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Henry M. Robert

Babi Yar and the post-colonial approach

Anatolii PODOLSKYI: We have to cultivate in ourselves a culture of responsibility for the memory of our past”
17 August, 2017 - 11:22

It seems that the theme of historical memory, in particular the situation around the creation of the controversial Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center with the participation of three Russian oligarchs, is not a major concern for the Ukrainian government. Evidence of this is a lack of response from Ukrainian top officials to a warning letter signed by historians who believe it is wrong to attempt to link Babi Yar exclusively to the Holocaust, ignoring other victims and other dramatic moments of its history. “This approach will only aggravate the war of memories, which has been under way for many years in Babi Yar,” says the letter signed by 16 historians (http://www.istpravda.com.ua/articles/2017/03/28/149652/).

Following this warning, Ukrainian media published a number of interviews with CEO of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Foundation Marek Siwiec from Poland and member of the Board of the Foundation, Russian oligarch Pavel Fuks, who say that the 100-million-dollar memorial will be built by 2021, and the first draft design of this structure will appear as soon as this fall.

More than a week ago, The Day asked Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Viacheslav Kyrylenko and Head of the Main Department for Cultural Policy of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine Yurii Ruban to comment on the situation around the creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center. However, we have not yet received an answer from them.

Meanwhile, historians are alarmed about this supposedly international project which actually looks more like an attempt to promote the “Russian World” through Babi Yar. In particular, this is what the historian Vitalii Nakhmanovych said when commenting on this project in an interview with The Day which was published under the title “Babi Yar... as a staging area for the ‘Russian World’.” The scholar believes that “the Ukrainian government as represented by the president of Ukraine must genuinely assume responsibility for solving complex problems around the Holocaust Memorial.”

A similar opinion is held by head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR) Volodymyr Viatrovych, who emphasized in the article “The Babi Yar Memorial in a Semi-Closed Format,” published by Den on August 2, 2017, that the implementation of projects which are as important for Ukraine and for Ukrainian history as the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial should take place with the participation of the Ukrainian state.

The Day asked Candidate of Historical Sciences, head of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, leading researcher at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine’s Kuras Institute for Political and Ethnic Studies Anatolii PODOLSKYI to offer his vision of the developments around the creation of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center and tell us how the victims who had been shot at that location should be commemorated, in his opinion.

The conversation with the scholar started with us asking Podolskyi what prompted him to join the historians who believe it is wrong to attempt to link Babi Yar exclusively to the Holocaust, ignoring other victims and other dramatic moments of its history.


“I share the views of my fellow historians, I have my own opinion and my own family history linked to Babi Yar. Also, for almost a quarter of a century, I have been studying the fate of Ukrainian Jews during the Second World War. It was my research topic and it effectively remains my lifetime cause. I mean Babi Yar as part of the German occupation regime and as one of the terrible crimes of the Nazi regime in Ukraine. Babi Yar is one of the striking scenes of mass murder of Jews in Eastern Europe, along with Auschwitz, it is a symbol of the Holocaust in European history and the scene of criminal killing of large numbers of non-Jews. That is why I share the views of my colleagues, so I affixed my signature to that document.

“My first thesis is that I remember very well 1991, it was the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, and there were such high hopes at the time that a memorial would be created at last, after years of the Soviet silencing and the Soviet falsification of history, including the history of the war, the history of occupation, and the history of Babi Yar.

“My son was born that year, he is 26 now and his generation asks us why there is no real memorial in Babi Yar. Crimes were committed there first by the National Socialists, then by the Soviet government. First they killed people, and then the memory of them. And now, it is sovereign Ukraine that has already matured and has a case to answer. We have to stop already talking about being a young country. In these 26 years, an entire generation has grown which now protects us in the east from Russian aggression.

“The point is that after the German crime, and then the Soviet crime and silencing, the Ukrainian independence period, the time of Ukrainian sovereignty has not answered the questions and has not seen a memorial created. And when it has not been done in this field, then others come there. Hence, it causes strong feelings, worries and warnings.

