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25 April, 2021  ▪  Omid Nouripour

The path to European self-understanding

About historical narratives and memory of Babyn Yar

A country struck by war and economic hardship, Ukraine faces one more, less urgent but no less significant challenge: coming to terms with the past. As a German MP and chairman of the German-Ukrainian Parliamentary Friendship Group, I am deeply concerned with Germany`s historical responsibility for Nazi crimes committed in Ukraine between 1941-1945. That is why I feel obliged to speak out about the perspective of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) in Kyiv.

Germany shall duly consider on-going controversies around the BYHMC – and assume its financial burden for the Holocaust memorialization in Ukraine. The realization of a befitting project at Babyn Yar will make the German public aware of the Wehrmacht’s crimes in Ukraine– an aspect of WWII that is still often overlooked. Thus, one of the darkest pages in our shared history may bring our countries closer together. It is my firm conviction that creation of a platform to pass on humanistic values in a rapidly polarizing world is in Germany’s vital interest – a great responsibility which cannot be executed in lack of transparency and politicalaccountability.

For those who have missed it: the BYHMC is a privately financed project, initiated in 2016 to memorialize the victims of Babyn Yar. In this ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv, the German occupiers shot over 34.000 Jews in just three days in September 1941. One of the first massacres of the Holocaust of this scale, although many would follow.

2021 marks a new start for the BYHMC. Last January, art director Ilya Khrzhanovsky presented the finalized creative concept for the future Memorial Center. The new plans appear to be a step forward, yet concerns remain about the direction of the project. Questions remain as to the scientific foundation, the financial structure, and the newly presented curatorial vision.

The involvement of Mr. Khrzhanovsky has been controversial from the start, when he was appointed in late 2019. A film director by trade, he is best known for his rather megalomaniac“DAU” project: a kaleidoscopic recreation of Soviet society, comprising 700 hours of film material.“DAU” received severe international criticism for dubious decisions such as the involvement of convicted neo-Nazis. Controversy peaked in April 2020, when Khrzhanovsky’s plans for the BYHMC were leaked to the Ukrainian press; just like “DAU”, the concept emphasized the recreation of historical experiences. The most disturbing idea was to use VR to let visitors slip into the roles of perpetrator or victim. Faced with public indignation, Khrzhanovsky backed down: these were just some rough ideas, people had to postpone their judgement and wait for the finalized plan.

The concept presented in January clearly aims to reestablish the project’s good standing. It offers an impressive lineup of contributors and subprojects, and emphasizes, time and again, the importance of remembrance, research and education. Yet ideas behind raise some doubts. The ambition to turn Babyn Yar into a unique memorial site can only be lauded, but the sheer scale of the project – which includes, among other things, four museums, a synagogue and a rehab center for psychological trauma – raises concerns as to its feasibility.

The concept is vague on the details. Behind all the rhetoric, there is hardly a word about the scientific substance of the expositions. The only thing clear is that the BYHMC is still envisioned as a place of experience, which should have an emotional impact on visitors – in line with Mr.Khrzhanovsky’s previous plans. There is also talk of gaming and VR technologies to achieve this goal. In short, the concept remains a matter of controversy. Putting aside the practical issues, it is highly doubtful such an approach does justice to the legacy of Babyn Yar.

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Every time I visit Babyn Yar, I am affected by the oddity of the place. On the one hand, the sense of the Shoah’s loss is almost palpable. On the other, the site functions as just another city park, overrun by playing children and strolling elders.

For decades after WWII, there was no memorial at Babyn Yar. The Soviet leadership, which refused to recognize the tragedy of the Jews, first buried the ravine under the residue of a local brick factory, then turned it into a park. When the regime finally succumbed to international pressure and built a monument, in 1976, it was devoted to all “Soviet citizens and prisoners ofwar” killed at Babyn Yar. The word “Jews” was ostensibly omitted.

