Book-shaped synagogue unveiled at Babyn Yar memorial site

The shul is being described as “symbolic” because it is not attached to a congregation


Eight decades ago this year, nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered at Babyn Yar. Now the memorial site in the Ukrainian capital is home to a shul designed in the shape of a book. 

It was unveiled for the first time on Thursday when faith leaders gathered at the site to mark Yom HaShoah and pay their respects to the memory of victims. 

The synagogue is being described as “symbolic” because it is not attached to a congregation or faith leader.

Plans are underway to build a structure bearing the names of the victims as well as several educational centres and museums as part of a 150 hectare memorial complex.

“For many years Babyn Yar has had no proper stone or memorial,” said Ukainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich.

“I find it telling that the first structure of the memorial will be a place for introspection and prayer designed symbolically as a synagogue. 

“This will help visitors relate to the mass murder that took place in Babyn Yar and not forget the spirituality or the origins of those Jews murdered on the eve of Yom Kippur and Yom Kippur itself,” he said.

Survivor and former Israeli chief rabbi Meir Lau, meanwhile, praised the “wonderful” concept of commemorating victims through a new synagogue. 

“The Nazis knew that so long as the Jewish faith exists, the Jewish people cannot be destroyed,” he said.

The 12 metre tall synagogue, which can be closed into a flat vertical structure, is made of barn oak recycled from abandoned buildings.

"I was inspired by the idea that the synagogue could be a book to be read by us together, to reveal for us a new world of stories revealing history.

“The point is that it will be built on sacred land. It will not only be a tribute to the memory of the victims, but also a glimpse into the future," said its designer, the Swiss architect Manuel Herz.

Dotted on its ceiling is a reproduction of constellations that appeared in the night sky on September 29 1941 - the date of the single largest Nazi massacre of Jews.

Painted on its walls are prayer texts and evocative designs reminiscent of ancient shuls in western Ukraine, which were destroyed during the war.  

“They represent a unique catalog of Jewish symbols and emblems,” said artist Halyna Andrusenko, who worked on the project with several colleagues. 

"These paintings should give the impression of a portal into a great fairy-tale world, filled with a variety of flora and fauna, where each of the creatures glorifies God in his own way,” she said.

The memorial’s artistic director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky, described Babyn Yar as a place of memory. "History is literally absorbed in the ground here.

“We wanted to create a space that enables the story of Babyn Yar to be closer and relevant to everyone, regardless of nationality, gender, age or religion," she said.

The synagogue is currently closed to the public but an opening date is expected to be announced once quarantine restrictions are lifted in the country. 

World leaders will be invited to the memorial site in September to mark the massacre’s 80th anniversary. 

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