Memory of horror

29 April 2020, 10:21

The Holocaust was one of the worst horrors in human history. Babyn Yar in Kyiv was one of its most terrible episodes. It was also a tragedy with many dimensions. It was a place where Jews were killed and the memory of it was systematically distorted and stifled — not by the German Nazism that died after World War II, but by the Russian chauvinism that pierced through the entire soviet historical narrative.

Should we remember this horror? And are we able to forget it?

Our memories fluctuate between possible answers to these two questions. Sound pragmatism pushes us to say ‘no’ to the first question, yet sober realism also pushes us to say ‘no’ to the second one. We want to forget about the horror, but it is extremely difficult to do that. So, we should focus our greatest efforts on forgetting about the horror while realizing that these efforts are in vain? But isn’t that a profoundly wrong strategy for our own past? The horror of the past, however carefully forgotten, does not disappear. Instead, it will ruin our present and future. Memory of the past horrors does not safeguard the modern world from them, but it at least creates an opportunity to avoid them.

Or is it the opposite? Does constant reminding of the horrors entice us to recreate them? Human nature is weak and tends to romanticize crimes and mock goodwill. So, maybe we should try and forget about the horrors of the past?

We could answer ‘yes’ to this question and stop the debate. But who is entitled to make such decisions? The survivors of that horror, their direct descendants, those who were involved in that horror, or all humans? Do we have the right to privatize horror? Can we say that this is our horror, so what we do with it is our personal business? It would be so if the horror was not infections like a disease. I don’t need to tell others that I’m sick until I’m a risk to their health. But am I in the place to decide on this? Should I not consult with experts — doctors — about this?

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«Можем повторить» vs «Ніколи знову»[1]

Experts on the historical and socio-political horrors experienced by humans are humanity scholars — historians, philosophers, sociologists, psychologists etc. They do not simply have the right, but an obligation to enter the plagued barrack of history, yet they cannot stay in it. This is like in Plato’s allegory of the cave. According to Plato, a true thinker should peek beyond the cave of this world — on which wall we only see the shadows of ideas — in order to see the real light, then return to other people to bring that light to them. With the horrors of history, a scholar must plunge into the darkness of these horrors, see the ugly nature of crimes against humanity, leave that darkness without losing his mind, and find a way to tell other people about it in a way that safeguards them from repeating that horrible experience.

This is where we once again face the question: what if the account of horrors provokes new horrors? Some develop disgust for crimes from such accounts, while others develop a sadistic desire to repeat them. For example, the slogan of the contemporary Russian historical narrative about the horrors of WWII — “Можем повторить” or “We can do it again” — is horrible in itself. It does not just distort the memory of the dead, but it pays no mind to the present and the future of the generations to come. What do they want to do again? Have millions of people killed and disabled, cities ruined and grounds burned? By contrast, Ukraine’s slogan — “Ніколи знову!” or “Never again” — gives hope of a humane future where you want to live. For some, disgust for the crimes is a safeguard against them. In others, it awakens the thirst for revenge against the criminals. But who do we see as criminals? Those who fulfilled the criminal orders or those who gave them? What about those who watched the crimes silently, supporting them or even condemning them, but not daring to speak against them publicly? Here is where we face two fundamental questions once again. The first one is about collective responsibility. The second one is about the fairness of punishment and the difference between it and revenge. Both have at least two dimensions — moral and legal.

Evil that was not rooted out

“The moral code does not forbid hating murderers,” Yuri Andrukhovych wrote in Kyiv. Tear Substance, his article about the Maidan, referring to the Berkut fighters and other Ukrainian and Russian special services that went berserk and tortured and killed peaceful protesters. By the way, antisemitic sentiments were quite widespread in the Berkut — their website had many antisemitic publications during the Revolution of Dignity blaming the organization of Maidan on the Jews and calling to violence against them. It is not just the absurdity of these publications that is shocking; it is that the personnel of Ukrainian special services, built on the fragments of the soviet punitive system, were infected with the xenophobic virus of antisemitism. Almost 80 years after Babyn War, bastards were once again torturing and killing people in the middle of Kyiv, some using antisemitic slogans. That antisemitism was inherited not from German Nazis, but from Russian imperial chauvinists who built their tsarist or soviet empire on different forms of xenophobia. 

Kyiv memory

I ask myself over and over again: how was this possible in my native Kyiv? As I look for an answer, I feel personal accountability — even if I may have ended up among those killed by the antisemites in 2014, although I’m not a Jew. Our collective accountability is in that the horrible experience of Babyn Yar did not push us to take every effort to uproot all kinds of aggressive xenophobia in our society. This partly resulted from the fact that antisemitism and other forms of aggressive xenophobia were perceived as a sort of moral sickness by the people close to me, a self-explanatory evil that did not require additional condemnation because it was already condemned. The quintessential condemnation was the Nuremberg process that resulted in the moral and legal condemnation of Nazism and antisemitism as the typical element of it, as well as racism and other kinds of criminal xenophobia. 