“For me, as a Ukrainian historian, a Jew, and a Kyivan, Babi Yar is not only an event of Jewish history. People who were killed there lived in and contributed to the history of Kyiv and Ukraine. Responsibility for this memorial and this part of history should lie with the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian society with the possible involvement of colleagues and specialists from other countries. As a rule of thumb, at least 51 percent of financing, and therefore, of responsibility and decision-making rights, should come from Ukraine.

“My next thesis is as follows: Babi Yar is part of the history of Ukraine. During the two years of German occupation, about 100,000 people were killed there, and the absolute majority of them were Jews. They were killed, as Viktor Nekrasov wrote, only because they were Jews. And it is clear that this is part of the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine and in Europe as a whole. Nevertheless, there were also non-Jews killed there: Soviet prisoners of war, Roma, mentally ill, members of the Ukrainian nationalist and Soviet underground, citizens killed by the occupation authorities as hostages or for any slightest fault and failure to comply with the authorities’ instructions. Therefore, we must talk about the memory of all those who perished in Babi Yar.

“And another simple thesis: there should be a Memorial Park there, for which the Ukrainian state, the Kyiv city authorities, and not some private sponsors should be responsible. And inside this park, we should create the Museum of Babi Yar History. It is clear that these crimes were the work of Adolf Hitler, National Socialism and those who supported it. We must remember all the victims. And this should be a true museum, which should not be called a museum of the Holocaust, but a museum of history or memory of the victims of Babi Yar. Meanwhile, a Museum of the Holocaust History should, certainly and unquestionably, be built in sovereign Ukraine, in the capital of our nation, but not in the Babi Yar area.”


What do you say about the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Foundation emerging, which includes three Russian oligarchs and two Poles who are ready to build the Memorial by 2021? How could this happen?

“My colleagues, signatories of the previously mentioned letter, are members of the academic, research elite, scholars who understand what they affixed their signatures to. And we all understand that the emergence of such a foundation is the consequence of the Soviet period in the history of Babi Yar, which includes not only the period of 1941-43, but also the history of the post-war Babi Yar, the story of how it was not remembered and forgotten, of how the Soviet authorities wanted to make people forget this period of history.

“That is why the issue is still relevant in the present. The emergence of such a foundation came as a result of irresponsibility on the part of Kyiv municipal and all-Ukrainian authorities. In 2006, the state-controlled Babi Yar National Historical and Memorial Sanctuary was created. However, they did nothing in a decade. Initially, this sanctuary was subordinated to the UINR, then to the Ministry of Culture. It was only on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the tragedy that they began to work.

“After such a situation arose, a strange entity appeared, known as the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Foundation. This year, I met twice with the CEO of this organization, Marek Siwiec from Poland. He asked me what to do to start a dialog. I replied to him: ‘Everything is actually very simple, you must first change the name of your new foundation, then the dialog will begin.’ The Babi Yar Memorial Center is how it should be called, maybe. Meanwhile, the Museum of the History of the Fate of Jews in Ukraine, the Museum of the Holocaust History should be a separate institution. The Ukrainian Jewry deserves it. As the famous writer Vasily Grossman wrote, whose mother died in Berdychiv during the massacre of her whole community, the Jews are not merely guests of Ukraine, we are part of Ukrainian society, we have been living here for thousands of years. Therefore, the history of Ukrainian Jews is not alien to us all, it is just part of the national history of Ukraine, just like, in fact, the history of Ukrainian Poles, Russians, Crimean Tatars, Belarusians, Germans, Czechs, etc.

“On the other hand, the Museum of the Memory of Ukrainian Jews should be located in the capital of Ukraine, and it will tell the story of Jewish communities from Lviv to Luhansk, from Crimea to Chernihiv. But it should not be located in Babi Yar. This should be a separate museum. And here, in Babi Yar, we need a memorial within which there will be a true, highly professional museum of Babi Yar history.

