business.” Many were sympathetic. But there were many beasts―the police in particular—and all these beasts rose to the surface. This was especially true of the intelligentsia. I went to the second school, a Ukrainian school. My class teacher Kulevepryk … became the head of the uprava. The history teacher became the editor of the fascist newspaper, Bars’ki visti. Zinaida Ivanovna, the Ukrainian language teacher, became some big shot. And, of course, they treated the Jews terribly.
Another testimony describes how after the Jews were massacred in Tomashpil, Vinnytsia region, the head of the Ukrainian community ordered Jewish houses to be demolished for firewood. And yet he hired a surviving Jewish woman to cook for him, thus protecting her.
She was just one of many Jews to find protection among Ukrainians. Perhaps surprisingly, given our common knowledge of anti-Semitism in Ukraine both historically and in the present day, the Shoah Foundation conducted 413 interviews with rescuers in Ukraine, more than in any other country. Many survivors talked about being hidden by Ukrainians, and in some instances a single person may have been helped by several different individuals or families on differing occasions. Motivations for offering help were many and varied. For some, it was simply an opportunity for financial gain, while others acted out of humanity or, most commonly, religious conviction.
Lidiia Pavlovskaia, a Baptist, recalled her family and neighbours hiding Jews in Boiarka, Rivne region.
My father had always taught us and himself believed that Jews were God’s people. And we as evangelical Christians were God’s people, too. So the people who came were like brothers to us. Thus, we had to hide our brothers. We were all in danger of capital punishment, because they would kill all of us [had they found the Jews]. My father, though, believed God would protect us.
Perhaps the best known protector of Jews in Ukraine was Metropolitan Andriy Sheptytskiy, Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church, the only church leader in Nazi-occupied Europe to speak openly in defence of persecuted Jews. Sheptytskiy instructed his clergy to help the Jews by hiding them on church property, offering them food, and smuggling them out of the country. He succeeded in harbouring more than 100 Jews and, unsurprisingly, features in several of the testimonies.
Kurt Lewin’s father was Lviv’s chief rabbi and knew Sheptytskiy before the war, which helped him find shelter in various monasteries. Lewin recalled:
- Some [monks] were [antisemitic] … They didn’t like Jews.
- Did they know you were Jewish?
- Were you ever betrayed, or did you think you would ever be betrayed?
- No … no. You see, the fact they liked or disliked Jews had nothing to do [with it]. They resented the fact Jews were being killed. They resented the bestiality, and they tried to help. Because they felt, within their limited circumstances, they couldn’t in their conscience sit quiet on the sidelines. Some objected to having Jews in the monastery, quite openly … They said so. They said the community was being endangered. But they never betrayed a Jew, you see, never interfered with it.
A full copy of the paper can be found here: https://www.ushmm.org/m/pdfs/20130500-holocaust-in-ukraine.pdf
I wrote last month about Babi Yar, the biggest mass shooting perpetrated by the Nazis in the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the massacre on 29-30 September. Last week a ceremony led by presidents Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, Isaac Herzog of Israel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany marked the event. On the same day, the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center revealed for the first time the names of dozens of the perpetrators of the crimes committed there and some of their testimonies.
On 29-30 September 1941, Nazis and their collaborators murdered tens of thousands of Jews at the Babi Yar ravine on the edge of Kiev. Although this was one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust, it went largely ignored for decades – covered up by the Soviet authorities and overshadowed by the atrocities in the concentration camps, which were often better documented. Throughout the remaining years of World War II, up to 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar.
The Memorial Center is working on a project to name all the victims of the atrocity, and has so far managed to recover and verify 20,000 previously unknown names. Alongside this project is another objective, to identify all those who participated in the massacre. Hundreds of German soldiers, policemen and SS personnel were complicit in the massacre, it says.
The Center on 8 October released names of 159 Nazis who participated in the killings, many of whom had testified at trial but were found not guilty. The majority returned to lead normal lives after the war.
“Some were shooters, others extracted the Jews from their homes, others took their belongings, or served sandwiches and tea to the shooters. All of them are guilty,” war crimes investigator and head of the Center’s academic council Father Patrick Desbois says.
Very few of the names were already widely known. Among those who were is August Häfner, a 29-year-old Sonderkommando SS storm trooper who commanded the two first days of mass executions. Let’s just reflect on him for a moment. A man of just 29 gave the orders and watched as nearly 34,000 people – mostly Jews, but also including Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war – were shot with their bodies stacked in a gigantic pit.
