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Kyiv Post | 26Sep2011 | John F. Tefft

70 years since Babi [Babyn] Yar the Holocaust still has a lesson to teach

On September 8th, 2011, 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. The Victor Pinchuk Foundation provided 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 70th year 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 [Desbois] 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 [Desbois'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.”

[W.Z. “The ability of the enemies of Ukraine to accept and understand Holodomor and recognize it as genocide of the Ukrainian people tells us how the country can progress as an open society.”
“The ability of the enemies of Ukraine to accept and understand UPA as heros in their struggle for an independent Ukraine 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 [For] 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 [Babyn]Yar; a fitting memorial to a horrible tragedy.

John F. Tefft is a U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Blogs of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv can be found at http://usembassykyiv.wordpress.com/

[W.Z. I was in Kyiv in September 1969 enroute to a Plasma Physics Conference in Bucharest, Romania. Having heard of Yevtushenko's Babyn Yar, I specifically asked a newly-made acquaintence -- who wanted to show me Kyiv -- to take me to Babyn Yar. He threw up his hands in exaspiration and said that there was nothing there.

It is my understanding, that the father of  Mr. Desbois -- who somehow managed to be imprisoned in a German concentration camp in Ukraine -- was a staunch Communist supporter. The claim by Mr. Desbois that he is trying to promote Ukrainian-Jewish reconciliation rings hollow. It is more likely that Mr. Desbois is just a pimp for the Holocaust Industry. In all his travels and interviews throughout Ukraine asking about killings of Jews, did he also ask his interviewees about the killing and deportation of Ukrainians during the first Soviet occupation of Western Ukraine between 17Sep1939 and 22Jun1941? Or during the second occupation during and following 1944, when the UPA was desperately trying to establish an independent Ukraine? Or even about the German atrocities during their occupation  in between? Had he done so, then one could believe in the sincerity of Mr. Desbois. That would really have promoted Ukrainian-Jewish reconciliation and "progress as an open society".

The novel of Anatoly Kuznetsov, "Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel", seems to be a source of much of the stories concerning Babyn Yar. Malcolm Muggeridge -- who presumably talked with Mr. Kuznetsov -- had serious misgivings about his book, his KGB connections and about his 1969 defection to Britain.

It is a fact that most of the Jews from Kyiv -- especially those associated with industrial enterprises, academics, bureaucrats and Communist functionaries -- were evacuated to the East. After the war was over, the flood of evacuees returning to Kyiv was so great that the Communist authorities had to issue a decree delaying their return until Kyiv had been rebuilt to some extent. It is my understanding, that the father of Oligarch Viktor Pinchuk was one of these evacuees. Did Mr. Pinchuk ever question his father about this evacuation?

As Ambassador from the United States of Israel to Ukraine, Mr. Tefft is obviously promoting the interests of Israel and the Holocaust Industry. Let us hope that in the future, he will also promote the interests of Ukraine and Ukrainians.]

Selected Comments:

The lesson to be learned: 26Sep2011 at 23:38
The sum total of atrocities committed against Ukrainians is by far the greatest total of atrocities committed against any group in the world - The unknown lesson.

Guest Mykhayl: 26Sep2011 at 23:46
If someone halted the Armenian Death March, the Holodomor might not of followed and the Holocaust would have been avoided.

Why is this one more important than the earlier genocides? Why are the Greco Catholic monastics and Metrapolitan Andryj Count Sheptytsky not praised as Ukrainian heroes of the Holocaust?

10's of Millions Killed: 26Sep2011 at 23:38
Tens of millions of Ukrainians were killed by various occupiers of Ukraine. Within the 20th. Century alone during the Holodomor, Russians including significant numbers of Jewish collaborators (commissars) killed up to 15 million Ukrainians.

Guest: 26Sep2011 at 20:56
Hurrah! for the commenters below, this holocaust crap has got to end. How many times do we have to hear 6 million jews killed when even yad vashem center in israel only shows 3million plus. 65 years and no solid evidence of mass killing in gas chambers but question that claim you are called anti-semite. Ambassador Tefft should be ashamed of himself for being party to this nonsense. There was a report that some state dept. personnel complain of feeling like they work for israel instead of USA.  It is easy to see why.

The Einsatzgruppen report of 33,771 Jews killed in Babyn Yar is impossible because the Germans found few Jews in Kyiv to kill. Here are a few quotations out of the large number available:


The Germans entered an evacuated Kyiv on September 19, 1941 -- that is, 3 months (89 days) after the outbreak of the War. What went on in Kyiv during those three months? Besides the mobilization and the preparation of the city to resist the Germans, the city was being evacuated, a fact typically overlooked by people like Burakovsky and Korotych. This evacuation clarifies a number of issues. The evacuation was conducted by means of specially-assigned vouchers. These vouchers were given out at work to managers, engineering and technical personnel, skilled workers, and office workers -- not only for themselves but also for their families. These people, then, were evacuated together with the factories and institutions themselves. Jews and their families were evacuated to the East together with all the others. Moreover, Jews were given preference in receiving evacuation vouchers because rumors were circulating throughout the city that the Germans were exterminating Jews. The Jews, therefore, made every effort to procure these privileged vouchers.