“I told that same Siwiec: ‘You must first of all cooperate with the government, Ukrainian historians, and Ukrainian powerholders.’ And he replied: ‘Your government has done nothing in 25 years, but here is a chance, here is money, and you will lose this chance again.’”


And how do you comment on the words of Siwiec that Vitali Klitschko is the initiator of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, and the role of the government in this affair overall?

“It is a consequence of the authorities’ ignorance on the issue. And this applies not only to Babi Yar. You see, the mayor, the prime minister or the president of the country cannot be experts in everything. Before taking any serious decisions on a national scale, those in power must consult with the expert community, in this case, ask the Ukrainian history community, the experts, and only then announce anything. Otherwise, it just looks like cheap political populism. On the other hand, the position of some Jewish non-government organizations looks wrong as well, as they ask the government to stop concerning itself with the matter and claim they will raise funds themselves. Such talk should be stopped. The government should concern itself with it every day, because it exists at the expense of the public and taxpayers. Here the trouble is that people who we call ministers, the mayor, the president, the prime minister, do not know what responsibility is. And only when they learn to be responsible, which involves professionalism and thorough education, only in this case we will be protected from the emergence of strange foundations.

“Meanwhile, when a talented and well-known singer like Sviatoslav Vakarchuk or a former talented and well-known boxer like Klitschko is told ‘We will do something for the city here,’ they nod, but they do not even reach for a book to educate themselves or appeal to those who can explain the issue at hand, for example, to Ukrainian scholars who study this problem.

“Then Siwiec and Co. say: why do you have a problem with it if your mayor supports this memorial? This should not be so. Public decisions must be made not under the influence of rich and influential aliens, but following a serious professional effort in the field concerned.

“I remember very well a meeting of the Organizing Committee on Commemorating the 75th Anniversary of the Babi Yar Tragedy which occurred sometime in late 2015 or early 2016. I remember that then-Prime Minister Arsenii Yatseniuk and then-Chief of the Presidential Administration Borys Lozhkin were interested, first of all, in finding ways to hold the Babi Yar memorial days at a high international level, in particular how to seat foreign guests when they arrive in Kyiv, and so on. Then my colleague, historian Vitalii Nakhmanovych, rose up and said: ‘Prime Minister, September 29-30 will come and go, then October 1 will come, and you will forget it again as you did in the days of Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Yushchenko, and Viktor Yanukovych. You only care about how to mark the anniversary, and this will be a world disgrace. This is where your mistake is.’

“Meanwhile, Lozhkin, who was a co-chair of the Organizing Committee, said: ‘So, let us raise money, and I will take part, and we will build a Ukrainian Yad Vashem in Babi Yar quickly, in half a year.’ In such cases, I and you become just helpless, it turns out that there is no one who we can meaningfully talk with among powerholders in this country. Exactly because of this, as a result of it, such strange foundations emerge. It hurts me badly.

“By the way, one of the fundamental reasons why we are where we are today in the matter of commemorating the victims, including the victims of Babi Yar, is that the vocabulary of people who came to power immediately after the collapse of the ‘Evil Empire’ had no words for ‘Babi Yar,’ ‘Jews,’ ‘Roma,’ ‘Olena Teliha.’

“And 25 years later, when a new generation has grown, we should have had a memorial depicting the crimes of the Second World War-era which were committed by the Nazis and those who shared their views and collaborated with the Hitlerite regime. Meanwhile, more than 30 different memorial signs have appeared in this vast Babi Yar memorial zone over the past quarter century: menorahs, monuments to children who died in this terrible place, the Ostarbeiters whose fate has nothing to do with this place, the Roma, the nationalists, the mentally ill, and a Roma wagon. This is an illustration of the disappearance of the Soviet ideological prohibition to remember the people who perished in Babi Yar. Thus, the ban has been replaced by the indifference of contemporary powerholders and the complex and heroic attempts of the public to do something in the field of perpetuating the memory of the victims.

