Remember Babi Yar – ‘Art Destroys Silence’

‘Babi Yar’ -Yevgeny Yevtushenko (born 1933)

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko’s poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence.

‘Testimony-The Memoirs of Dimitri Shostakovich,’ ( edited by Solomon Volkov) ,1979.

Painting of Babi Yar by Shalom Goldberg, Spertus Museum, Chicago, Illinois

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Babi Yar, a ravine by Kiev, was the site of a particular horrendous massacre of some 33,000 Jews on 29th September -30th September 1941 at the hand of the Nazi killing unit, Einzsatsgruppen: The Babi Yar Memorial Centre maintains that 120,000 people were shot by the Germans and their allies. Those who died included ” Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, mental patients, civilians of Roma, Russian and Ukrainian origin.”

The atrocity was immortalised by Shostakovich’s 13th symphony in B flat minor, opus 113, completed in 1962, which opened with a musical setting of the poem ‘Babi Yar’ by Yevgeny Yevtushenko . This poem was first published in Soviet journal ‘ Literaturania Gazeta’ in 1961.

The Soviet Union had seen a wave of anti-Jewish feeling instigated by Stalin in 1952- 1953. Yevtushenko’s poem presented the massacre of 29th September -30th September 1941 as the culmination of antisemitism generally, and referenced anti- Jewish feeling amongst Russian people. The poem opens with a protest that ” No monument stands over Babi Yar/A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.”

Although more cultural expression was permitted under Kruschev , the first performances of the 13th sympathy were placed under immense scrutiny by the Soviet authorities. Two performances, on 1st December and 3rd December 1962 went ahead at the Moscow conservatory. Yevtushenko soon had to rewrite parts of the poem ( that were being performed as part of the symphony ) as it was felt that not enough emphasis was placed on the non-Jewish people who were killed at Babi Yar. One revised verse read

“I think of Russia’s heroic deed
In blocking the way to fascism,
To the smallest dewdrop, she is close to me
In her very being and her fate.”

( Source ‘The New Shostakovich’, Ian MacDonald. 2006 edition)

The combination of the poem and the symphony , particularly as Shostakovich was well known outside the Soviet Union, helped to highlight Babi-Yar. The massacre was also a setting for a scene in the famous 1978 US television series ‘Holocaust’ . Memorials to the victims have now been placed in different parts of Europe and North America.

The treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union was to remain a major human rights concern during the Cold War, and beyond. Yet the collaboration between Shostakovich and Yevtushenko over ‘Babi Yar’ has made quite an impact :

“No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“They come!”
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian”

Benjamin Opoknik translation

Babi Yar holocaust memorial centre

Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading Babi Yar in English

Shostakovich 13th Symphony

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