January 27 is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day to remember the six million Jews, and others, killed by the Nazis and their collaborators in World War II. The Holocaust was a brutal attempt to destroy Eastern European Jewry – to wipe out a race in its entirety.
The testimonials of those who survived are so harrowing that they make very difficult reading. The most shocking that I have come across is Chil Rajchman’s Treblinka. Rajchman was a young Polish Jew, who was arrested in October 1942 and sent to the Treblinka death camp, a place where three quarters of a million Jews were murdered. His sister, who was arrested with him, was sent immediately to the gas chambers. Rajchman was set to work in the camp, sorting the clothes of the dead, carrying corpses and pulling out their teeth. He and a few other men managed to escape during a camp uprising.
The Nazi invasion of 1941 brought the Holocaust to Ukraine. The mass slaughter at Babi Yar is the most widely known event of the massacre of Jews in Ukraine. In just two days at the end of September 1941, nearly 34,000 Jews were shot at a ravine just outside Kiev. A. Anatoli’s ‘documentary novel’ Babi Yar, which was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1969, offers a vivid account of the massacre. Over the course of the Nazi occupation, up to 150,000 people may have been killed at Babi Yar, including prisoners of war, communists, Ukrainian nationalists and Roma.
Today Babi Yar is a verdant park easily reached by underground train from the centre of Kiev. The land is undulating, with a couple of steepish slopes, but there is little sign of a ravine. It was peaceful when I visited, in May 2005, with groups of young people sitting on the grass enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. A large, rather ugly post-Soviet statue commemorates those who died (see photo). Further away, towards the woods, is second, much smaller memorial, dedicated to the Jews shot at Babi Yar.
In Pavolitch (Pavoloch in Russian), where my family comes from, Jews were herded in trucks or on foot from the neighbouring villages and settlements to the Jewish cemetery just outside the town, where more than 1,300 were shot in 1941. Later, in November 1943, when no Jews remained, dozens of other enemies of the Third Reich were locked into the basement of one of Pavolitch’s synagogues and it was set alight.
Today, we remember them.
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.