First-ever Eastern European exhibition of the Holocaust by Bullets opens in Kiev.
The Khreschatyk, the broad main thoroughfare sweeping through the center of Kiev is lined with fashionable stores, restaurants and upscale hotels. Shoppers, strollers and street performers stream along the wide, terraced sidewalks, enjoying the mild autumn weather.
Seventy years ago, the neighborhood around the Khreschatyk was in flames, ripped apart by mines left behind by the Red Army retreating in the face of the Nazi advance. The Nazis, already planning the mass execution of Kiev’s Jews, seized upon the mayhem as a pretext for posting notices on September 28 ordering all Jews to assemble at 8:00 a.m. the next day at an intersection near the Jewish and Orthodox cemeteries, bringing with them money, valuables and warm clothing.
Expecting deportation, thousands of Jews turned up and were marched to a large ravine called Babi Yar. There, more than 33,000 Jews were massacred in the largest single shooting on Soviet territory, part of the estimated 1.5 million Jews killed on the territory of present-day Ukraine in the Holocaust by Bullets.
The echoes of the past returned to the Khreschatyk this week with the opening of the “Shoah by Bullets: the Mass Shootings of Jews in Ukraine 1941-1944.” The exhibition, created by Paris’ Memorial de la Shoah, recounts the history of the genocide in Ukraine and details the work of Yahad – In Unum to document the evidence, educate the public and preserve a dignified remembrance of the victims.
For Yahad, it was a return to its origins, the country where its investigations began, where Father Desbois’ grandfather was imprisoned during the war and the home of several Yahad team members, including Svetlana and Micha, both present for the ceremony.
For Ukrainians, the exhibition may represent something particularly powerful, a confrontation with a terrible chapter in human history that took place in their country, but also a necessary step in continuing to establish Ukraine’s European identity. Some spoke of the need to bring together what have historically been two separate chapters of the same tragedy; others, the need to educate the country’s younger generations; for some, it signals a somber, perhaps painful, recognition regarding some dark truths. The exhibition’s arrival appears to be churning some complicated emotions.
An arrival made possible by the commitment of one of its most successful business leaders, Victor Pinchuk, whose philanthropic foundation co-organized the exhibition: “We are all united by one goal – to remember what happened and to understand how it happened, that this nightmare may never be repeated, and that courage, cooperation and tolerance will always prevail in the future.”
The historical significance of the occasion was reflected by the presence at the opening of the Ambassadors of France, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel and the U.S. The UK Ambassador, who also met with Father Desbois during the week, featured the exhibition on his blog.
An educational program created by the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, USA, and the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies also will be carried out around the exhibition to involve, inform and engage Ukrainian pupils and students in a dialogue on the subject.
The opening attracted considerable press coverage, including prominent coverage on Ukrainian television and in print, a widely-reported AP story and an article in the French daily, La Croix. Most stories included a photo of Father Desbois guiding a group of VIP’s who attended the opening, including former Ukrainian President Kuchma and Rabbi Kaminezki — who will be helping to organize the exhibition’s display as it travels through Ukraine to his community.
Said Father Patrick Desbois: “Our focus is identifying the mass gravesites of the genocide – we are not hunting for the killers or seeking to assign culpability. Instead, we are looking for the victims, too often cast aside and forgotten in the historical reconstruction of events. Our work is about education and increasing awareness and understanding of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. It is the greatest barrier we can build against future genocide.”
The week also marked the release of the Ukrainian-language version of Father Desbois’ book, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.”
It seems only right to leave the last word for this post to a Ukrainian. The following poem was written by Lena, a Ukrainian girl, in memory of her 8-year old sister, Dora, whose remains lie in a mass grave beneath the Crimean plain:
There is some earth
There is some earth, earth which doesn’t sleep…
When the wind blows,
Listen, it goes on screaming,
These nightmare moments,
There is some earth which doesn’t sleep…
It doesn’t see the aurora, or the dawn
Look, it still has the objects
Belonging to its close ones with it
My bed is softer than feathers…
My bed is softer than feathers
It gives me its benediction
In my life nobody helped me as much
With the touch of its warmth…
My plume is soft, more solid than granite
There is some earth which never sleeps.