In addition to the official evacuation there was also an unofficial one. People with money were able to buy the evacuation vouchers without having been selected officially, and so could move East at their own expense. As a matter of fact, being selected for evacuation produced the side effect of deferring one's mobilization. In any case, by the 19th of September, Kyiv contained few Jews. This was the conclusion of the Kyivans who were left behind. This was my conclusion as well, because at Factory No. 300 where I worked, not a single Jew remained -- they had all fled. The chief engineer of the factory Y. M. Liubarsky, of Jewish nationality, ordered me to oversee meticulously the removal of the electrical equipment -- and what could not be removed, to destroy. He left Kyiv early in order to be on hand to receive somewhere in Zelenodolsk the equipment as it arrived and to supervise the resettlement of the workers who had been evacuated from Kyiv.


Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews: Revised and Definitive Edition, Holmes and Meier, New York, 1985

The Einsatzkommandos that moved with the armies farther to the east encountered fewer and fewer Jews. The victims were thinning out for two reasons. The first was geographic distribution. By October-November 1941, the largest concentration of Jews had already been left behind. In the eastern Ukraine and beyond the White Russian areas around Smolensk, the Jewish communities were smaller and more widely dispersed. The second reason was the decreasing percentage of Jews who stayed behind. With increasing distance from the starting line, the Soviet evacuation of factory and agricultural workers gained momentum. Many Jews were evacuated, and many others fled on their own. On September 12, 1941, Einsatzgruppe C reported that "across the lines, rumors appear to have circulated among the Jews about the fate which they can expect from us...." The Einsatzgruppe which operated in the central and eastern Ukrainian territories found that many Jewish communities were reduced by 70 to 90 percent and some by 100 percent.

Such reports began to multiply in the fall. In Melitopol an original Jewish population of 11,000 had dwindled to 2,000 before Einsatzgruppe D arrived. Dnepropetrovsk had a prewar Jewish community of 100,000; about 30,000 remained. In Chernigov, with a prewar Jewish population of 10,000, Sonderkommando 4a found only 309 Jews. In Mariupol and Taganrog, Einsatzgruppe D encountered no Jews at all. On the road from Smolensk to Moscow, Einsatzgruppe B reported that in many towns the Soviets had evacuated the entire Jewish population, while in the frozen areas near Leningrad, Einsatzgruppe A caught only a few strayed Jewish victims. These figures are not an accurate indication of the number of Jews who succeeded in getting away, for many of the victims fled only a short distance and -- overtaken by the German army -- drifted back into the towns. Nevertheless, a comparison of the original number of Jewish inhabitants with the total number of dead will show that upwards of 1,500,000 Jews did succeed in eluding the grasp of the mobile killing units. (pp. 294-295).


When Einsatzgruppe C approached the Dnieper, it noted that rumors of killing operations had resulted in mass flights of Jews. Although the rumors were actually warnings that frustrated the basic strategy of the mobile killing operations, the Einsatzgruppe went on to say: "Therein may be viewed an indirect success of the work of the Security Police, for movement ... of hundreds of thousands of Jews free of charge -- reportedly most of them go beyond the Ural -- represents a notable contribution of the solution of the Jewish question in Europe." The mass departure of Jews had lightened the load of the mobile killing units, and the Einsatzgruppen welcomed this development. (pp. 341-342)


Robert Paul Magocsi, A History of Ukraine, University of Washington Press, 1996

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, many Jews, especially in the eastern part of Soviet Ukraine, succeeded in fleeing eastward as part of the Soviet evacuation program of civilians, among them many Communist party functionaries, governmental employees, institutional functionaries, and factory workers. (pp. 630-631)


Orest Subtelny, Ukraine: A History (2nd edition), University of Toronto Press, 1994

All economic enterprises that might be useful to the Germans were marked for destruction. Kiev, for example, suffered more damage from the retreating Soviets, who blew up many of its major buildings, than from the advancing Germans. In the Donbas, most of the mines were flooded and the huge Dnieper hydroelectric works, as well as all the fifty-four blast furnaces in Ukraine, were destroyed by the Soviets.