The history of Babyn Yar is part of the unwritten history of many Kyivites. It so happened that the story of my family was closely intertwined with that of one Jewish family in Kyiv. We are close enough for me to call one of them brother, and he calls me the same. He is a very close person for me for a lifetime, my real brother. Our common history has one fragment. One of the first times that soviet TV showed episodes about Babyn Yar was in the 1970s. My Jewish brother, still a kid, was alone in the yard of his house in downtown Kyiv. His parents were at work, his grandmother went to a store leaving him by the building entrance with older women. These women were talking about what they saw on TV and he took is as reality — he was 5 and did not realize that this was the past. He thought that his mom and dad must have been taken away and his grandmother would not be coming back. When she appeared in the yard, he rushed to her, happy and in tears, and told her the story. “What were you doing?” she asked him. “I was sitting quietly and pretending I’m not a Jew.” We recount that horrible anecdote from generation to generation. While I’m not a Jew and I was born many years after WWII, this is something I will never get rid of — this is rooted in the history of my city, my family, something I will pass on to my daughter. This narrative of the horrible violence is rooted in our history and we cannot pretend that it never happened.

In this case, we cannot shed our collective accountability. Of course, accountability under law is only for those who committed these crimes and gave the respective orders. But we all have inherited moral accountability from the previous generations — not just for this happening during the occupation of our land by the German Nazis, but for the fact that these tragic events were not explored properly and were not a subject of massive discussion in society during the occupation of Ukraine by the soviet communists. The tragedy of Babyn Yar was admitted but it was also sidelined in the official doctrine of the communist propaganda. Anatoliy Kuznetsov’s Babi Yaroffers a good illustration of this official attitude: it was published in the Soviet Union after heavy censorship; the author managed to publish the full version in emigration. Why was it not published in full? Why the communist censorship fragmented the novel about the crimes of the German Nazism? Why did the author flee from the Soviet Union and only published it abroad? The official discourse of the soviet communists was anti-Nazi after all, so they should have widely discussed and radically condemned all crimes of Nazism without exception.

Instead, the memory of the Babyn Yar tragedy was kept by the Jewish and Ukrainian dissidents first and foremost as they felt the deep link between the Nazi and the communist totalitarian regimes. Ivan Dziuba’s speech to commemorate the Babyn Yarshootings in 1966 expressed this: it started with the moving words about our common tragedy of the Jewish and the Ukrainian people because the mass extermination of the Jews happened on Ukrainian land.

The memory that unites

Another reason whyBabyn Yar is our common tragedy is that the German Nazis killed both the Jews and the Ukrainians who dared speak publicly against them and oppose them in the occupied Kyiv and across Ukraine. Therefore, the street near Babyn Yar was named after Olena Teliha, a Ukrainian poet shot with her husband in February 1942. The exact date and place of their execution are unknown. But that does not matter because Babyn Yar is about pain in our hearts more than it is about a spot on the map. Another street was named after Oleh Olzhych, a Ukrainian poet and political activist who died in a Nazi concentration camp where he ended up for his anti-Nazi work. There are well-grounded suspicions that Gestapo was getting information about Ukrainian national resistance against German Nazism from soviet special services — this should also be studied well as this could point to the continuation of a conspiracy between some segments of soviet communists and German nazis even after Germany under Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in violation of the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. This could also give ground for new answers on why the official soviet narrative sidelined the tragedy of Babyn Yar.

We should admit that there were collaborators among Ukrainians and some were involved in the Babyn Yar executions. This is a painful element of our historical memory. We should learn to speak openly and honestly about this, while not forgetting the Ukrainian heroes who rose against two horrible political regimes — German Nazism and soviet communism. This is part of the overall anti-totalitarian development strategy for Ukraine, which is reflected in the law banning the propaganda of nazi and communist ideologies, among other things.

Babyn Yar as part of the Holocaust horrors is the tragedy of the Jewish people foremost, yet it is also a tragedy for all Kyivites, all citizens of Ukraine and all of humanity for different reasons. In our historical memory, we should represent all former and modern totalitarian and authoritarian regimes based on radicalright and left ideologies, the regimes that killed and are killing many people, as incarnations of radical evil.

Kyiv should turn from a crime scene into a scene for memory and commemoration of the killed. We must united all Ukrainian citizens with diverse ethnic backgrounds, political views and religions around common non-acceptance of any form of aggressive xenophobia and discrimination for ethnicity, religion or political views — unless these views are discriminating in nature, such as nazism, chauvinism or communism. Finally, we must show all peoples of the world how to remember about horror and prevent it from repeating once again.

Memory of a horror is poisonous when it breeds new horrors. Memory of a horror is healing when it makes repetition impossible.

By Vakhtang Kebuladze



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[1]“Mozhem povtorit” means “We can do this again” in Russian. It is a slogan used lately in Russia with regard to the war against Ukraine and with references to the soviet march towards Berlin during WWII, often used around May 9 celebrations. “Nikoly znovy” means “Never again” in Ukrainian, a slogan increasingly used in Ukraine to commemorate WWII and other atrocities, especially after Ukraine shifted to commemorating WWII on May 8 from celebrating soviet-style Victory Day on May 9.

Translated by Anna Korbut

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