A Solitary Visit To Babyn Yar, Kyiv, Ukraine,
3 Weeks Before The Official Commemorations
Of The 70th Anniversary Of The Events
Of The 29-30th Of September 1941
History, as a synthetic representation of our common past, is an organized selection of informations as well as actuality, as a representation of our shared present, is a moderated selection of short term stories. Each selection, in a series of events or deeds, may always be discussed, commented if not contested, on the principle that partiality, which makes sense, is at the root of any human activity or decision. It’s not a lack of meticulous precision in a chronology which is at stake here but a comprehension in a network of causality which may result in an alternative explanation of some wide range phenomenons. Some events receive an incredible weight when others are unduly deprived of a legitimate attention, as if the first ones massively participated to the building of the current “state of the world” as it is, meanwhile the second ones did not.
In some locations of the world, we may observ a manifestation of this basic rule more acurately than in any other place. It was yet true concerning Babyn Yar some years ago but, it starts to be definitely less obvious these last years since 2011.
I first read about Babyn Yar (Ukrainian spelling), I think, in the French translation of Viktor Nekrasov’s Newspaper Of A Peculiar One (1976). The description that the author of “Frontline Stalingrad” and Stalin prize gave of the place in the Kyiv of the years 1960’s, was striking and, as I am neither Jewish nor from Ukrainian roots, my chances to meet this toponym were reasonably low. I again met the mention of this place and its historical value in a touristic guide, the guidebook Touring Kyiv of the Ukrainian publisher Baltija Dryk, in the 2003 edition, page 160.
Now, the historical research is much more opened to the wider public thanks to the access, on the internet, to many Universities or institutions like memorials. I can mention here the page dedicated by the Holocaust Research Project to the account of the events in Babyn Yar, these infamous 29th and 30th of September 1941 and also the remaining collection of 29 Agfa colour pictures taken by the German military photographer Johannes Hähle (1906-1944).
Handout dated September 28, 1941 in Russian, Ukrainian with German translation
ordering all Kievan Jews to assemble for the supposed resettlement.
(source : See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Last to date tv-documentaries on the perpetration of the Shoah now regularly mention Babyn Yar as a key point in the development of the Final Solution in the occupied territories in the East and it begins to be possible, for the wide public in the West, to have heard this name and to know its significance.
On September the 29th 2011, for the 70th Anniversary, an official commemoration was held.
Unfortunately, my visit took place three weeks earlier, on Tuesday the 8th of September, by a quiet week day. I decided that it was time to pay a visit to this place which, in no way, was mythical to anyone among my relatives and friends in France. My visit was not aimed to extract any definitive evidence or to get any historical answer to any question but, in a modest approach, to experience first impressions, once immersed in the place, as one can have while visiting a historical site, as a tourist would do in Verdun or Utah Beach. I did not try to get an accreditation in order to consult the national archives of Ukraine. I did not act either in behalf of a laboratory or of a media, with a budget, in order to fashion a model of the events with a timed scheme : 1 – preparation; 2 – execution; 3 – handling of the consequences. No, I was just a private person, a basic visitor, an anonymous being.
On this Thursday morning of early September 2011, I left my rented flat in the Pechers’k district and jumped alone in the metro, without inviting any friend in town to join me for the walk. I took the green line straight towards the Northwest and, after 20 minutes or so accross the center, I left at the station called “Dorohozhychi” – Дорогожичі (see the plan of Kyiv metro below).
Map of the Metro system in Kiev (left) and of Babyn Yar Park (right)
Just coming out of the metro station, on the right hand, I found the main entrance of a wide public garden, as reported on the precise Kyiv map I use. As a urban equipment associated with the doorway of the metro station, there was a ferro-concreted parking lot with a certain capacity. But the stationed cars were parked there, obviously, for daily reasons. None queue of multi-coloured visitors from abroad to alter the atmosphere, did I point to my-self. It reminded me the situation met at the neverthless gorgeous Vidubychy Monastery in the South of the city, alongside the right bank of the Dnipro Riverь where the wide parking at the entrance gate was completely empty at midday during a late June sunny day.
Welcoming the rare visitor with her open arms, the humanly proportioned bronze statue of a child was standing there. A simple design which expresses the frailty of human life with a great economy of means, fitting with the solemnity of this historical landmark. I did not even notice it when arriving and took the following shot only during my way back to the metro station. The convenience of the discourse prescribes to place the shot here anyway :
views of Babyn Yar Park
(source : Cyrille Clément, 2011)
Then, a large two sidewalks alley opened up in front of my steps amidst aligned ranks of willows and birches, driving me deep into an unknown wood describing a move towards the North East.