A remarkable feature of the Soviet retreat was the massive evacuation of munitions plants, skilled labor, and important intellectuals beyond the Urals and to Soviet Central Asia. In what was perhaps the largest evacuation in history, the Soviets moved about 1500 factories and over 10 million people -- more than a third of these from Ukraine -- beyond the grasp of the Germans. Ufa, the capital of the Soviet Bashkir republic situated in the Urals, became the wartime seat of the Ukrainian Soviet government. This massive transfer of industrial enterprises and population contributed greatly to the Soviet ability to continue the war.

Particularly active during the course of the evacuation was the NKVD. Suspecting all those who sought to avoid resettlement of disloyalty to the Soviet state, it arrested and executed large numbers of people. Jailed prisoners with sentences over three years were shot so as not to leave behind any anti-Soviet elements who might be of potential use to the Germans. (p. 461)


elmer: 26Sep2011 at 17:02
I am soooooo very glad that Victor Pinchuk was able to take money he stole from Ukraine, by virtue of his ties with Kuchma, and crooked privatization deals and other very questionable transactions, and pour a little bit of it into yet another tale of Holocaust woe.

Today, he and his fellow Jewish oligarchs continue to rob and pillage Ukraine, and to do everything they can to keep and support a decrepit sovok mafia system, which makes slaves out of the Ukrainian population.

Well, there is an exception - Akhmetov, who is at the top of the oligarch heap, is a Tatar.

In the meantime, during that time period, WWII, Ukrainian lives were lost in far greater numbers, and by a far greater percentage.

Prior to that, Ukrainian lives were lost in the millions in the Holodomor, and in several other famines, not to mention Stalinist terror and gulags and such.

Somehow, only Jewish history seems to receive attention from US embassies.

Far worse horrors in Ukraine seem to be swept under the rug - not only by US embassies, but also by "Ukrainians" themselves.

Guest: 26Sep2011 at 15:54
Nice project

Please now explain what funds the US embassy has provided to teach the world about the horrors of the Holodomor, and about Soviet official crimes against the Ukrainians who were murdered in the millions.

Also wondering how much money the listed embassies -- France, German, Israel, US.. have given to explain to people in their own countries and in ukraine, that ukrainians were killed side by side with the jews, by the german nazis and their french collaborators in tragic numbers that are even larger than the tragic shoah.

It would be wonderful if these embassies gave money to a Ukrainian priest to go educate the French and Germans and Russians now why their own grandparents should be remembered as the Nazis and official collaborators they were.

Kyiv Post | 29Sep2011 | Reuters

Ukraine Holocaust massacre presaged modern genocide

By the time they were close enough to hear gunshots there was no time to turn back. SS soldiers split them into small groups, took away their belongings and pushed them towards the edge of a ravine that would become their mass grave -- Babiy [Babyn] Yar.

[W.Z. Gunshots -- especially from machine guns -- can easily be heard from distances greater than one kilometre.  So the first sentence is not believeable.]

The mass shootings, mainly by automatic gunfire, on the edge of the Ukrainian capital Kiev amounted one of the biggest single massacres of the Holocaust. A total of 33,771 Jewish men, women and children were killed in a single operation.

It was a precursor of country-wide Nazi ethnic purges and, in the words of researchers, became a grim "model" for modern-day mass killings.

Fewer than 30 people are known to have survived the Babiy [Babyn] Yar massacre that took place Sept. 29-30, 1941, after German forces rolled into Kiev.

Only a handful are still alive.

Raisa Maistrenko had turned three just a few weeks before the Nazis passed leaflets around the city ordering "all Yids [zhyd?] of Kiev [Kyiv]" to show up at a street crossing near Babiy [Babyn] Yar with documents, money and valuables as well as warm clothes.

Tricked into thinking they would simply be resettled, tens of thousands of Kiev's Jews complied.

"Not going was not an option, a failure to show up was punishable by death," says Maistrenko, a lively 73-year-old pensioner who now runs a dancing school for children, recounting what she had learned from her grandparents years after the war.

"(Apartment block) janitors were required to report all Jews, otherwise they faced death themselves."

Her grandmother -- who was not Jewish -- decided to see off Raisa, her Jewish mother and in-laws as they joined the stream of people heading towards Babiy [Babyn] Yar -- towards what they thought was a train journey to a resettlement camp.


Though she was only a toddler at the time, Raisa says she recalls one particular image.

"I saw old men in their underwear being escorted down the road, beaten up and bloodied. A woman ran up to one of them and hugged him and everyone started telling her off because she could anger the guards," Maistrenko said.

"My grandmother appealed to the crowd, saying 'This might be the last time they see each other'... As I learned later, those old men were the rabbis of Kiev."

Shortly after, Maistrenko's family reached a checkpoint where Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian collaborators stripped people of their belongings and then separated men from women.

