Remembering Babi Yar

The Babi Yar massacre took place 70 years ago. It still reverberates in people’s imaginations, although it is sometimes forgotten that thousands more were also killed at the infamous ravine in Kiev in the Ukraine.

Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by the Soviet writer Anatoly Kuznetsov (1929-79) recalls the Nazi massacre of 33,771 Jewish civilians on 29-30 September 1941. It was one of the largest single mass killings of the Holocaust. The novel was first published in 1966 in a censored form in the Soviet monthly literary magazine Yunost. In 1969 Kuznetsov defected from the USSR and managed to smuggle out 35-mm photographic film containing the unedited manuscript. The book was published in the West in 1970 under the pseudonym A. Anatoli. It begins:

 “Everything in this book is true. When I recounted episodes of this story to different people, they all said I had to write the book. The word ‘document’ in the subtitle of this novel means that I have provided only actual facts and documents without the slightest literary conjecture as to how things could or must have happened.”

Kuznetsov describes his own experiences, supplementing them with the testimonies of survivors. The tragedy of Babi Yar is placed in the larger context of the German occupation of Kiev from September 1941 until November 1943. “It is also about the curious fact that a 14-year-old boy can show up anywhere and adults – German soldiers – don’t especially care. By accident, then, he saw what others were not allowed to see. And by accident, he survived the occupation and lived to write about it.”

It was Kuznetsov who took the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to Babi Yar in 1961. Recalling that occasion in a commemorative interview with BBC News Europe (29 September 2011), Yevtushenko said:

“I met the writer Anatoly Kuznetsov – he was an eyewitness to what happened in Babi Yar. He told me the story, and I asked him to accompany me to the site. I knew there was no monument at Babi Yar, but I was expecting to see some sign of respect. But what I saw was absolutely terrible – there were lots of trucks and they were unloading stinking garbage on the tens of thousands of people who were killed. I did not expect that. As soon as I got back to my hotel, I sat down and I began to write – it took probably four or five hours, no more.”

The opening lines of Yevtushenko’s now famous poem “Babi Yar” are: “There is no memorial above Babi Yar. The steep ravine is like a rough tombstone.” Today, there are several reminders: one is the Monument to the Children Killed at Babi Yar (right). The poem so moved the composer Dmitri Shostakovich that he immediately used it in his Symphony No. 13 in B flat minor. First performed in Moscow on 18 December 1962, it caused a sensation. The entire square outside the Moscow Conservatoire was cordoned off by police, the texts were not printed in the programme book and, although the work was heard by an audience packed to overflowing, Pravda the next morning reported the event in just one sentence.

In the symphony’s Babi Yar setting, Shostakovich and Yevtushenko transform the mass murder into a denunciation of anti-Semitism in all its forms – implicitly inside the Soviet Union as well. The composer set the poem as a series of theatrical episodes — the Dreyfus affair, the Bielostok pogroms and the story of Anne Frank — expanding the main theme of the poem and lending the movement the dramatic structure and theatrical imagery of opera. In the middle come three of the poem’s most impassioned lines:

“I am each old man who was shot here.
I am each child who was shot here.
No part of me can ever forget this.”

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