“And what did the Ukrainian authorities do over the past 25 years? And we, the Ukrainian public, are responsible for their actions. The Soviet ideologic prohibition on true memory has been replaced by a different stance, which I would call ‘neither forbidden nor supported.’ In other words, instead of the prohibition, we see some ignorance on the part of the authorities and misunderstanding of their role in commemorating the past.

“The Soviets built a TV tower at an ancient Jewish cemetery and destroyed the remnants of old cemeteries. The Babi Yar area extends a few kilometers from the top to the bottom, and it should become a memorial or a closed memorial park, that is, it should be open to visitors, but closed to joggers, dogwalkers, drunkards, etc. And inside it, we need a museum commemorating the people who were killed there and existing as part of the Babi Yar Memorial.

“The Ukrainian Holocaust Research Center concerns itself with the teaching of Ukrainian history, because the history of Ukrainian Jews, the Jewish face of this country, is part of the face of Ukraine. Therefore, the museum displaying the history of these communities, the fate of the Jews of Lviv, Cherkasy, Poltava, and the Jews as part of Ukrainian history – this museum should be located in the capital of Ukraine, like similar institutions in Warsaw, Bucharest, Budapest, not to speak about Western Europe. All this talk is nonsense, I mean the talk of ‘our Holodomor,’ ‘their Holocaust.’ All this is our common past, common history, and common memory. Such a museum should be modern, but it should not be located in Babi Yar. There should be a museum about the place, about the memory of people who were slaughtered there by other people who were guided by strange, actually godless, anti-human ideas.”


How should the situation around the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center evolve after its initiators declared the start of fundraising effort and promised to provide the first draft of the design in the fall? Can this be stopped?

“The initiators and those foreign experts whom they invited feel a great temptation. Siwiec is a hired top manager, he just performs his task as ordered. Karel Berkhoff is a well-known Dutch historian who successfully studies the history of Ukraine during the Nazi occupation. These are probably good-sounding names, Siwiec and Berkhoff are well-known figures, they can be our colleagues, but the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian expert community should lead the effort.

“We need to simply explain the essence of the case and who is who to Klitschko, Vakarchuk, Petro Poroshenko, Volodymyr Hroisman and other persons who are included in the orbit of this strange foundation. It is a shame to see the post-colonial approach being applied to the Ukrainian state, Ukrainian historians. It is as if they are saying, ‘we will come to you and build a memorial for you.’

“The well-known Polish politician Siwiec is the executor or the executor-in-chief. Neither he nor the well-known Dutch historian Berkhoff is likely to be decision makers. Thus, we must tell them: stop. These are Ukrainian lands, it is Ukrainian memory, it is Ukrainian history. Obviously, it is part of European and world history. Jews, Russians, Ukrainians, Roma, collaborators and righteous people – it all happened in our lands. We must finally show it to the world, as my colleague historian Andrii Portnov correctly said: if Ukraine wants to be a real country in the world, then it is necessary to speak not only about gas pipelines, but also about cultural values.

“As the prominent Ukrainian philosopher Myroslav Popovych said, Ukraine is located in Europe, so we have to become part of European culture at last in our humanistic and humanitarian values. And for this, memory of the past is precisely a sign that we represent something of value.

“It is interesting that when Siwiec was asked if they would involve Ukrainian historians in their effort, he replied: ‘No, this is primarily an international matter, we will involve someone, we will decide on it.’ It is not them who have to decide. On the contrary, they can be invited or not invited, and it is Ukrainian academic professional institutions in cooperation with the government of this country who have to make decisions.”


And who can tell “stop” to the project which you have mentioned?

“Today, the way out is to force this state-controlled national sanctuary to really work consistently with its name. My father’s mother’s and his two sisters’ remains lie there, as are those of many Kyivites. Recently (on August 2, the Roma Genocide Remembrance Day), I was there when the Roma community honored their dead, and against that backdrop, drunken people were lying and cursing near the memorials and in other places, children were playing everywhere, many dogs were being walked by their good and sensitive masters. For regular people, this place remains a culture and recreation park, not a memorial park. It is at the core of the trouble we have with Babi Yar today.

