Remembering Babi Yar

A great sadness came upon me after hearing of Pope John Paul II’s recent visit to Kiev, Ukraine. The pope’s trip to was an attempt to bring harmony between Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Russian Orthodox Church. There, he visited and prayed at the Babi Yar Memorial. He offered a prayer for the Holocaust victims and was joined by Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich. The pope prayed in silence, recited his prayers in Latin and told Bleich, "G-d bless you."

My sadness was not with the pope’s noble gesture, but with the memories of the horrific name of Babi Yar.

I was a young teenager when I first heard of Babi Yar. In September 1941, Jews were told to gather in Kiev to be relocated to a safe haven. They were told to bring their valuables and clothing. When the unsuspecting Jews arrived in the capital they were immediately lined up near a ravine in Babi Yar and mercilessly machine-gunned to death.

For three days, thousands of Jews were led by the Nazi occupiers to the ravine and brutally murdered. Some were still alive while other were dying and begging for mercy. The heaving of the bodies was seen for days. The cries of the wounded and the dying were unbearable. The Nazis didn’t even bother to cover up the dead.

Over the years, new groups of poor Jewish families were subsequently brought to the ravine, killed by machine guns and thrown in the human pile of decomposing bodies. The stench of the dead was in the air for years. Every Jew in the Ukraine knew of Babi Yar and consider it the most holy resting place for their brothers and sisters. Many still go there to say prayers for their martyred families.

After the war, the Soviet Union covered the ravine with a park, as if to obliterate the horrific crime done to the Jews. Since millions of Soviets were killed, no special recognition was to be given to dead Jews. In the early 1960s, construction of houses and parks was extended over the ravine, completely ignoring the pleas of the Jewish population for a respectful monument for their dead to be erected.

Sasha Gurevitch, a woman who lived in Kiev during the systematic slaughter of the Jewish population, said, "every time the Soviets build something over the Babi Yar graves a catastrophe would happen; the buildings would collapse or the earth would open, causing the bodies of the dead to be revealed." The ravine flooded, and bodies would appear.

In the late 1960s, the Soviet Union finally recognized the "official Jewish suffering," and a monument was placed in the park. However, it paid tribute only to the massacred citizens of Kiev, not mentioning the Jewish massacre. In 1991, Jews built a menorah on the site, symbolizing that the martyred massacred victims were Jews. It was at this Russian monument, and not at the nearby menorah, where the pope prayed.

Gurevitch once told me that as she grew older she would visit the park with her family. A garden had been planted there, bursting with beautiful flowers. Young and old would meet; here was a place for all visitors. She once asked her parents, "Why don’t the roses smell?" She was told, "Because they were planted in the Babi Yar hell and watered with Jewish blood." Since then, I can’t bring myself to "smell the roses" without remembering Gurevitch’s words.

I truly appreciate the pope’s role in recognizing the need to apologize for anti-Semitism and the church’s passive action during the Holocaust. His taking the time to visit Babi Yar while trying to make peace between Ukrainian Greek Catholics and the Russian Orthodox Church is great. It shows the enormous need for condemnation of all types of religious intolerance, especially to the Jews living in the Ukraine.

In spite of all things, my sadness may change to gladness. In a strange way, I believe that the pope’s visit will enable me to once again enjoy the smell of bright red roses.