“Some projects choose us,” wrote Max Yakover, a young and successful Jewish Ukrainian businessman, on his Facebook page last month. “We’ll build a new cultural institution, one of the more powerful ones in this country, a unique museum space that meets international standards and will have global significance.” He also noted the funds allocated to this undertaking: more than $100 million.
Along with the text, Yakover posted a selfie taken with artist-movie director Ilya Khrzhanovsky, who rose to fame with his grandiose and controversial interactive film project "DAU," and with the 2015 Nobel laureate in literature, Svetlana Alexievich.
Khrzhanovsky, 44, was appointed last month as artistic director of the new Holocaust center slated to be built in Babi Yar, Kiev – the location of the largest massacre of World War II, where some 34,000 Jews were murdered by German forces on September 29 and 30, 1941.
Among the first critics of the Soviet Union's efforts to silence the massacres of Jews in (former) Soviet countries in the Holocaust was poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose famous work, "Babi Yar," was put to music by Dmitri Shostakovich, in his powerful 13th symphony. The poem begins with the line: "No monument stands over Babi Yar / A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone."
But back to the present: After Khrzhanovsky was appointed in December, the entire staff of the proposed facility – whose official name is the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center – was replaced, and Khrzhanovsky invited Yakover to serve as its CEO. For her part, Alexievich, an author who has dealt, among other subjects, with the history of World War II in the Soviet Union, recently joined the supervisory council overseeing the project, which is headed by Natan Sharansky, former head of the Jewish Agency.
Other council members include former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer; former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski; former UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova; Wladimir Klitschko, a former boxer and philanthropist who is the brother of Kiev’s mayor; and the five major donors: Jewish-American billionaire Ron Lauder; Russian Jewish oligarchs Mikhail Fridman and German Khan; and Jewish-Ukrainian businessmen Victor Pinchuk and Pavel Fuks.
The new center will be devoted to the massacre at Babi Yar and will be the first memorial of its kind to be located in territory that belonged to the former Soviet Union. The project was launched in 2016, with the support of the previous Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, and was to have opened in 2021, to mark 80 years since the massacre. The opening was then postponed to 2023, but it now seems as if the facility will not be completely operational before 2026 and perhaps later. The plans of the architectural firm that won the bid to design the center in September are now being re-examined.
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After decades in which they kept information relating to the war under wraps for political and ideological reasons, the independent countries that arose on its ruins were left with a legacy of ignorance and suspicion regarding anything associated with the Holocaust. However, the historical burden has not become any lighter over the years and the disputes surrounding it have only been exacerbated in light of the confrontation between Russia and Ukraine.
All this makes life difficult for the team tasked with founding the new center, which has to tread on eggshells. With the appointment of Khrzhanovsky, who is known for playing games with historical reality, it seems that the challenge facing this group has become even more difficult.
His multidisciplinary "DAU" project, which was filmed over many years – mainly in Kharkov, Ukraine – is basically a huge social experiment. In it, he recreates the totalitarian reality in which Soviet Union citizens lived for years. Not only the actors, but all of the people involved in the project wore period clothes and had to get into the mindset of the war era and of their characters – sometimes being subjected to (staged) interrogation and arrest, and pressures to "inform" on each other.
Ravine of death
The erection of a memorial at Babi Yar was debated in Ukraine for years. The so-called ravine of death in which tens of thousands of Jews were buried, was blown up right after the massacre. In 1943, before the Nazi retreat in the face of Soviet forces there, prisoners of war were forced to exhume and burn the bodies, and then pulverize the bones. Mudslides in the 1960s changed the contours of the area completely. Today, it is a park referred to as a national historical memorial preserve; not far away is a sports complex, a TV tower and an underground rail station.
The park features a sort of random collection of 15 monuments that reflect the controversy surrounding the historical memory that arose from this location, and a few others, starting with a monument to “citizens of the USSR and prisoners of war who were executed in Babi Yar,” which was erected in the 1970s and does not mention Jews; continuing with a cross put up in the 1990s, in memory of the Ukrainian nationalists executed by the Nazis, which does not mention that some of them collaborated with the Nazis; and ending with a seven-branched menorah commemorating Jewish victims of the massacre, which was erected in 1991.
