KIEV, Ukraine – The government on Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of the death of more than 33,000 Jews at Babi Yar, one of the single largest massacres of the Nazi Holocaust, one that for decades was papered over in Soviet accounts and remains a controversial chapter in Ukraine’s history.
Kiev has held a week of memorials, the largest commemoration of the atrocity in recent years, as it seeks to refocus attention on the country’s Jewish history and demonstrate to the West its adherence to European values.
“Politically and symbolically it’s very important,” said Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian and professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. “It may be that this event marks a turning point for how the tragedy is remembered” by Ukrainians.
On Thursday morning, the mayor of Kiev and several wealthy Jewish oligarchs announced new plans to build a memorial center to the victims of the massacre, an initiative that has stalled several times over the past 15 years. The issue has roiled the country’s fractious Jewish community because of opposing plans and concerns about desecrating the gravesite.
On Thursday evening, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko invoked the lessons of the Holocaust while discussing the country’s current conflict with Russia over the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and war in east Ukraine.
“The lesson of Babi Yar is a reminder of the frightening price of political and moral nearsightedness,” Poroshenko said in remarks to a largely Jewish audience held at a temporary stadium in Kiev’s Babi Yar park. The site encompasses a ravine on the city’s outskirts, where German SS troops systematically killed assembled Jews with machine guns on Sept. 29 and 30, 1941. “It’s a reminder that indulging an aggressor simply builds his appetite,” the president said.
Poroshenko also highlighted Ukraine’s close relationship with Israel, calling for a moment of silence in memory of Shimon Peres, the former Israeli president who died Wednesday.
“For decades, Moscow has supplied weapons to those countries that dream of pushing Israel into the sea,” Poroshenko said.
The first monument at Babi Yar was erected in 1974 and was dedicated to the 100,000 Soviet citizens murdered at the site during the course of the war years, without noting that the vast majority of them were Jewish. Jews who attempted to pray or lay flowers at the site were arrested. Ukraine’s government installed the first Jewish memorial, a brass sculpture of a menorah, in 1991 as the Soviet Union was collapsing.