Häfner described his unit’s participation in the executions at a 1967 court hearing. “The SS troops had a section of approximately 30 meters in length. [Senior SS commander Bernhard] Grafhorst told me that the Jews should lie down close to each other. About 4-6 Jews lay down next to each other. So, they lay down until the entire bottom was filled. Then the same thing started again. Others had to lie on top of the already dead Jews. Within two days, 6-7 layers could have formed,” he testified.
Viktor Trill (pictured) was born in Czechoslovakia and began working for the Gestapo shortly after his hometown was occupied by the Nazis. He took part in the second day of the massacre and was acquitted in 1967 over lack of “base motive” for his participation, according to the Memorial Center.
“It is possible that on this day I shot between around 150 and 250 Jews. The whole shooting went off without incident. The Jews were resigned to their fate like lambs,” he told the court hearing. “After we got out, first we were issued with alcohol. It was grog or rum. I then saw a gigantic ditch [ravine] that looked like a dried-out river bed. In it were lying several layers of corpses. The execution began first by a few members of our Kommando going down into the ravine. At the same time about 20 Jews were brought along from a connecting path. The Jews had to lay down on the corpses and were then shot in the back of the neck. More Jews were continually brought to be shot,” his testimony continued.
Other names released to the public for the first time include those of Anton Hübner, 33, born in Reichenberg, Hans Hüttl, 36, from Königsberg, and another shooter Kurt Knigge, 43, born in Braunschweig.
The last living veteran of Einsatzgruppe C, the SS death squad in charge of the Babi Yar massacre, is Herbert Wahler. He lives in an unassuming home on a residential street in the picturesque German town of Melsungen. Now aged 99, Wahler has admitted to being present at the massacre but denies taking part in the killings, saying he was serving as a medic. He has never faced trial for his involvement in the Holocaust.
In 2014, the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center sent the German government documents that listed Herbert Wahler as a member of Einsatzgruppe C. The public prosecution office in the German city of Kassel opened an investigation into Wahler in 2017 but closed it in April 2020, claiming there was not enough evidence to bring charges against him. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre branded the failure to put him on a trial a “disgrace”.
You can read my previous article about Babi Yar here
I was invited to give a presentation at a Christian-Jewish church service with a theme of persecution and immigration, as part of this year’s North Cornwall Book Festival. The recent horror of refugees trying to flee Afghanistan in the wake of the Taliban victory, and the plight of migrants making perilous sea crossings in an attempt to reach Europe or the UK, have once again brought these issues to the fore.
My own family lived through the pogroms, a series of anti-Semitic riots that took place in the Russian Empire, which in many ways served as a precursor to the Holocaust. Today, we would probably call the pogroms a form of ‘state-sponsored terrorism’ against Jews – supported and incited by the government, if not actually perpetrated by it. They began in 1881, when Jews took the blame for the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, and continued in waves for the next 40 years, peaking in 1905 before coming to a head during the Russian Civil War – a chaotic and intensely violent period that lasted for about four years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
During the civil war, the area where my family lived – near Kiev, in present day Ukraine – became a battleground with numerous armies criss-crossing the land – Communists, Nationalists, Anarchists, anti-Bolsheviks, peasant militias – all of them anti-Semitic to a greater or lesser degree. The White Army in particular, which was loyal to the Tsar – and backed by the West – introduced methods of mass murder of Jews that were later taken and pushed to their limit by the Nazis twenty or so years later. Many White Army soldiers later went on to join the Ukrainian militias that collaborated with the Nazis to destroy all Jewish life in Ukraine in the early 1940s.
As well as the violence during the civil war, there was hunger. Food had become scarce during World War l, inflation soared making what little there was unaffordable, and the Bolsheviks requisitioned grain from the countryside (including from my great-great grandfather, who was a grain trader), to feed the workers in the towns. Not only did they take the grain, but also the seed, leaving the peasants with nothing to grow crops with the following year. The population was left to starve.
My grandmother Pearl was around 17 years old at the start of the civil war, and an orphan. She lived with her grandparents, siblings and cousins and took it upon herself to become the family breadwinner, undertaking terrifying and dangerous journeys by train to markets across the region to buy, sell and barter what she could to keep her family alive.
