Sometime in the mid-to-late sixties, among the de Beauvoirs, Sartres and Hemingways, I came across a thin book of poetry by a handsome poet called Yevgeny Yevtushenko. I might be wrong at this distance (I wasn’t much more than 12 or 13) but I think the book was a paperback, that the outside design was black or dark grey. And I’m pretty sure that the words “Babi Yar” — itself just one short poem — appeared on the cover.
I must have opened the book expecting something else. My mother, a Russophile, liked to tell fairy stories concerning the terrifying Russian witch, Baba Yaga.
Living deep in the forest in a mobile house stood on chicken legs, the bony Baba Yaga had iron teeth and travelled around in a large mortar, propelling herself with a pestle.
Instead, I read something that began like this (I’m vague because I can’t be sure which translation the edition was using):
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone.
I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
The poem was short but, if you didn’t know the history, enigmatic. It wasn’t until 1970,, that a longer book, Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by a Russian author who called himself A. Anatoli (in reality Anatoly Kuznetsov) joined Yevtushenko in the bookshops and the libraries and told the full story.
Up till reading this book, I had imagined — from TV programmes and magazines — that the Jews of occupied Europe had mostly perished in gas chambers situated inside concentration camps. There were the pictures from Belsen of the bulldozed bodies and of crematoria with their charred ribs.
Babi Yar spoke of something different. There, in a ravine, in the autumn of 1941, over the space of two days, more than 30,000 Jews from the city of Kiev were shot dead. They undressed at the top, were led down, forced to lie down on the bodies of those who had already been killed, and shot. This was the technique of the Einsatzgruppe — mostly Germans and often comprising police battalions — which were active throughout the East. It was the more intimate form of mass murder where, unlike in the death camps, the murderer saw each victim. It was more direct (I almost wrote “face to face” but the killers, judging by the photographs their comrades took as souvenirs, almost always required their victims to die with their backs to the guns). In that sense Babi Yar was the link between Zyklon B and the more random brutality of the pogrom.
And that was Yevtushenko’s point. His poem, which was not uncourageous given the recent history of his own country (Stalin’s antisemitic campaign ended only eight years before the poem appeared), was aimed, not at the Nazis, but at Russian antisemitism. So Yevtushenko not only wrote:
each old man
here shot dead.
here shot dead
I seem to be then
a young boy in Bialystok.
Blood runs, spilling over the floors.
The bar-room rabble-rousers
give off a stench of vodka and onion.
Yevtushenko’s poem led to Shostakovich beginning Symphony Number 13 with the Adagio named after Babi Yar. Eventually, a monument, in the shape of a stone menorah was built to stand over Babi Yar.
Babi Yar was not a disappearance into a far-off and imaginable “resettlement camp” but one of the biggest of myriad mass-murders carried out close to large conurbations in almost full view of local populations. If they didn’t see it, then they certainly heard about it. Over the next two years, quite a few of them followed the Jews into the ravine.
I hardly need to add that you can easily find a website, linked to by David Irving’s own site, in which a Ukrainian-American author denies that the Babi Yar massacre happened at all. With footnotes citing spurious sources and despite testimony from survivors, participants and the Einsatzgruppe’s own records, the author proclaims it was Communist-Zionist propaganda.
Yevgeny Yevtushenko died at the weekend in the United States. His other poetry deserves our attention. But, for now, in a week when a young asylum-seeker lies in hospital beaten almost to death in a London suburb, it seems right to recall his empathy:
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-Semites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian.