Lessons of Babi Yar
When there is an emphasis on the human identity shared by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and victims of other crimes against humanity, perhaps there will be a crack in our insensitivity toward destruction and suffering of non-Jews.
Exactly 70 years ago, on September 29-30, 1941, 33,771 Jews from Kiev, my hometown, were shot to death by members of the Sonderkommando. The name of the valley of death where they were murdered, Babi Yar (in which non-Jews were also executed during the war), eventually became a symbol of the Holocaust of Soviet Jewry.
The Soviet regime − one of whose blatant post-war trademarks was official anti-Semitism − made sure to expunge the Holocaust of the Jews from the history books of the war, and to refrain from even mentioning the Jews as victims of Nazism. A special effort was devoted to erasing any trace of Babi Yar from the urban landscape of Kiev, and to blurring the Jewish identity of most of those murdered, by presenting the place as the site of the killing of Soviet citizens, whoever they were, wherever they were from.
Prominent among the non-Jewish dissidents in the Soviet Union, who in the 1960s defied the suppression of Babi Yar from public memory, was author and journalist Anatoly Kuznetsov (1929-1979). In 1965, Kuznetsov, a native of Kiev from the Kurenevka neighborhood adjacent to Babi Yar, wrote “Babi Yar: A Documentary in the Form of a Novel,” which was distinguished by its daring defiance of Soviet anti-Semitism: Those murdered in Babi Yar were first and foremost the Jews. Kuznetsov ended the novel with these words: “What other new Babi Yars, Majdaneks, Hiroshimas, Kolymas ... which places and what new technical forms are still concealed and absent and awaiting their time?”
This sentence included a challenge to the distorted logic that guided the policy of Holocaust denial in the Soviet Union. In its effort to erase the Jewish Shoah from the pages of “general,” Soviet and human history, the regime was trying to exclude the destruction of the Jewish people from the memory of all the horrors perpetrated against mankind. By doing so the regime promoted a kind of dehumanization of the Jews − a trend that official Soviet anti-Semitism had inherited from religious-inspired Jew-hatred dating from the czarist era, for which an unrestrained demonization of the “enemies of Jesus” was routine.
And here Kuznetsov, who enumerated death sites identified with the Shoah (Babi Yar, Majdanek) along with those identified with the horrors directed at other groups (Hiroshima and Stalin’s gulags), reinstated the Shoah to the map of crimes perpetrated against humanity during the course of the 20th century. In doing so, he undermined one of the methods used by Soviet anti-Semitism to exclude the Jews from the human race.
We can reasonably assume that we, Jewish Israelis, would also have found it difficult to relate to the horrors of the Holocaust and the crimes against humanity of which non-Jews were the victims, being described in a single breath. That of course is for reasons that are entirely different from those that motivated Soviet anti-Semitism: The Soviets wanted to remove the Holocaust from all the horrors that befell the modern world, with the intention of erasing it from human memory. We see the Shoah as an exception to all those horrors, with the intention of perpetuating it in memory as a unique event, unparalleled in human history.
But the outcome is quite similar to that which ensued from the Soviet approach: We were so afraid that the unique nature of the Holocaust would be undermined that we also constructed a type of barrier of awareness between the Jews’ genocide and the disasters of non-Jews. The truth is that a viewpoint, like Kuznetsov’s, that includes the Holocaust alongside the horrors that were the lot of other groups in the modern age, would not undermine the Shoah’s unique nature as the unprecedented physical destruction of an entire people.
If adopted here, on the educational level, that viewpoint would allow for the presentation of the Holocaust as a chapter − unquestionably the unique chapter − in the history of the suffering and destruction of modern man, and reveal the profound significance of Prof. Yehuda Bauer’s apt statement to the effect that human beings were led to Auschwitz because they were Jews.
When there is an emphasis on the human identity shared by the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and the victims of other crimes against humanity, perhaps there will be a crack in the wall of insensitivity that we often display toward the destruction and suffering of non-Jews. That wall is a result of the barrier of awareness we have constructed between the destruction and suffering of the Jews and that of others. This is especially true of our attitude toward the destruction and suffering of those non-Jews whose fate is inseparably bound up with ours: the Palestinian Arabs, who share a common homeland with us.
Dr. Dimitry Shumsky is a lecturer in the Jewish history department of the Hebrew University.