Last week, Yakover posted yet another message, according to which he and the rest of those involved in creating the new facility at Babi Yar are not satisfied with just placing their museum on the map of global memorial sites including the Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Jerusalem and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. According to Yakover, there are lessons to learn from each one of them, as well as from the Warsaw museum dedicated to the history of Poland’s Jews.
“Each one of them," says Yakover, "contains elements and approaches that were appropriate to the 20th century. But now we must do this a bit differently. After all, a good museum gives you a personal experience, an emotional one, leaving you with many questions and a desire to learn more.”
In a telephone interview with Haaretz, Yakover explains his and artistic director Khrzhanovsky's approach.
“Khrzhanovsky has been dealing for years with collective and individual trauma in a totalitarian regime," he says. "In his 'DAU' project, it’s the trauma of the Soviet regime; with Babi Yar, it’s the trauma of Nazism. His mother fled Vinnitsa, the site of Nazi massacres, with her family. Khrzhanovsky is an exceptional person who know how to convey an experience as well as emotions. To the best of my knowledge, the board invited him to build the museum in an artistic way so that all visitors to Babi Yar can experience this tragic story as if it were their story.”
The website of the museum – which defines as its primary mission as the respectful "commemorate the victims of the Babyn Yar tragedy and to promote the humanization of mankind through the memory preservation and study of the history of the Holocaust" – uses terms such as big data and augmented reality as a way of describing the concept of the museum-in-the making.
Yakover: “Our idea is this: When you’re 8, 35 or 65 years old, different things interest you. Museums today don’t offer an experience that’s suited to individuals. The question is one of whether it’s possible to take a personalized walk through the museum, one that is suitable for different categories of visitors. One of the directions we’re thinking of involves thinking about who the visitor is, and to create a personalized experience for that visitor using big data.”
This means suiting content to the individual, like social media do.
“Yes, you can’t create something that interests everybody equally and makes people feel the same things.”
Aren’t you worried about sliding into a manipulation of emotions?
“That’s a very apt and difficult-to-answer question. That is precisely our goal: to understand how to convert a historical narrative into a story a person can feel. Another important thing: This will not be just a museum for Jews. To Jews, everything is clear. This must be a museum for people coming from around the world – something universal. That’s what we’re thinking about currently. We still need some time, though.”
In a conversation with Yana Barinova, until recently the former chief operations officer of the museum, it turns out that she had differences of opinion with Khrzhanovsky regarding the balance between the emotions and experience a visitor would have, and the information that was supposed to be imparted to him.
“For me," she says in a phone interview with Haaretz from Kiev, "it was important to work with memory, and working with a traumatic past is not just about what is on display. Working with the past means a process of deep mining, of working with public opinion. It requires bringing in philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists. My goal was to construct a skeleton of meanings, on which we’d impose different visual props. The new team has different priorities, in my opinion.”
Barinova adds that her own relatives died in another "ravine of death," in 1941, and says, “The new team’s creative approach to working with memory is too fraught with sensitive issues for me.”
In-depth work with history has indeed been the most complicated challenge facing this undertaking since it was first proposed. The number of Jews massacred in late September 1941 seems to be one of the only facts that are uncontested in Ukraine – both regarding Babi Yar, in particular, and within the context of remembrance of the war in general, in the country.
How many people in total were murdered at that site throughout the entire war? How many were Jews? Were ultra-nationalist Ukrainians who collaborated with the Nazis also murdered there, and if so, how many? To what extent did the latter collaborate with the Nazis and to what extent did they assist in murdering Jews in Kiev and in other places?
All these questions are now facing the staff at the memorial center; some have already evoked stormy debates. The project’s scientific council, which includes prominent experts from Ukraine and other countries, is headed by Dutch historian Karel Berkhoff, an expert on the Holocaust in Ukraine and on Babi Yar. The council Prof. Berkhoff heads has created a historical narrative that has gone through a few rounds of critique by other experts and was revealed at public hearings attended by members of parliament and others.
Viewing the council's document gives one the impression that it answers, at least partially, most of the thorny questions being posed to museum planners. For instance, it determines that a prevailing claim that more than 600 Ukrainian nationalists were murdered by the Nazis in Kiev during the war is untrue: Only a few dozen were killed there, and some of those nationalists are to blame for disseminating virulent, anti-Semitic propaganda and for murdering Jews around the country.
