YAHRZEIT CANDLES.  Babyn Yar, Kiev, Ukraine.

"The soul of man is a candle of the Lord." Proverbs, 20:27.

 

Babyn Yar literally means grandmother’s ravine.  This natural ravine is a few miles from the city center. For centuries, it was a necropolis for multiple ethnic and religious communities, with separate cemeteries for Orthodox and for Catholic Christians, Ashkenazim and Karaite Jews, and Moslems.  Babyn Yar metonymically stands for the largest and most notorious “genocide by bullets”.

 

How to tell the story of Babyn Yar?  For us, this is a detective story.  The crimes of the Nazi genocide of Jews and other victims are well known but the crime scene was purposefully destroyed.  Future visitors, like detectives, will read the clues in the site to reconstruct the crime scene and come to terms with the tragic story of Babyn Yar.

 

THE TRAGEDY.

 

On September 19th, 1941, after winning the first Battle of Kiev, the German Army rounded the Red Army and occupied Kiev.  September 24th, the German Headquarters was attacked;  Soviet Secret Police planted explosives and destroyed the city center. In retaliation, the Nazi’s made the decision to exterminate all the Jews of Kiev. 

 

“All Yids[a] of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o'clock in the morning at Melnykova and Dokterivska Streets.   Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids[a] who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids[a] and appropriate the things in them will be shot.”

— Nazi order, 26 September 1941.

Posted throughout the city in Ukrainian, Russian and German.  

 

Jews were summoned to the corner of Mel'nikova and Dorohozhytska streets with all their valuables. On September 29th and 30th the Nazi army and collaborators, intoxicated with cruelty, killed 33,771 innocent Jewish men, women and children. It was Erev Yom Kippur 5702, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar.

 

The path of the Jews on 29 September 1941, along Melnykova Street from Lukianivska Square

and later through the Bratske and Lukianivske cemeteries to Babyn Yar, became Kyiv’s Via

Dolorosa – the Path of Sorrow. 21

 

In 1943, prior to the Second Battle of Kiev, as the Red Army advanced, the Nazi army destroyed the evidence of Jewish genocide. They forced Russian Prisoners of War to desecrate the mass graves, use the Jewish grave stones from the adjacent cemetery to build funeral pires, cremate the corpses and fill the ravine. At the end, the Germans planned to kill and cremate the Russian POW; a few managed to escape and testify to the atrocities.

Ultimately, between 100,000 to 200,000 innocents were executed, including Jews, Russians, Roma, gays and other victims.

 

After WWII Ukraine was occupied and became part of the USSR. Nikita Khrushchev had deep connections to Ukraine: he was born nearby, and was a leading Soviet Commissar stationed in Ukraine during WWII and afterwards. Under his leadership, official Soviet policy denied the Nazi genocide of the Jews at Babyn Yar.  The 1943 Extraordinary State Commission on Baby Yar documented the atrocities, but it was censored; in 1944 it was issued with a different interpretation. It conflated all Nazi victims of the Holocaust as Soviet people and protected the Ukrainians as Soviet citizens– despite their Nazi collaboration. After Stalin’s death in 1953, Nikita Khrushchev rose to become leader of the Communist Party (1954- 1964) and he continued this Anti-Semitic policy.

 

The landscape of Babyn Yar was ruthlessly silenced. Under the guise of urban development, the Soviets’ promoted further desecration of Babyn Yar.  A formal park was built over the Nazi landfill. The section of the ravine of the Nazi crime scene was cut by highways, targeted for municipal waste facilities and polluted with toxic waste. In 1954, a large TV station was built on the remnants of the historic Jewish Cemetery to celebrate progress and eradicate all Jewish memory. The heart of the murder scene was excavated to build the Metro extension in 2000.  

 

ART AND BABYN YAR.

Art transformed Babyn Yar into an international tragic symbol of the Holocaust. In 1961, Yevgeni Yevtushenko’s poem Babyn Yar denounced Soviet distortion of the Nazi Massacre and Russian continuing anti-Semitism; he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1963 for this poem. In 1962. Dmitri Shostakovich incorporated Yevtushenko’s poem in the Symphony No. 13 in B-flat minor (Op. 113, subtitled Babi Yar). Poetry, music, films and photography raised international awareness of the Nazi atrocities and kept their memory alive.