"We could hear machine gun shots from where we were, it was terrible, people were screaming. My grandmother was waving her passport and shouting 'She is Russian!'," referring to her tiny grand-daughter, Maistrenko said.

"A polizei (Soviet name for collaborators [??? policeman???]) approached us, and swung the stock of his gun to smash my head but my grandmother covered me with her shoulder."

The blow knocked the woman to the ground but then a German soldier grabbed her and pushed her towards the crowd prompting her to scream in terror "I'm Russian!". People around her stepped aside and she saw an opening where she ran.

"A girl aged 11 or 12 followed us," Maistrenko said. "We were being shot at but the guards chose not to follow us, presumably because they were afraid that others would scatter."

The three hid in the bushes at a nearby cemetery and returned to the city under the cover of darkness. "I remember grandmother saying 'Quiet, quiet' as she hugged us," Maistrenko said. [W.Z. A three-year-old remembering all this detail is extremely unlikely.]


The Babiy [Babyn] Yar massacre marked the start of Ukraine's Holocaust in which a pre-war Jewish population of about 1.5 million was virtually wiped out to fulfil Adolf Hitler's ambition of a Jew-free Europe. Gypsies, Russians and Ukrainians were later executed in the ravine as well.

[L.P.: Raul Hilberg in "Destruction of the European Jews" says: "Nevertheless, a comparison of the original number of Jewish inhabitants with the total number of dead will show that upwards of 1,500,000 Jews did succeed in eluding the grasp of the mobile killing units." (pp. 294-295)]

Similar mass killings took place across Ukraine, Belarus and other neighbouring countries such as Romania.

"What happened here (in Ukraine) served as a prototype of contemporary genocide," said Patrick Desbois, a Catholic priest who visited Ukraine this month with a grim exhibition called 'Holocaust by Bullets'.

"There are no (Auschwitz-style) camps. Here, it is mobile killers, not the victims, who moved -- and rapidly," he told Reuters in an interview.

In fact, the executioners often left before all of their victims had died. According to Desbois, who has gathered testimony from about 2,000 non-Jewish witnesses in Ukraine, many saw signs of people being buried, badly wounded but still alive, in mass graves. [W.Z. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the Germans would take the time and effort to dig -- or assemble people with shovels to dig -- excavations to serve as mass graves.]

"They made gestures moving their hands (up and) down rhythmically," he said. "The ground 'moved for three days' from people dying or bleeding under the earth." [W.Z. Does Mr. Desbois expect anyone to believe this?]

When German forces retreated from Kiev [Kyiv] before the Red Army advance at the end of the war, the Nazis tried to conceal the Babiy [Babyn] Yar executions, forcing prisoners to exhume the corpses, burn them and scatter the ashes.

Even after 1945, though the number of Jews killed emerged quickly from Nazi records, the full details of the Babiy [Babyn] Yar story remained untold for at least two decades.

The Soviet Union never stressed the ethnic nature of the killings, referring to their victims as "Soviet civilians". A curtain of Soviet silence fell across the region's history.

"It was a taboo subject in the Soviet Union," says Desbois.

One of the reasons was the collaboration of the local population. When Nazi death squads found the psychological pressure of systematic killing difficult to handle, they would instruct Ukrainian guards to take over.

[W.Z. In my opinion, this is unlikely. Is this pure Ukrainophobic hate-mongering by Mr. Desbois?]

"Nobody talks about the fact that Ukrainians took part in the killings, just like the French, Poles and Belarussians," said Ukrainian parliament deputy Oleksander Feldman.  [W.Z. Is Mr. Feldman one of the Jewish  "piano players" in the Verkhovna Rada from the Party of Regions dedicated to discredit Ukraine as an independent state?]

"But Ukrainians, the French, Poles and Belarussians also saved (Jewish) people." [W.Z. Russians did not kill Jews or save Jewish people?]

The first monument to "Soviet citizens and soldiers" was erected at Babiy [Babyn] Yar only in 1976, 15 years after prominent Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko devoted a poem to it which began with the line "There are no monuments at Babiy [Babyn] Yar".

The first Jewish monument was erected at the site only after the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

The ravine no longer exists and the area is now covered by several apartment blocks and a park, where almost a dozen small monuments have been erected in different spots in the past 20 years.

Raisa, a small and talkative woman who walks with a dancer's grace, is cheerless as she approaches a menorah-shaped monument, regretting that the full depth of the tragedy has yet to be marked.

She points to birch trees planted by Jewish activists 20 years ago and said there were supposed to be nameplates next to each tree devoted to Ukrainians who had saved Jews.

"Unfortunately, this has never been done," she says.

There are signs attitudes are changing, however. A group of Ukrainian Jewish organisations have announced plans to build a memorial museum in the park, with the first stone to be symbolically laid early next month.