Eventually she even became a black-market gold dealer – taking any gold items belonging members of her local community on a murderous journey half way across Ukraine to exchange them for hard currency, which she brought back to the villagers so they could use it to buy food. Had she been caught, either with the gold or hard currency, she would have been shot.
After more than three years of this perilous life that she hated with a passion, and following a particularly arduous trading trip when she was caught in a snowstorm and almost froze to death, she could take it no more. She decided she must try to get herself and her family out of the country.
Six months later, in 1924, Pearl managed to emigrate to Winnipeg, Canada to join some other members of her extended family who had already made it out of Russia. She travelled alone, and with nothing. Once in Canada she did what so many immigrants do. She found a job and worked hard, scrimping, saving, and borrowing to raise enough money to bring the rest of her family over to join her the following year. Today my family is spread across Canada, from Vancouver to Toronto, and in America from California to New York, as well as in Germany, Israel and the UK, where they became, among other things, teachers and lawyers, journalists and doctors, Rabbis and social workers, all adding in their own unique ways to the prosperity and cultural life, as well as the wonderful diversity, of the places they now call home.
Photo: Pearl (left) with her sisters Sarah (centre) and Rachel, circa 1920
This month marks the 80th anniversary of the worst of the Nazis’ multitude of atrocities on Ukrainian soil, the massacre at Babi Yar on 29-30 September 1941, which began on the eve of Yom Kippur.
The Babi Yar tragedy was largest open-air massacre during the so-called Holocaust by Bullets, when 33,771 people – according to meticulous record-keeping by the SS – mostly women, children and the elderly, were shot. In the months that followed, tens of thousands more people were murdered at Babi Yar, the overwhelming majority Jews, but also Roma, Ukrainian nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war.
The killing came to a halt in 1943, with the Germans in retreat from the Soviet territory they had occupied. Berlin ordered that mass execution sites be excavated so the corpses could be burned, fearing that the Soviet Union would use them as evidence for propaganda purposes.
Until its collapse in the 1990s, the Soviet Union suppressed memory of the Jewish genocide that had taken place on its soil. National policy was to erase differences among the victims of Nazism. This included ‘erasing’ the ravine itself by filling it with industrial waste and making way for what exists at the site today – a wide street lined on one side with apartment blocks, and a grassy park on the other, where children play and lovers meet.
“Babi Yar is a symbol of the Soviet Union’s efforts to physically erase memory. They took the most tragic part of our history and tried to make it disappear. Thanks to an independent Ukraine, the policy was fully changed towards the memory of the Holocaust,” human rights activist and chairman of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Natan Sharansky, said last year at a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the massacre.
The Memorial Center, established in 2016 to build a major new Holocaust museum in Kiev, is due to open its doors in 2026 but has already been the subject of considerable controversy. The disagreements stem largely from the appointment of the contentious Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky as artistic director and his plans for a virtual reality installation, deemed inappropriate by many and dubbed a “Holocaust Disneyland” by one former curator when he quit the project. Objections have also been raised about the role of some of the Center’s Russian Jewish billionaire funders and its location in the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery.
But a number of research projects developed by the Center have yielded fascinating results. Last year a 3D model of the massacre site was created, led by former Scotland Yard investigator Martin Dean, who specialises in Nazi war crimes. By combining ground and aerial photography, maps, historical reports and witness testimonies, Dean was able to build an overall picture of a mass grave about 150 metres long, in which corpses were stacked in layers like sardines, and to pinpoint for the first time in three-quarters of a century exactly where it was located.
Another recent research initiative is the Names Project, which has uncovered the identities of more than 900 of the victims of Babi Yar, whose fates had previously been unknown. Estimates of the total death toll at Babi Yar in 1941-43 range from 70,000 to 100,000. Apart from details of the September massacre, records of those killed were sporadic. The Names Project is attempting to collect data on all those murdered at Babi Yar and the researchers hope eventually to have a web page for each identified victim, complete with details of their life story and a picture.
In partnership with the Memorial Center, Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa released a film this year to coincide with the 80th anniversary. Babi Yar.Context – a series of short documentaries – premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July. Loznitsa was born close to Babi Yar but grew up in ignorance of what had happened there.
