Ukrainian President to Attend Formal Opening of Babi Yar Synagogue

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A woman in 2016 visiting the memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine.
A woman in 2016 visiting the memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Babi Yar in Kiev, Ukraine.Credit: Efram Lukatsky / AP

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s first Jewish president, is set to attend a formal ceremony opening a synagogue at Babi Yar, the site of the massacre of over 33,000 Jews over a two-day period in September 1941.

The synagogue, which was unofficially unveiled during a ceremony featuring Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich last month, is part of a larger complex being built by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which is slated to include a research center and museum. Built in the shape of an open book and open to the elements, it stands behind a previous monument in the shape of a menorah.

“The ceremony is timed to coincide with the day of remembrance of Ukrainians who saved Jews during World War II. The event will be held with the participation of the president of Ukraine, officials, religious leaders, cultural and public figures,” the memorial center said in a statement published on the website of the Religious Information Service of Ukraine.

According to the center, the inside walls of the synagogue are emblazoned with “patterns and texts of prayers that repeat the interior of ancient synagogues in western Ukraine” while the ceiling reproduces the sky as seen on the night of September 29, 1941, the beginning of the massacre.

“This is the first real memorial that people can come to and feel like they are praying and memorializing the victims of Babi Yar, especially the Jewish victims,” Chief Rabbi Bleich told Haaretz on Monday. “It is very striking, unique and moving. It was designed with a lot of thought and symbolism.”

Bleich said that a group of local Jews has been gathering at the site every day to recite the entire book of Psalms. He is also trying to arrange for local rabbis to begin delivering Torah lectures at the site on a weekly basis in order “to make the place alive and not just a memorial.”

Ukraine’s approach to the legacy of the Holocaust has been a source of intense controversy in recent years, with Jewish groups harshly criticizing Kiev's promotion of a new official historiography focused on the rehabilitation of nationalist groups who collaborated with the Nazis.

Prior to the establishment of the memorial center in 2016, the Ukrainian government was forced to change course on a planned overhaul of the site after soliciting outside groups to submit proposals on how to deal with the “discrepancy between the world’s view and Jewry’s exclusive view of Babi Yar as a symbol of the Holocaust.”

Later that year, at a ceremony marking the massacre’s 75th anniversary, government officials placed signs memorializing Nazi collaborators at the site. In 2017, a statue to Olena Teliha, who worked for a newspaper which supported the ethnic cleansing of Jews, was erected there.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center has promised to take a more nuanced and accurate approach to history, although it has also courted controversy. Last year, critics alleged that Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the program’s art director, who had previously directed several intensely graphic films, was planning on bringing his hyper-realistic cinematic style to the museum and make it a “Holocaust Disneyland.”

Last May, Karel Berkhoff — who was appointed chief historian of the museum in 2017 but had subsequently quit — recounted that Khrzhanovsky told staff that he plans for displays “in which visitors would find themselves playing the role of victims, collaborators, Nazis, or prisoners of war who were forced to burn corpses.” 

According to Bleich, the new synagogue marks a “step in the right direction” and is a sign of a definite improvement in Ukraine’s memory culture. 

“This is something that is going to change the culture. It brings up discussion about what happened and how we memorialize it,” he said.

JTA contributed to this report.

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