“Therefore, it is necessary to organize all this and set up warning signs in Ukrainian and English, as has been done in Auschwitz or other similar museums of the victims of Nazism, with the corresponding iconography telling people that smoking is not allowed here, and neither are dogs. There should be policemen as well as professional guides there, who can hold a tour in different languages. Of course, turning a recreational park into a memorial is difficult, but this was the objective of the sanctuary at its establishment in 2006.

“The museum should be created carefully and professionally as part of the Memorial. Meanwhile, the Museum of the Holocaust History should be a separate institution, located elsewhere in the capital of Ukraine. In our context, in this context, we are talking only about the future Museum of Babi Yar History, the content of which should include all manifold aspects of the absolutely complex and absolutely tragic history of this place. To make my point of view better understood, I will offer one of the examples of Babi Yar’s history. For example, Babi Yar houses now on the one hand a monument to the Ukrainian poet Teliha, and on the other, a monument to the Soviet underground activist Tetiana Markus from Kyiv. Next to these monuments, there should be, say, information stands in Ukrainian and English, citing sources and pointing out to the ambiguity of these figures, the heroic and the criminal in the history of Ukrainian and Soviet underground. All these things should be covered truthfully.”

And what steps should be taken to make the Ukrainian government as represented by the president to take ownership of the Babi Yar Memorial issue?

“We need to hold a completely public meeting, broadcast to the whole country, perhaps in the shape of a National Roundtable, possibly a press conference with all the participants attending. It should involve the mayor of Kyiv (and not only his deputies), plenipotentiaries of the cabinet and the president, the decision makers on the issue of Babi Yar commemoration who are responsible for these decisions, Ukrainian history experts, and representatives of this foundation and it should be said openly that we thank the international organizations for their interest. The Ukrainian national and municipal authorities, with the participation of the Ministry of Culture and the UINR, should say that we do not refuse their help, but we refuse to submit to their dictate, for otherwise, we would be a colony, if we cannot preserve our memory ourselves, but are told instead how to preserve our memory. I do not want a museum of the Soviet Union. I want it to display our real history, I do not want a return of Soviet myths, but just as much, I do not want to see controversial and tragic stories of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine being watered down where they concern crimes committed at certain points of Nazi rule by representatives of the far-right Ukrainian nationalist movement. I have repeatedly written and spoken to my colleagues: if the struggle with the totalitarian legacy uses totalitarian methods, it leads us to a deadlock as we misunderstand the truth about the past. Automatic replacement of some monuments with others does not automatically change the totalitarian post-Soviet perception of the difficult history of the 20th century into a complicated, mostly truthful European reconciliation with the past. This automatism, rather, is similar to an inverted version of Bolshevism. We must become spiritually strong, intelligent, cultivate in ourselves a culture of responsibility for the memory of our past and be able to say what it was and how it happened. We need to do it without distortion, falsification, concealment of matters which we do not want to talk about or find politically (or otherwise) inconvenient or shameful... Also, we need to stop the trend of selectively remembering certain historical events, and teach our government to do so, because we are also responsible for it. We are responsible for remembering the past, not for the past, and the memory of the past involves discussing and commemorating both heroic and sacrificial deeds and those that were un-heroic and criminal. When we are not afraid to talk about various things in our past and do not hide any aspect of our past, then, I think, we are becoming decent people who can be understood in today’s environment. Only then will this environment around Ukraine, in Europe and the world, respect us, and we will respect them. Babi Yar is one of the most difficult and tragic pages of our history and the present. We should honestly admit it. In particular, when we will have real memorials and museums built, we will have a chance to create a complex, diverse, variegated but real and true picture of our common historical past. And then, perhaps, we will not be ashamed to face the current and future generations in our home country and in the world around us.”

By Mykola SIRUK, The Day. Photo by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day