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No monument stands over Babi Yar

05/05/17 15:09:08


I can still remember the first time I read the poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (read poem here). It moved my adolescent heart, it grabbed my attention, it took my thoughts down paths of terror, sorrow and admiration. I’m referring to the poem, Babi Yar, that the Russian poet wrote in 1961, in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to recognise this place (in Kiev) as site of the mass-murder of 33,000 Jews in 1941. (Some 75,000 Jews and countless others were killed here by the Nazis).

This was not the first poem about the 1941 atrocity; eyewitness Lyudmila Titova, a young Jewish Ukrainian poet from Kiev wrote a poem by the same title – it was only discovered in the 1990’s. Shortly after the massacre there was a manuscript poem by Ilya Selvinsky called ‘I saw it’ and subsequently several other poems were published. Shoshtakovich based his 13th Symphony on Yevtushenko’s poem.

What made Yevtushenko’s poem so significant was the fact that this leading Russian poet was able to challenge the code of silence (he published the poem in a mainstream Russian periodical). Until then the Soviet Union had successfully repressed the history of some Nazi atrocities and especially those against the Jews. The history of this massacre was lost in the fog of the Cold War.

Yevtushenko (who died recently) said he wrote the poem after visiting the site and discovering there was no sign, tombstone or historical marker… “I was so shocked”, he said. “I was absolutely shocked when I saw it, that people didn’t keep a memory about it”. It took him two hours to write the poem that begins: “No monument stands over Babi Yar. A drop as sheer as a crude gravestone, I’m afraid”.

What moved my young heart about this poem was not only the fact that here was a courageous young non-Jewish dissident identifying with us Jews, but also the sheer power of his words. Yevtushenko described his poetry as “human rights poetry; the poetry which defends human conscience as the greatest spiritual value”. And there is a deep spirit that energises his words in this poem; they hover like “the darkness upon the surface of the deep” (Genesis 1:2); they enlighten like “the Divine presence on the surface of the waters” (Ibid) They cry out “Let there be Light” (Ibid:3).

What makes this poem so profound is its haunting simplicity; its' accessibility. From Yevtushenko I learnt that poetry need not be abstract and allusive but can be direct and colloquial. Ever since, I have striven to write poetry in that same deceptively conversational tone. In the poem Yevgeny uses the first person narrative to identify with the victims of antisemitism: “I am Dreyfus” or “Anne Frank, I am she” and “I bear the red marks of nails”. What makes this poem so enduring and contemporary is that it directly confronts the phenomenon of distorting truth and memory. It challenges not only the Soviet Union but Putin and all authoritarian leaders today who repress memory and change history.

The message is not only about the horrors of the Holocaust that took place in the U.S.S.R, often with the complicity of the locals, but also the tragic travesty that humanity has not learned from the past. The poet thus reminds the Russian people about the Bialystok boy murdered by ordinary Russians; he charges us all to recall how hatred shatters the human soul.

Yevtushenko taps deep into the Jewish principle of memory, זכרון. Memory is imprinted in our DNA; we remember, therefore we are Jewish. As Jewish scholar Yerushalmi famously pointed out “Zachor” is one of the most repeated words in the Tanach. We remember the shattering moment of Creation, we memorialise Egypt, we recall the stupendous hatred of Amalek, the sad folly of Miriam. Last week we reflected on Yom Hashoah, this week we went into the core of the State of Israel’s memory; Yom Hazikaron.

On a prosaic level we need to preserve family as well as institutional history; to lovingly recall where we came from and to respectfully record the efforts of those who preceded us.

This weekend at Caulfield Shule we will be reminiscing on the achievements of our congregation and the triumphs of modern Israel. Join us to hear our guest, former Ambassador Daniel Taub speaking at shule and our Yom Haatzmaut Breakfast.

Chag Atzmaut Sameach

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Ralph       

Tue, 14 July 2020 22 Tammuz 5780