His film is based on archival material using footage from the period, including newsreels, court trials and amateur films by German soldiers. It begins with Germany’s invasion of Ukraine in 1941 and concludes in March 1961 with the little-known Kurenivka mudslide – a disaster that resulted from the Soviet authorities’ attempts to erase memory of Babi Yar by filling the ravine with industrial waste. A decade later, heavy rain caused a dam securing a brick pulp dump to collapse, triggering a mudslide that released up to four metres of mud, water and human remains onto the streets. A recent report estimates that 1,500 people may have died as a result.
The Gulag was the largest network of forced labour camps ever created, spanning thousands of miles across the Soviet Union. Around 18 million prisoners, possibly more, were sent to the Gulag from 1930 to 1953 during the rule of Joseph Stalin, of whom up to three million died in the camps or as a result of their incarceration. As well as criminals, the Gulag became home to huge numbers of political prisoners.
One of these was Yehuda Solomonovich Kaufman, the husband of my great-grandfather’s sister Miriam (Mira) – whose story I have been telling in my blog over the last few weeks – and grandfather to my cousin Irina (Ira), who has shared her family stories with me.
Yehuda, originally from the town of Bobruisk in today’s Belarus, was arrested no less than three times before finally being sent to the Gulag in 1938. The first was in the 1920s when he was arrested as a Jewish nationalist because he gave private Hebrew lessons, in addition to his professional work as a surgeon. His next arrest came in 1931, this time because he corresponded with several members of his family (brothers, a nephew) who lived abroad. He was sent to prison, missing the birth of his daughter Sulamia as a result.
In 1936-37 Yehuda’s nephew came to Kiev from overseas to visit, and after this he was arrested for a third time and sentenced to ten years in a labour camp in Krasnoyarsk region as an ‘enemy of the people’. Although conditions were harsh and his sentence was long, he was lucky in being able to work as a doctor, and like many inmates, he even had a ‘prison wife’.
In 1949 Yehuda was finally permitted to return to Kiev. He left his prison wife to return to Mira, but no sooner had he set foot in his apartment for the first time in more than a decade than a group of state security agents arrived to arrest him once again. Rather than sending him back to the Gulag or to Siberia, he was exiled to the town of Zvenygorodka in Cherkasy province, central Ukraine, where he remained until his eventual release in 1956.
Ira, who was born in 1952, recalls that as a little girl, her family told her that Grandpa was “in Paris”. But later she remembers visiting him in Zvenygorodka, in a room with a round table and a bed with springs, which she would use as a trampoline.
Stalin died in 1953, and the Soviet reign of terror came to an end. But the truth of the labour camps, the mass deportations, executions and purges did not become public until Nikita Khrushchev cemented his place at the head of the Communist Party in the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death. Khrushchev’s so-called ‘secret speech’ to party officials in February 1956 denounced Stalin’s excesses and heralded a period of liberalisation, during which thousands of prisoners - including Yehuda – were set free and rehabilitated.
Once he was finally back in Kiev after 18 years of separation from his family, Yehuda managed to return to his work as a surgeon and to put the experiences of the previous two decades behind him. He was a cheerful man, loved by friends, family and colleagues alike, who rejoiced in his family and in life in general. He built up a strong relationship with his daughter in spite of their long years apart, and doted on his grandchildren, giving them little presents every day. He even wrote stories about his childhood that he illustrated himself. He died in 1964.
Although life improved for the people of the Soviet Union under the so-called ‘Khrushchev thaw’, the discrimination and anti-Semitism that hounded Jews first under the Tsars and then under the Communists did not go away. Religion had been abolished after the October Revolution of 1917, so Judaism was no longer considered a religion but a nationality, marked in Soviet passports on the personal details page under the notorious point number five: Национальность – Eврей (Nationality – Jewish).
This opened Jews up to any and every form of discrimination and anti-Semitism, from being humiliated in the street and called a Yid, to being marked down in exams, denied a place at university, overlooked for a promotion. So Jews kept quiet about their ‘nationality’. Parents were afraid to teach their children Yiddish, to follow the traditions that their people had lived by for thousands of years, to celebrate the Jewish holidays, and so the Yiddish language and Jewish customs died out, although small pockets remained in smaller towns and rural communities.
“We were a typical Soviet family,” my cousin Ira says. “Nothing remained of our Jewishness except our surname and an entry in our passport.” As a child, she and her sister Mila wanted to blend in, to be like everyone else. Their parents didn’t talk to them about their ‘nationality’, nor later did they ever discuss it with their children.
