A memorial project to be built at Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were murdered between September 29-31 1941 - the largest single massacre of the Holocaust - intends to turn it into the setting for an ‘immersive theatre experience’. Based on the Holocaust, visitors will take on the roles of victims and executioners.
The area, on the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, was neglected until a ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the massacre on September 29 2016. The then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko used the occasion to initiate a memorial complex. The project stalled until 2019 when the Russian film director Ilya Khrzhanovsky was appointed as its artistic director. His plans for the site and the role of some of its funders, including Russian Jewish billionaires Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, have sparked controversy.
Khrzhanovsky was the director of the DAU cultural project, which was inspired by the life of Soviet scientist Lev Landau, a Nobel laureate. A massive artistic and scientific complex was built in Kharkiv in Ukraine, with people living on the site during 2008 to 2011 in a form of reality show cum social experiment, playing roles as Soviet citizens from Landau’s lifetime.
The project is being investigated over allegations that children’s rights were violated during filming. Further controversy was caused by the involvement as one of the ‘actors’ of Maxim Martsinkevich, a Russian neo-Nazi.
The announcement of Khrzhanovsky’s plans - including psychological experiments, Greek masks, soundscapes and artistic collaborations, along with a photograph of Michael Jackson’s posthumous hologram concert - caused controversy.
Karel Berkhoff, a Dutch Holocaust historian who is chair of the Babi Yar academic council, criticised plans for visitors to take on “ the role of victims, collaborators, Nazis, or prisoners of war who were forced to burn corpses.”
The Soviet authorities attempted to cover up the Babi Yar massacre and the role of Russian billionaires in financing the current project has been attacked by some Ukrainian experts and members of its Jewish community.
Last month, hundreds signed an open letter to members of the committee overseeing the project. They argued that the Ukrainian state should finance the Babi Yar museum and it should be overseen by the Ukrainian Jewish community.
Russia’s involvement is particularly sensitive in a country which is currently fighting Russian forces occupying part of its east.
The letter also points out that part of the proposed site lies in the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery where construction is banned.
An article accompanying the letter on the Ukrainian site Krytyka.com stressed that, “Psychological Experiments and Simulations of Ethical Decisions Have No Place in a Commemoration of Babi Yar”. But the committee overseeing the project - chaired by Natan Sharansky - shows no sign of dropping Khrzhanovsky’s plans.