However, the question of how to present the narrative being developed for the museum remains open. CEO Yakover promises “to remain faithful to the facts.” But the fact that two of the donors, Fridman and Khan, are billionaire citizens of Russia (and among the owners of the Alfa Group investment consortium, known for its ties to the Kremlin) poses some problems. Indeed, there is a group of historians and influential activists who strenuously oppose building this center, because of those donors and for other reasons.
First, the group argues, the fact that two Russian oligarchs are behind the enterprise attests to its being part of the propaganda strategy of and the effort to rewrite history by the Kremlin – something they believe has no place in Ukraine. Secondly, they object to presenting Babi Yar as a memorial site for Jews only, thus coming at the expense of other national communities. Third, the Jewish members of this opposition group cite religious arguments against building on the site of a mass grave (although the staff says the new facility will not be built on any area in which human remains have been found).
Last year, Vitaly Nachmanovich, a senior fellow at Kiev’s museum of history, said in an interview about the new project that “they want to build a Holocaust museum in the Soviet Union, where they’ll show the prominent role of Ukrainians during the Holocaust. This has become very popular lately – the idea that the responsibility of the helpers is greater than that of the instigators. The focus has been deflected from Hitler to local politicians. This benefits Moscow since it is damaging to post-Soviet European countries.”
Confirmation that such a strategy is being promoted seems to have come last week, at the Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, in remarks made by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But are Fridman and Khan involved in implementing it?
According to historian Shimon Briman, head of the Eastern Europe desk at the University Haifa, who’s been closely following events in Ukraine in recent years, “Fridman was born in Lviv; he’s a Jew who was born in Ukraine, and later moved to Moscow. He has real feelings toward anything related to Ukraine and as a Jew who was born there, he wants to leave a mark and build this enormous center. I don’t see Putin’s hand there.”
A priori suspicion
Ukraine's Jewish community is also divided about the Babi Yar museum project. For their part, the two co-presidents of the country's Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, known as the Vaad, take opposing stands. One of them, Andrey Adamovsky, supports the project. The other, Josef Zissels, is among the most vociferous opponents to it. Just two months ago he said in an interview that “this museum is liable to show the world that Ukrainians are ultra-nationalists and anti-Semitic, who have killed Jews throughout their entire history.”
Moreover, Zissels is promoting a much more modest, competing memorial project at Babi Yar: one that will focus on the history of the site, but not necessarily on its Holocaust past. He has received state funds for his initiative but it has not taken off, as yet.
Vyacheslav Likhachev, a historian and social activist who also serves as spokesman for the Vaad, thinks that the concerns expressed by opponents of the proposed museum at Babi Yar are valid. In a video call with Haaretz, he emphasized the fact that donor Mikhail Fridman has helped to fund Russia’s military industry in the past.
“He’s not just any businessman, but one whose money helped upgrade Russian tanks that invaded Ukrainian territory in 2014,” says Likhachev. “There is an a priori suspicion regarding any ideologically based project that touches on sensitive issues of historical memory, when the funding comes from an aggressive country. The project’s developers must be particularly careful and meticulous in order to dispel such suspicions.”
Another opponent of the Holocaust center is Ukrainian historian and member of parliament Volodymyr Viatrovych. He is apparently a fan of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. According to his opponents, he denies any collaboration between nationalist Ukrainians and the Nazis, and any participation in the murders of Jews. As head of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture's Institute of National Memory until last September, he wielded some clout with respect to decisions concerning the Babi Yar project. However, following the election last spring of Volodymyr Zelensky as president, Viatrovych was replaced by Anton Drobovych, who supports the undertaking and even worked directly on it.
Thus, it seems that the chances the museum will overcome various hurdles have improved since the election of Zelensky. He is apparently trying to distance himself from an ultra-nationalist image, promoting messages of all-Ukrainian unity (which are being met with much criticism). In an interview last week with The Times of Israel, Zelensky referred to the Babi Yar facility as a done deal.
Despite this, CEO Max Yakover admits that the situation is still shaky. “Things are being done to balance this out,” he says, when asked whether it is not a problem that national historical memory has been put in the hands of private agents – in this case, citizens of a country that is in conflict with Ukraine. His response: “Russian oligarchs number only two out of 14 members of the supervisory council that makes the decisions, and they too are Ukrainian-born with Jewish roots.”