It wasn’t until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 that Jews were permitted to emigrate, in a bid for freedom from discrimination. Hundreds of thousands left, mostly for Israel, but also for the United States and Germany, where Ira and her family now live.
The Soviet Union was not an easy place to live after World War II, and especially for Jews. Those who managed to survive the war by fleeing to Central Asia or the Urals and returned after the German retreat found their homes destroyed, their towns devastated, and their Jewish neighbours slaughtered.
In Kiev, then in Soviet Ukraine, where several members of my family lived, nearly 34,000 Jews had been shot at the ravine known as Babi Yar on the edge of the city on 29-30 September 1941. But this was far from the only anti-Semitic atrocity committed by the Nazis in the city. My grandmother’s first cousin Baya was among a group of Jews herded to the banks of the river Dnieper and forced aboard a ship that was set alight. There were no survivors.
And few rural Jews from the villages formerly known as shtetls survived the war either. In Pavoloch, my grandmother’s home town, on 5 September 1941 up to 1,500 Jews were shot beside a mass grave dug in the Jewish cemetery. The victims came from many outlying villages as well as Pavoloch, herded to the town for slaughter. The terrible event has become known as the Pavoloch Massacre and even featured in last year’s Amazon Prime series Hunters, which I found myself unable to watch.
Several hundred thousand Jews fled to the eastern republics of the Soviet Union in 1941 as the Nazis approached. You can read some of their stories here. Many never went back to the towns they had left, unable to contemplate returning to places where such terrible devastation had taken place. Most, inevitably, would have lost family members or friends to the Nazis. It is hardly a surprise that a great number emigrated to Israel or the United States as soon as the possibility arose, while some remained in Uzbekistan or Kazakhstan, or elsewhere.
But thousands of Jews did return to their homes in towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. In my last article I wrote about my grandmother’s aunt Miriam (Mira) and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka), who made it back from Central Asia to Kiev in December 1943. Mira’s son Moishe (Musenka) had been called up earlier the same year to a military academy in Turkmenistan, on the Afghan border, and did not come home with them.
To continue their story, in 1944, Musenka was transferred to the front – to Poland. In preparation for his departure, he was moved to an army camp on the outskirts of Kiev, where his mother and sister were able to visit him. Later, from Poland, Musenka wrote that his regiment was preparing for a major offensive in Warsaw. He died on 16 October 1944, ahead of the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive to liberate the Polish capital. He was 18 years old.
It was his sister Sulochka, rather than his mother Mira, who received the death notice sent by the Soviet military authorities. Sulochka was 13 and had become something of a tearaway – a fiercely independent girl who skipped lessons and swiped pastries from vendors at the old Jewish market. She hid the letter from her mother, knowing how deeply it would upset her.
But Musenka had been a loyal son and always kept in touch regularly with his family. Mira descended into a panic after his letters stopped. She contacted the military authorities searching for information, but when a second copy of the death notice arrived, once again it was Sulochka who intercepted it.
Mira wanted to die. She felt she couldn’t live without her precious only son and couldn’t bear not knowing what had happened to him. She returned to the ruins of her pre-war home in the hope that bricks from the half-demolished building would fall and kill her. She more or less ignored her living daughter, Sulochka, amid the pain she felt over her missing son. Her husband Yehuda – exiled to a labour camp near Krasnoyarsk – even wrote a letter to the war commissar Klim Voroshilov with a plea for help in finding any trace of Musenka.
Many families waited years, decades even, for their menfolk to return from the war. Some were lucky; many were not. As time passed, the small glimmer of hope that her son was still alive and would one day come home gave Mira the strength to go on living. It was not until 1964, twenty years after Musenka’s death, and after Yehuda – finally liberated from the gulag – had also passed away, that Sulochka confessed to her mother that she had hidden the letters from the military authorities informing them that her brother had died in action.
In the end, knowing the truth at last helped ease Mira’s distress. For all those years she had tormented herself with the thought that Musenka might have fallen into the hands of the Banderovtsy – the anti-Semitic Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera, who allied with the Nazis and collaborated in the near-total destruction of Jewish life in Ukraine. The torture they inflicted on captured Red Army soldiers was notorious, and all the more so for those of Jewish descent.
