SOME STEPS IN THE PAST: AN ATTEMPT AT AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY
by Mikhail Yeselson
MY CITY (2):
AN AFTER-THE-WAR HISTORY OF BABIY YAR
...I had not been with them, despaired and bereft of any hope. I was ten; my mother, my granny and I got away to Kazakhstan, into the holy town of Alma-Ata, where the big beautiful apples grow right on the small streets. But they made their way, surrounded by SS soldiers, to lie in the biggest Jewish grave in the whole world...
My imagination is out of order, I cannot realize their feelings when it was announced that Jews had to come into some assembly places with their goods and jewelry for moving into other towns. Some thought it was the truth; but blind old Yankel, our neighbor who lost his eyes in World War I, said "I know them, there will be no quarter for us,"-- and threw himself out of the window of our tall house, and died down, in a small green yard.
When we came back to Kiev in 1944, my father took me with him to look at Babiy Yar. It did not look like a special place, just a big waste ground, a semifilled-up ravine... At that time Babiy Yar was far away from downtown, outside the city. Left was the Brest-Litovskiy prospect that went to the West; right, far off down, was Kurenevka area, where big families of poor Jewish craftsmen were cooped up in their tiny, almost rural houses; it was the last place where Yiddish was conserved in Kiev.
Many years had gone. Sands of time covered many things, but neither memory of Babiy Yar, nor the Warsaw Ghetto, and nor the small girl Anna Frank, which all stayed in our hearts. The Babiy-Yar history continued after the war; I participated in some events, unknown or almost unknown here, and I would like to tell about them.
...Stalin died, Khruschev's epoch went ahead, and the authorities began listen to foreign public opinion. Babiy Yar was one of the most significant memorials of the Holocaust. Something had to be done with it, but what exactly? Anti-Semitism was strong in the Soviet Union but in Ukraine, especially in Kiev, it was stronger than anywhere else. Nobody remembers into whose insane head this monstrous idea first came, but the authorities decided to build on the slopes of Babiy Yar and nearby a public park with dancing!
What was said, was done. Babiy Yar and its ravines were filling up with earth step by step. People looked at the construction works with real horror, but in the Soviet Union the people's opinion was always absolutely unimportant.
What was it, an engineer's error or the blind fury of the raped sacred ground? The fact was that a small brook ran along on the bottom of one of the ravines. When it was filled with dirt, it went on streaming, washing away the upper rock. Rains fell and penetrated the bottom of the ravine that accelerated the erosion.
The day of wrath began. It had been raining for several days. After lunch one of my co-workers who lived in the remote district of Kurenevka came in and said that it was impossible to reach our office. Kurenevka was flooded over a space of three big blocks. Trains, busses, and cars stood in the five-foot water and nobody knew what to do. It was water from the Babiy-Yar ravines, not from the rain. Nobody could understand any of it. What was going on?
Suddenly the walls of the ravine, changing into semiliquid mud, sliding on the moistened clay, were washed away and rushed down along the steep slope toward Kurenevka, threatening the miserable houses of the poor people. Fortunately, the big street-railway yard and the stadium were far down on Kurenevka; the mud covered them to five yards high and stopped. But a small hospital was in deep water, too, as well as some big apartment buildings, two streetcars that were filled with passengers who could not get off, some buses, some private cars, and fire-engines with men who went to help others...
All the people caught by the mud died. It was working time, but senior citizens, small kids, men in the basements and on the first floors of the hospital and in the houses, workers in the street-railway yard, people in the cars, buses, trains and fire-engines -- all of them lost their lives. The place of tragedy was surrounded by soldiers and the public could not go inside. The war was finished years ago; many the soldiers saw death around them for the first time, especially such tragic deaths. Some young soldiers could not stand what they had seen and went mad.
The number of victims was unknown; the mayor of Kiev shot himself; the authorities had forgotten dancing, but strange new ideas walked in their heads.
Suddenly a competition for the project of the Babiy-Yar Memorial was announced. The Jewish minority were excited. "What? It cannot be!" said Jewish people and, in general, they were right. But from time to time newspapers printed various projects for the Memorial and, even, an exhibition of them was opened in some of the big halls at the Architects' House.
Of course, my wife and me ran there. It was unbelievable! In spite of the official anti-Semitism, the Babiy-Yar tragedy was also a Ukrainian tragedy, and many Ukrainian artmakers felt it very deeply. We could not look at this exhibition without tears.
It was many years ago, but two projects I remember in all their details up to now.
The first of them accomplished a majestic idea. The ground of Babiy Yar would be proclaimed protected and strewn with red pounded bricks to resemble blood. Light bridges would be built for the visitors so human feet did not touch this consecrated ground.
The second one was very emotional. It was the sculpture of the big head of a woman who had just fought her way from the grave through the ground; the features of her beautiful Jewish face were distorted with fear and her mouth was opened with a mute cry and entreaty. We stared at this head and were shaken, so deeply were we moved. Others were, too.
Time was passing; the second round of this competition was also announced, and two of these projects were selected. However, it was written later in the Kiev evening newspaper that no project was in accord with the strong requirements of socialistic realism. Something, at last, was built beside the place of Babiy Yar, hidden from the people by a high fence and trees.
The day of the grand opening was coming. As usual, a guard was needed "to stop the anti-Soviet people from doing something against the Soviet Power." The local office of the Communist Party whose power spread to the place of Babiy Yar and to my institute, that was nearby, was responsible for the guard. I was not a member of the Party but I was young and strong. I was selected as one of the guards.
I do not remember exactly what season it was then, but I think, summertime or early fall. I recall huge bouquets and lonely flowers in the hands of surrounding people and the big spreading trees, hiding the Memorial from the streets. There were three lines of guards: KGB, disguised police, and civilians, where I was. Two lines stood facing the people and one stood facing the Memorial. "Who was the one they were afraid of?" you can question. Of course, as usual, the authorities were afraid of their people.
The cover was pulled from the monument, and I could look at the Memorial attentively. It looked slightly like the monument to the famous Ukrainian poet (and big anti-Semite) Taras Shevchenko in Kharkov -- there were a vertical axis and the sculptures of various people wound around it. My God, there was nobody, who looked like a Jew! On the top of the monument was a big sculpture of a Ukrainian woman with her baby.
Of course, the Nazis had killed not only Jewish people in Babiy Yar. There were Ukrainians, Russians and people of other nations, lying there like brothers. Maybe the number of these others was higher than the Jews', but Babiy Yar is known mainly as a Jewish grave. Why? When this question was discussed in Soviet mass-media, a Russian poet having a Ukrainian family name Yevtushenko said: "But only the Jews lie there as a result of being Jews."
The officials made their speeches, more or less dry, more or less formal. Only one Ukrainian writer spoke very straight, honestly and passionately. Shame on me, I do not remember his name.
The speeches had finished. The managers permitted the public to go up to the monument -- one by one, a thick stream of people, men and women, old and young, Jewish and non-Jewish, but mostly Jewish, presented last honors to brothers, parents and grandparents, well-known and unknown. Many people cried, fell down on their knees, and kissed the pedestal of the monument.
Late evening came, the guards had left, but the Jewish people went on and on to the monument, on which not one Jew was represented...