75 years ago, on September 29–30, 33,771 Jews were systematically massacred in the ravines just northwest of Kiev’s city center.
Ten days earlier, the Nazis had occupied Ukraine. In a few short days, they posted notices all over Kiev telling Jews to gather at Viis’kove cemetery for relocation. Any Jew who failed to report would be shot on sight.
The Nazis didn’t expect more than 5000 people to show up, but nearly 34,000 did.
I wasn’t there. I can’t be sure, but I imagine that the Jewish community was in turmoil — packing what was important to them: cooking pans, good shoes, winter clothes. Maybe they were resigned: another relocation like all the relocations that had come before.
Their children must have been holding their hands tight. Maybe they thought that no one would want to hurt children. Maybe they thought they were safe as long as they were surrounded by their families.
Where will we ever be home? They may have thought. Because isn’t that our curse: to always be looking for that one safe space.
As I write this, my chest tightens and my heart beats faster. Thinking about that day makes me anxious and nervous.
I think of those tens of thousands of Jews waiting at the cemetery. Their children holding their hands tight. The sky that bright end of September blue. The air crisp and clean. The sounds of war: gunshots and cries that had become so common as to be unnoticed.
A man wrote their names in a notebook.
They were marched into the ravines, forced to undress. Anyone who resisted was beaten, shoved to the ground.
They turned a corner in a deep crevasse and were shot, one at a time by soldiers with machine guns.
The corpses piled up and up.
By September 30, 1941, 33,771 had been killed. Twenty-one people survived. One, an actress. It’s her testimony that gives us the most details about that day.
The killing didn’t end. It continued throughout the war until it was clear that it was going to be lost. And then the burning of the bones began. It was hoped that no one would ever know how many were killed at Babyn Yar.
I went there. It was the first time any of my family had stepped foot in Eastern Europe in 100 years. This past summer, I was in Kiev. For work.
We took the subway to Babyn Yar, the area where the massacre took place. It was a short ride from the center of Kiev. I had steeled myself. Locked my emotions in a room inside my heart.
I told myself that the place would have no hold over me. I told myself that I would feel nothing, that I would not be sentimental, that I would not break down. The dead would not speak to me. The killers would not scare me. I would feel no horror. Babyn Yar would be nothing more than a park.
What a mess the place was. Random markers with overwrought figures that made it seem as if those who died there were heroic. It’s kitsche with a capital K. A small Jewish graveyard is uncared for, the stones marking each grave broken and lying around in shards. There are crosses, cause why not? Why not put crosses everywhere you can and steal even this bit of peace? Fuck you cross, I wanted to scream. I might have told myself I wouldn’t feel anything, but I did feel anger.
I was angry when I saw a brand new mini historical village with a colorful church and people pretending to be villagers.
I was angry at the broken doll statue. I was angry at the menorah.
I was angry at the gravelly roads.
No. I told myself. No. This place will have no power.
I was angry at the cornerstone of the unbuilt Jewish community center.
No power. No, you won’t get to me Babyn Yar. You won’t.
And yet, despite myself, despite trying my best not to be moved by sentimentality; despite my disdain for the kitsch and the ridiculous memorials; despite my distance from rabbinical Judaism and my secular life; despite my will to remain unmoved; despite all this, I found the Jewish prayer for the dead welling up inside me. The Kaddish. Praising a cruel God. The rhythm of the ancient Aramaic took over my entire body: yitgadal v’yitkadash shmei rabba… Over and over and over again. It wouldn’t let me loose.
And then, unbidden, I was paralyzed. Standing there.
I was realizing that what separated my birth and their death was just nineteen years.
19 years is how long it takes the inaccurate Jewish calendar to repeat itself and align itself with the solar calendar.
So I was born on Yom Kippur and they died on Yom Kippur.
The Days of Awe — between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — what a joke. When Jews were asking forgiveness and begging to be inscribed in the book of life, the Nazis were stockpiling bullets and arranging one of the first mass executions of the war. Fuck that.
I couldn’t move.
The life of one teenager separated us. This one girl who had not yet been born and died that day with her mother.
Maybe she would have been my mother or my babysitter or my aunt.
Maybe I would have grown up with her children. Maybe we would have gone to nursery school together. Maybe we would have played softball together.
The life of that teenager, the baby never born that day — it’s her that I mourn.
I told this story in Amsterdam. It was the unborn teenager who made me aware that the past is not the past. It’s never the past. The massacre at Babyn Yar was as vivid when I was a child as the events of September 11 are to many of us today.
The evening I told this story at the Mezrab and Amsterdam, I bought a bottle of vodka and placed it behind the bar. I told everyone that they could have a drink to life, L’Chaim.
I liked being able to buy a round of drinks for the entire audience. But I didn’t really feel at peace drinking to those who died that day. Instead, I was filled with anger and sadness. I wanted them, more than anything at all, to still be alive. I wanted Europe filled with Jews. Jews with side curls and Jews with yarmulkes and Jews you couldn’t recognize as Jews.
I wanted the life of Jews, the dirty imperfect diversity of belief and faith and opinion, to still be part of Europe. Instead, I’ve come to realize that the only Jews who Europeans miss are the professors and the musicians and the writers. They don’t miss us in our full humanity any more than they miss the Roma.
And with all the work I’ve done to accept the past and embrace the future, I find myself deeply and disturbingly at odds with the world around me. I find myself alarmed by the rhetoric around me, especially when it comes from people with power. I am alarmed by the thoughtless hatred directed at people who are simply different from what’s normal. I am alarmed by the creeping violence and the barely restrained anger. I am disturbed by the demands for conformity.
We’re humans. We’re messy.
I love the mess.