 

Yevtushenko’s poem decried: No monument stands over Babi Yar”.  In 1976, 35 years after the genocide and 15 years after the poem, the Soviet regime built a “monument to Soviet Citizens” and POW’s. The pompous Soviet kitsch purposefully failed to recognize the Jewish victims. In reaction to the forced amnesia, since 1991, after Ukrainian Independence from the Soviet Union, there has been a proliferation of memorials at Babyn Yar.  A Menorah monument was built 50 years after the genocide; it is not located at or near the crime scene and continues to be vandalized. Other monuments include Crosses to Ukrainian Nationalists, (1992) Ukrainian Orthodox Priests (2000), Children (2001), a Magen David (2001) to mark a proposed museum, Ostarbeiters and concentration camp prisoners (2005), crosses for the victims of the1961 Kurenivka mudslide (2006), three tombs and crosses on a distant ravine (date unknown), Roma genocide (2016) and Olena Teliha (Ukrainian nationalist – 2017).

 

Babyn Yar looks desolate, the trees feel sad and the monuments are stranded.

 

 

 

 

THE COMPETITION BRIEF:

 

2016 was the 75th anniversary of the Jewish Genocide at Babyn Yar. Early in 2016, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, the National Government of Ukraine and the City of Kiev formally agreed to sponsor a design competition for a master plan.  The goal was to transform the vast, incoherent and incomprehensible park into a memorial landscape for meditation and respect to the victims that died there, especially to the Jewish memory.

 

The competition brief was very strict; the means were limited to changes in the landscape; no structures were allowed, no memorials could be relocated and there could be no explicit Jewish religious symbols.  

 

OUR CONCEPT: YAHRTZEIT CANDLES.

 

Our poetic concept is Yahrtzeit Candles. It alludes to Yahrzeit, a Jewish ritual of mourning; it marks time to pray and remember (Yizkor) our lost loved ones.  

 

Here we remember the innocent Jewish victims killed in Babyn Yar.  For us, this is a detective story.  The crimes of the Nazi genocide of Jews and other victims are well known; the crime scene remains purposefully con­cealed and cannot be restored. Our goal is to make the site into a mnemonic devise. 

 

The topography of the ravine is the most important missing clue needed to convey the location of the mass graves and the magnitude of the terror. The ravine lies concealed under multiple layers of desecration and denial.  Babyn Yar is a Jewish sacred site. Halakah or Jewish law forbids excavations of burial sites and therefore, there cannot be any active archaeological investigation to unearth the hidden layers of the ravine.  Lidar or laser scanning technology has been used to create virtual 3-D models of gravesites.  

 

To locate the hidden ravine, we overlaid the 1943 Nazi aerial photograph onto the current topographic plan. (these were included in the competition information).  We used these multiple and contradictory historic layers as a Palimsest or Pentimento (from Italian pentirsi, repentance) to reveal the lost boundaries of the ravine and look for remaining fragments.

 

We cannot literally restore the ravine, we proposed remarking the territory, recall the boundaries of the ravine and recover the partial fragment of the old ravine through selective clearance of invasive trees and undercover plantings.

 

Our parti-pris, is to unify the site with a long arc along the western edge of the ravine and link the Russian Monument (1962) and the Menorah (1991). This new curved path straddles Melnikova Street, this street was built across the known location of the murders.

 

 

To honour the dead, the killing fields are transformed into a field of Yahrtzeit candles.  These will be LED lights set in a moss garden; their different heights evoke the lost topography.

 

In the future, visitors to the site, like detectives, will be able to discover the clues in the site to imaginatively reconstruct the crime scene. We proposed a Babyn Yar APP in different languages to guide with geo-location and images and tell the story of the people, the crime scene and the events. Links to poems, music, documentaries and film clips will add to the sombre and elegiac mood.  The app will enable visitors to pursue different paths, at their own pace and to retrace their steps to reflect on their experience. Over time, more clues can be added with new art and discoveries and as funding becomes available.  Clues can mark the pilgrimage route of the Via Dolorosa, the Path of the Jews from Lukianivska Square to Babyn Yar. 

The landscape becomes a memorial site. It will tell its story in a new way. Through these multiple clues, future visitors can experience the crime scene as a place of learning. Memories do not cure, yet they can heal. Remembrance is a step towards repentance:  Teshuva (return) is a path towards truth and reconciliation. Our knowledge can be transformed to empathy and compassion, our sorrow into soulfulness.