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In Ukraine, plans for world’s largest Holocaust memorial complex can’t escape modern feuds

Men walk past a new, open-air synagogue at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv on Sept. 14. The synagogue, made from reclaimed oak taken from buildings around Ukraine and designed to unfold like a pop-up book, is part of an ambitious project with the goal of building one of the world’s largest Holocaust museums and memorial complexes. (Oksana Parafeniuk for The Washington Post)

KYIV — The plan carries the weight of history: building what could be the world's biggest Holocaust memorial complex on the site of a 1941 massacre that claimed tens of thousands of lives over two days.

Yet it also is burdened with the complications of modern political rivalries, feuding visions and disputes over who has the final word in interpreting Ukraine's complicated past — raising questions about whether the memorial site will ever be constructed on the scale imagined.

It also marks the latest turn in Ukraine's decades-long attempts to find ways to remember the wartime deaths of up to 1.5 million Jews on its territory — most of whom were shot over open pits in what is called the "Holocaust of Bullets." Previous plans for Holocaust memorials ended in controversy and infighting.

It all centers on Babyn Yar — also known by its Russian transliteration Babi Yar — a ravine on Kyiv's northwestern edge where Nazi forces and local collaborators rounded up and executed more than 33,000 Jewish men, women and children over two days beginning Sept. 29, 1941, according to historians, war researchers and others.

Ceremonies were held Wednesday at the site as part of events marking the 80th anniversary of the massacre.

Today, the filled-in ravine is a park, surrounded by urban sprawl. The bodies were exhumed and burned by the Nazis before they retreated in attempts to hide the mass killings, wartime accounts say.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center proposes to build a $100 million complex of museums, research centers, works of art, an open-air audio and visual exhibits on more than 320 acres of land — larger than the National Mall in Washington.

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A museum would be dedicated to the Babyn Yar site itself — where the Nazis continued to shoot Jews, Soviet prisoners, Ukrainian nationalists and others throughout the war. Another proposed installation would focus on the killing fields across Eastern Europe during World War II.

Some elements are completed. The “Mirror Field” is a stainless-steel platform with 10 steel columns riddled with bullet holes. The columns play recordings of victims’ names and ages.

But a group of Ukrainians intend to stop the complex at any cost, claiming the Memorial Center organization is part of a Kremlin disinformation campaign against Ukraine, which has battled pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine since 2014 and seeks international support for the return of the Crimean Peninsula annexed by Russia.

The critics point to Russian billionaires Mikhail Fridman and German Khan — the center’s two main funders — and the Russian artistic director Ilya Khrzhanovsky.

Moscow, the opponents assert, seeks to embed a “Russian” view of the Holocaust in the proposed memorial complex. For many Ukrainians, the war is still a highly sensitive subject. Among nationalists, in particular, any reference to the temporary embrace of German forces by parts of the population is denounced as Russian propaganda.

But the planned memorials’ “historical narrative” was compiled by leading international and Ukrainian Holocaust experts, who say they strove to be evenhanded in presenting the numerous roles, pressures and disasters Ukrainians faced during World War II.

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“I am convinced that behind the Russian billionaires who are financing the project stands [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Josef Zissels, head of one of Ukraine’s largest Jewish organizations, told a Ukrainian media outlet earlier this year.

Zissels and his partners have proposed their own Babyn Yar project based on a “Ukrainian” version of events.

After becoming artistic director in 2019, Khrzhanovsky floated an idea of using role-playing for museum visitors — where they would take on the persona of victims, bystanders or executioners — to bring home the horror of Babyn Yar.

The suggestion was leaked to the media and unleashed accusations that Khrzhanovsky aimed to create an “entertainment complex” at Babyn Yar. Khrzhanovsky later said this was a preliminary idea and never serious.

Intentional or not, Khrzhanovsky’s proposals led to mass resignations among the project’s staff. Dieter Bogner, a curator for exhibits, was quoted in April 2020 as saying the plan “dangerously approaches the impression of a Holocaust Disney rather than a place of remembrance and reflection.”

Memorial Center officials, in a written statement to The Washington Post, called the allegations of Russian influence to discredit Ukraine a “ridiculous and insulting accusation.”

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Vitali Klitschko — the former world heavyweight champion who is the mayor of Kyiv — are also involved in the Memorial Center. Zelensky has voiced full support for the project, but has stayed away from comments on the bickering.

Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, Belarusian Nobel literature laureate Svetlana Alexievich, former U.S. senator Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and other prominent figures sit on the center’s supervisory board.

And Fridman and Khan have personal reasons behind the project: Both are Jewish, born in Ukraine when it was a Soviet republic, and had family members killed at Babyn Yar and elsewhere in the Holocaust.

As it stands, the complex is located on private and government land. The Memorial Center, as a private institution, makes decisions for land that it owns, while government-held land “requires decisions of the Cabinet and Ukrainian public,” according to written answers from Ukraine’s Culture Ministry.

“We cooperate with [the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center],” it added.

Some, however, believe oversight so far has been lacking.

They point to a “memorial synagogue” that was recently completed on a strip of land that was once part of an Orthodox Christian cemetery.

Jewish religious law forbids building on top of human remains. Before construction, the Memorial Center conducted an archaeological investigation on the top layers of soil. Two bone fragments were discovered, but nothing else — what the center said was proof that no graves were ever there. These findings were approved by the Culture Ministry.

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Anton Drobovych, who is head of Ukraine’s official Institute of National Remembrance and worked for the Memorial Center before Khrzhanovsky’s arrival, said the fragments showed that further investigations should be conducted and Ukrainian society should be involved.

“A few years will pass and someone can sue the Culture Ministry, asking, ‘How did you give this permission?’ ” he said. “And there, where there’s supposed to be prayer and meditation, will be a scandal — that’s what worries me.”

Yet he acknowledged that the synagogue itself — a large, boxlike structure that opens up like a children’s pop-up book to reveal a stunning, multicolored place of worship — was “the most beautiful synagogue I’ve ever seen, a work of art.”

Other project initiatives have attracted praise. A documentary, “Babi Yar: Context” by Sergei Loznitsa, one of Ukraine’s best-known filmmakers, won a special jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

The Memorial Center is creating a 3-D topographical map of Babyn Yar in 1941, pinpointing the site of the massacre, and is nearing completion on a digital database of the names and biographical information of all the victims.

Martin Dean, a British scholar on the Holocaust who worked on the 3-D project and the historical narrative for the site, seeks to downplay the bitterness surrounding the project.

“If you look at every Holocaust memorial, this always goes on,” he said. “It always takes a long time. Debates are a sign that Ukraine is democratic.”

But he also warned that while the momentum behind the memorial is strong, this could change.

“This is like a golden moment for Ukraine and if we don’t do it now, we might miss this chance,” he said.

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