A wall on the right showed the limits of an old institutional property. None other sign in sight, none museum, none gate, none touristic personnel. Obeying my wide map of Kyiv, I followed the alley towards the place where the monuments to the deads were reported. The whistle of the wind through the leaves, the light of the sun turning on and off through the clouds were my only fellows. The presence of Nature opened up a thoughtful dialog with human history.
In this silence, full of reflexion, I reached another large pedestrian alley, crossing the first one with its large square concrete pavements, typical of the Soviet era. Some solitary persons, mature or old women, were walking slowly or sitted on a bench, speaking on a mobile phone or smoking a cigarette. Few children were playing. The sun went on alternating between a clear veil and darker clouds. I walked slowly my-self, respecting the sound of the wind in the leaves, the singing of the birds and… the silence of the place.
Then appeared this very discreet monument dedicated to the Jewish victims. A seven-branched candlestick in concrete placed on the top of a pyramidal piedestal including 8 short and low steps.
Just beyond this little place, almost included in the wood, a second monument, even more discreet than the first one, was almost unnoticed.
As none sign was driving me, I decided to follow, according to my map, a path through the underwood. A few hundred yards later, I reached a clearing.
A drain was visible but not explained by any pannel helping to identity which event (like the flood of 1961 known as the “Kurenivka Mudslide“) led the authorities to take action. The ravine here appears now only as a natural site.
Changing my path to go back to the metro station, I found out the tennis tables described by Nekrasov in his diaries, still there since the soviet years, as if their presence was as necessary as any other component of the site. They were not in use, for any game of entertainment, like during Khrushchev’s era, but just a memory of that time, a testimony.
Then, taking another alley, I got out of the place as I went in : unnoticed. Suddenly, I was in the contemporary daily life, with a kind of busy highway, neighbouring the lateral entrance.
The place where dozens of thousands of inhabitants of Kyiv, mainly Jewish, were shot dead in only 2 days, retreated from me in only few meters. I came to the conclusion that this sanctuary was now a silent, peaceful underwood, sealed by the human history for centuries to come. Yet I found, in this, a great solemnity, the idea that discretion was a more emotional way to sanctify such a deed. The Western tradition prescribes a very hard “objectivation” of the memory. Here, a very different option and tradition was acted. The memory is left to the spiritual effort.
Of course, the families of the victims certainly don’t endorse this point of view and prefer to be allowed to find the references of their relative ones in long columns of names. This is also the principle which has been achieved when erecting the monument dedicated to the Holodomor, on the Hill near the metro station Arsenal’na.
Events happen on behalf of authorities, of a political will. They happen. Of a broad impact or of a little influence. Then, humans record them or do not record them. What is recorded is classed, tagged, evaluated, classified : “noticeable”, “sehr geheim”, “СОВЕРШЕННО СЕКРЕТНО”, “of public interest”. A certain weight of importance is granted and associated to each event by influential bodies and dedicated authorities. The status may change when the considered events are transferred from Actuality to History, from Secret to Public Domain. Some of these events are nationally or internationally promulgated as “Very Important Events”, others do not receive such a label and do not start a career in terms of audience and fame.
During a conference given to the Institut des Études Slaves (Institute of Slavic Studies) in Paris for the Association Française d’Études Ukrainiennes (French Association for Ukrainian Studies), the French journalist, translator and writer Raymond Clarinard (weekly newspaper “Courrier International”, publisher “L’Harmattan”) declared the 30th January 2013 : “the imagery of the French public concerning the History of Ukraine, in particular for the XXth Century, is a blank, empty of any prejudice”. It is true not only for the French public, I guess, but also for a wider public in the West. And, this is striking : between Stalingrad on the Volga in central Russia and Auschwitz in Poland, there is a gap in the knowledge of what happened in the East during this definitive war. As if Autum 1941 was … too far.
Raymond Clarinard at the Institute of Slavic Studies, Paris, 01-30-2013
(source : Cyrille Clément)
And even, when it is talked about the D-Day Landing in Normandy, for commemorating this crucial event, the Landing on the Crimea Peninsula by the Soviet troops coming from the Kuban to fight the Second Battle of Crimea is never mentioned in parallel to counterbalance the importance of the glorious Anglo-American event.
Anyway, progresses are made in the perception of the wide public and in the release of historical knowledge and they are important. Babyn Yar, like Katyn near Smolensk, is a non remarkable place where, paradoxically, the History was made, with blood and mud in a way which must not be forgotten by the generations, no matter the lack of links with the victims.