Babii Yar

History, Literature

Today is the anniversary of the massacre in 1941 at Babii Yar, near Kiev. Here is a poem by Yevgeny Yevtushenko about the event. I especially like the italicized lines (mine), about the monuments that nature builds when societies refuse to acknowledge the history in their midst. It reminds me of the poetry of Night and Fog. I am not too keen on the line about the Philistines” considering where that sort of thing has led us, but the poem is worth reading nonetheless.

Babii Yar No monument stands over Babii Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid. Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people. Now I seem to be a Jew. Here I plod through ancient Egypt. Here I perish crucified, on the cross, and to this day I bear the scars of nails. I seem to be Dreyfus. The Philistine is both informer and judge. I am behind bars. Beset on every side. Hounded, spat on, slandered. Squealing, dainty ladies in flounced Brussels lace stick their parasols into my face. I seem to be then a young boy in Byelostok. Blood runs, spilling over the floors. The bar-room rabble-rousers give off a stench of vodka and onion. A boot kicks me aside, helpless. In vain I plead with these pogrom bullies. While they jeer and shout, Beat the Yids. Save Russia!” some grain-marketeer beats up my mother. O my Russian people! I know you are international to the core. But those with unclean hands have often made a jingle of your purest name. I know the goodness of my land. How vile these antisemites– without a qualm they pompously called themselves The Union of the Russian People”! I seem to be Anne Frank transparent as a branch in April. And I love. And have no need of phrases. My need is that we gaze into each other. How little we can see or smell! We are denied the leaves, we are denied the sky. Yet we can do so much– tenderly embrace each other in a dark room. They’re coming here? Be not afraid. those are the booming sounds of spring: spring is coming here. Come then to me. Quick, give me your lips. Are they smashing down the door? No, it’s the ice breaking… The wild grasses rustle over Babii Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges. Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning gray. And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here. I am each old man here shot dead. I am every child here shot dead. Nothing in me shall ever forget! The Internationale”, let it thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried forever. In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian! (Translated by George Reavey)

About 30,000 Jews were killed over a period of 48 hours in the ravine of Babii Yar, and later 60,000 Roma, Soviet POWs and other undesirables” were slaughtered at the same spot.

I suppose the poem could work just as well for Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002.