Life & Culture

To understand Babi Yar, understand the context

A new documentary revisits the massacre of more than 33,000 Jews in the Ukraine


Eighty years ago, on the morning of September 29, on Yom Kippur, Jews still living in Kiev after the German invasion followed an order 
to gather in Dorogoshitshaya Street, next to the Jewish cemetery, on pain of death. Told to bring documents, warm clothes, money, some believed they were going to be put on trains and resettled. Instead, they were made to walk to Babi Yar, a deep ravine approximately six miles from the city centre. As they got close to its lip, they were ordered to stop, strip, and remove their valuables. They were then formed into small groups and forced to the ravine’s edge, where they were shot in the back of the head.

Over two days, by the Germans’ own reckoning (considered conservative by some researchers), 33,771 Jews were murdered in a mass killing that came to symbolise both the ‘Holocaust by bullets’ that bathed Eastern Europe in blood and what Natan Sharansky, the former refusenik and now chair of the supervisory board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre (BYHMC) in Kiev, has called “the awful crime of the Soviet regime and their big efforts to erase the memory” of the Jews who were killed.

On Sunday, this atrocity will be remembered at the Cannes Film Festival when Babi Yar. Context, a major new documentary by the renowned Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa, is unveiled as part of the Special Screenings programme.

Loznitsa, who has addressed the Shoah in other films, including Austerlitz, about Holocaust tourism, has been working on the subject of Babi Yar for around nine years, gathering material from public archives and private collections, and was in the process (still ongoing) of raising funds for a fiction film when he was approached by Ilya Khrzhanovsky, the controversial Russian artistic director of the BYHMC, to work on a project for them. “This is how the idea of this documentary film was born,” he says.

With a running time of two hours and composed entirely of archive footage, the film, in the absence of observable evidence of the criminal action taking place, attempts to immerse the viewer in the environment which made the massacre possible, in the hope of creating a better understanding of the roots of such events, and show how Babi Yar, as a Jewish tragedy, was almost struck completely from the historical record.

Loznitsa, 56, had no idea as a child growing up in the Nyvki district of Kiev that the Vanguard swimming pool he frequently visited was built “almost on the spot where the ravine was. Walking back home from the swimming pool, through this forested area and through the place where the ravine used to be, I would occasionally stumble across some gravestones,” he recalls, “broken and with some faded inscriptions in some strange language. In fact, I was walking through the territory of the former Jewish cemetery.”

One day, a new stone appeared with a Russian inscription stating that a monument was to be erected. Curious to know why, Loznitsa, then aged ten, asked his parents and other adults. Reluctantly they gave answers that were sketchy and evasive, and a picture of what had happened took time to emerge. “In general this tragedy, this massacre, was, for a very long period of time, a kind of taboo. It was not talked about. It was not mentioned. And it was, in a way, covered in a shroud of silence.”

Why Babi Yar remained a taboo for so long after the end of the war is “a fundamental question which has a number of possible answers,” he says. “I can only give my hypothesis.”

Whereas the Nazis had tried to conceal their crime by exhuming, burning, and then covering over the remains of their victims, the Soviets, in an example of “state antisemitism”, effectively erased the connection between Babi Yar and Jewish martyrdom by referring to all the people murdered as Soviet citizens.

“During Soviet times, a statement saying that the people who were killed in Babi Yar were Jews could have been labelled as an act of Zionism — Zionism, in the Soviet vocabulary, being a negative thing,” says the director. “The funny thing is, the majority of the population at the time didn’t have a clue what Zionism was, but everybody still knew it was something bad.”

He adds that by creating distinctions between victims, “the whole concept of the friendship of nations, which was one of the fundamental principles of the Soviet ideology, would have also been destroyed. So, in the Soviet narrative, it was much easier to label everyone killed at Babi Yar as Soviet people.”

Intriguingly, Babi Yar. Context, which is made up of short films that take the viewer on a harrowing journey from the German invasion of Soviet Ukraine in 1941 to the filling-in of the massacre site with industrial waste in 1952, features compelling footage of a perpetrator, an eyewitness, and a survivor, Dina Pronicheva, who describes how she played dead in a pile of corpses after jumping before being shot, giving testimony at a trial in Kiev in 1946.

Here the word Jew is spoken numerous times, with everyone acknowledging that the first and most intensive action specifically targeted Kiev’s Jewish population. (Political dissidents, Roma, psychiatric patients and Ukrainian nationalists were among the tens of thousands who followed.) Even so, although it wouldn’t be until after the Soviet “anti-cosmopolitan” ie anti-Jewish campaign of 1948-49 that an attempt was made to eliminate the memory of Babi Yar and its Jewish victims, Loznitsa reveals that his footage still isn’t what the public saw at the time. “I edited the episode of the trial from footage that was used to produce a 20-minute long newsreel about the trial, and in that newsreel, the word Jew is not mentioned once. So, of course, when I edited my film, I used the material that wasn’t included in the propaganda film.

“The only difference between what was happening before 1948 and after is that it was still possible to mention the word Jew. By the end of the 40s, the beginning of the 50s, even the word Jew became outlawed, not to mention writing books about or doing research specifically on the Holocaust.”

Lacunae created by attempts to bury Babi Yar by ways physical, political and lexiconic mean that today there is “no historical narrative which enables the society to address, understand and preserve the memory of this tragedy.”

Viewed against this backdrop, is Babi Yar. Context Loznitsa’s bid to build a work that might resolve extant competing interests and lead to a consensus? The filmmaker is sceptical.

“In order to be able to interpret something one needs to know about it, and as far as I’m concerned, the knowledge of the facts is still not there, or is very scarce, and the historical work, the work of the historians, hasn’t yet been done fully.

“My first goal when I was making this film was to show, to the extent that it was possible with the material I had, the context, the events, that surrounded this tragedy. Unfortunately I cannot offer any consensus, but I definitely offer reflection.”

Thus he shows the dehumanising effects of the German occupation, and the way that friends and neighbours of Jews joined in their persecution. Shame, he suggests, may be another reason for the silence that descended over Babi Yar.

Still today in Ukraine “there exists certain taboos, certain topics that are not being discussed, especially about the events of the first years of the German occupation,” he says. “And I came across these taboos, this tension, at a very elementary level, when I was making the film.”

He says he found some of the short, factual, uneditorialised intertitles he used between films being challenged, dragging him into “a political discussion [with] people trying to argue and contend these facts. My biggest hope is that the people who watch the film will start thinking and really ask themselves, how was it possible that such a tragedy happened on our land?”

Could understanding the context of events such as Babi Yar help to make “Never Again” a reality, I ask?

“In theory it is possible to create conditions which would prevent these tragedies from ever happening again. But in order to do this, one needs to understand precisely how these tragedies occur. What happened in Babi Yar wasn’t unique because the mechanisms and the conditions are quite typical, and this is exactly what my fiction film, Babi Yar, is about: this mechanism.

“I think that it is very important to really study it and understand it. And once a person actually reflects upon it, but also feels it, in a way lives through it, this could become a kind of deterrent, something that can really prevent someone from repeating these actions or going down this route again . . . This was one of the purposes of Babi Yar. Context.”


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