Things changed after Ukraine gained independence. A monument for the Jewish victims was erected in the early 90s, later followed by a memorial for the murdered Roma of Kyiv. But it didn’tstop there: further memorials were raised for the “children shot at Babyn Yar”, as well as for the Ukrainian nationalistic poetess Olena Teliha, who was also killed near the ravine.

These monuments did not replace the Soviet monument, which still towers high over the site. Instead, they added ever new narrative layers, filling the space of Babyn Yar both physically and symbolically. This cacophony, against the backdrop of a city park, makes Babyn Yar an intriguing place, yet it also means the site does not function as a single place of memory.

Babyn Yar needs a coherent memory project. A project that does justice to the legacy of the victims and set a benchmark for debates on WWII and the Holocaust in Ukraine. A project with the potential to embed Ukraine in a broader Western memory culture around the Holocaust, which has become an essential part of European self-understanding.

When the BYHMC was presented in 2016, there was every reason to believe it could live up to expectations. Crucial in this respect was the commitment to the standards of the International Memorial Museums Charter. These stress, among other things, the importance of treating the victims’ legacy with care and of firmly anchoring memorial projects in society. A promising step was the publication, in 2018, of the Basic Historical Narrative, which was developed by a team of Ukrainian and international historians.

The bigger the deception now that the BYHMC has taken a different turn. Truly, some of the recent virtual projects have already contributed to the memorialization of Babyn Yar victims. However, the apparent problem does not lie in the in the BYHMC ́s mission - but in ideas, interpretations and methods of how to pursue the mission presented to the public so far. In other words, how the Babyn Yar should be historized. En blocKhrzhanovsky’s curatorial practices seem to run counter to the founding principles for memorial centers. The Basic Historical Narrative is collecting dust in some drawer. The ambition of open, pluralistic dialogue crucial to anchor such a project in society – appears to have been abandoned.

Although the BYHMC is apparently trying to find new funds in Ukraine and to be transparent about this, it is crucial to give full disclosure on the financial structure – because the credentials of main financers are questionable at very least.

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The two initiators of the project, Fridman and Khan, have been involved in multiple international corruption scandals. They rank among the twenty richest Russian citizens and maintain – ipso facto – close ties to the Kremlin. Fridman, to give but one example, serves on the board of directors of the Netherlands-based telecom company VEON (previously VimpelCom), which recently settled for an unprecedented $835 million after facing US and Dutch corruption charges. Fuks is a different story. After a row with the Russian authorities in 2014, he decided to relocate his main assets to Ukraine and is now a persona non grata in the Russian Federation. It should also be noted that all three, despite having been born in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, are perceived as“Russian” in Ukraine, due to the fact they amassed their capitals across the border. Among the main donors, only Pinchuk is considered to be a “home-grown” Ukrainian oligarch. Finally, it is safe to assume that, should the project be realized in its current dimensions, the lion’s share of funds will come from the billionaires Fridman and Khan rather than from the “mere” millionaires Fuks and Pinchuk.

The significance of Babyn Yar is not limited to Ukraine or the Jewish community. It is part of our shared European history. It’s part of the German guilt. And its memorialization matters to all Europeans. I call on the BYHMC Supervisory Board and Mr. Khrzhanovsky to bear these things in mind. An open, transparent discussion and well-considered treatment of the past are of vital importance for an institution like the BYHMC to fulfill its function in society. It must be absolutely certain that the legacy of Babyn Yar’s victims is in good hands. One way to reassure the public would be a renewed confession to the standards of the International Memorial Museums Charter. However, given the deep breach of trust, this will hardly suffice.

It is encouraging that Ukraine is finally making efforts to give Babyn Yar an appropriate place in public memory. It opens the opportunity to redeem the Soviet silence about the Holocaust, to reconcile the diverging narratives about the past in Ukraine, and to bridge the gap between the Ukrainian and the wider European memorialization discourse.

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