Mira spent her post-war years enveloped in grief over the loss of her beautiful boy – and yes, photographs testify that he was indeed beautiful. Her love for her daughter remained in the background; it clearly existed, but was rarely overtly demonstrated. Mira could be a stubborn and awkward character and she and Sulochka were often at loggerheads. But Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was 14 when Mira died in 1966, remembers her with warmth and affection.
This story will be continued in my next article.
Soviet Jews that survived World War II by fleeing eastwards found a tough life waiting for them on their return home to towns and cities that had been occupied by the Nazis. I wrote recently about the experiences of several Jewish families as refugees in Central Asia during the war, including my great-grandfather’s sister, Miriam (Mira) – you can read that article here. Mira’s granddaughter Irina (Ira), who was born in Kiev after the war and lived there until the 1990s, has shared with me her family stories of life back in that city after the return from Central Asia.
The family had lived before the war in the centre of Kiev, at 37 Pushkinskaya Street in a communal apartment – one room for each family, with shared cooking and washing facilities, as was typical of Soviet life during the era of Stalin and Khrushchev. Sometimes a family occupied just a section of a room, partitioned off with a curtain.
On their return from Central Asia after the Nazi retreat in late 1943, Mira and her daughter Sulamia (Sulochka) – Ira’s grandmother and mother – made their way from the station on foot – no public transport was running – through the ruins of the devastated city, to find out what had become of their home. They found the four walls still standing, but nothing more.
The building was restored after the war and exists to this day. “Whenever I go back to Kiev, I always wander around the courtyard and look up at the balcony, as if I’m looking for my mother as a little girl,” Ira says. A quick Google search shows an attractive four-story building on a tree-lined street, next door to a “hip Israeli eatery” called Pita Kyiv and just down the road from the Estonian embassy.
As Ira’s mother and grandmother stood weeping before their ruined home, a figure approached them – a woman they had been acquainted with before the war. Knowing what had happened to the Jews of Kiev at the end of September 1941, when 34,000 were shot at the ravine of Babi Yar on the edge of the city, the woman took pity on Mira and Sulochka. She led them back to her basement flat on Saksaganskaya Street, a mile or so away, and invited them to stay. There Mira recognised many of her own possessions and those of her neighbours, stolen when they had departed in haste during the evacuation of the city. Mira said nothing. She was grateful simply to have a roof over her head.
Every day Mira returned to her building on Pushkinskaya in the hope of meeting the postman, desperate for news from her son Moishe (Musenka) in the army, and her husband Yehuda in the gulag. And she petitioned the authorities for a place to live for herself and her daughter. For once she was lucky, and was assigned a room in a communal apartment, but at the expense of another family, who were forced onto the street.
The dispossessed family rushed at Mira and beat her in anger and despair at losing their home. With so much of the city destroyed and more evacuees returning by the day, the authorities would juggle the accommodation that was still standing, taking shelter from one family to give to another; a lottery of relief or desolation.
The room was ten metres square, with no running water or sewerage. Later it became smaller still, with three meters reapportioned to create a corridor where a cooker was installed. But it was a roof over their heads and it was precious. In this room, nearly a decade later, Ira was born.
How Mira found the means to live during this period, Ira doesn’t know. But she suspects it was Mira’s brother, Uncle Avrom, who came to their rescue, as he had during the evacuation of Kiev, finding transport for them and a place to live. Sulochka also told Ira about her cousin Beba. Ira says Beba’s real name was Volf. According to the family tree my grandmother and father drew up he was called Velvl, while his grandson – who now lives in Germany – refers to him as Vladimir. Such are the complications of Jewish genealogy!
Cousin Beba was the only relative that did not turn against Mira when she became the wife of an Enemy of the People, after her husband was arrested in 1938 and sent to the gulag. One day Beba visited and saw that Sulochka had grown out of all her warm clothes, and in the dead of winter. He went to the crowded flea market where people bought and sold new and second-hand goods and found her a pair of warm boots.
Mira continued to go back to the family’s old home on Pushkinskaya in the hope of seeing the postman and finding a letter from her son or husband. In 1944, Musenka wrote that he was being transferred to the front – to Poland – and that before his departure he would be based at a large camp on the outskirts of Kiev, by the Darnitsia train station across the river Dnieper. Mira and Sulochka were able to visit him there. Musenka was 18 years old and this was the last time his mother and sister ever set eyes on him.
This story will be continued in my next article.
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. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.