Friday, March 24, 2006

Babi Yar

On a cold and quiet Friday night, I am listening to one of the most remarkable pieces of music ever written, the Symphony No 13 "Babi Yar" by Dmitri Shostakovich. Written in 1962 it sets a remarkable series of poems by Yvgeny Yevtushenko one of which, "Babi Yar", describes the massacre of Jews in Kiev in 1941.

After invading the Soviet Union, the German army reached Kiev in September 1941. On September 24, five days after the Germans captured Kiev, a bomb destroyed the German headquarters. The shocked and angry Germans cordoned off the area and gathered people in the vicinity as suspects. Then another nearby building exploded. For days, bombs exploded in buildings throughout central Kiev, killing both Germans and locals. Declaring the bombings the work of Jews, the Nazis retaliated against the Jewish population of Kiev.

On September 28,a notice was posted:

"All Jews living in the city of Kiev and its vicinity are to report by 8 o'clock on the morning of Monday, September 29th, 1941, at the corner of Melnikovsky and Dokhturov Streets (near the cemetery). They are to take with them documents, money, valuables, as well as warm clothes, underwear, etc.

Any Jew not carrying out this instruction and who is found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilian entering flats evacuated by Jews and stealing property will be shot."

Most thought this notice meant the Jews were being deported. On the morning of September 29, it is said virtually every Jew in Kiev came to the appointed location.

At a gate, only a few people at a time were allowed to go in. Soon machine gun fire could be heard. Far too late, the Jews realized they were trapped and doomed. Taken from the front of the line in groups of ten, they were run along a gauntlet formed by rows of soldiers. The soldiers savagely beat the Jews as they passed. A witness reported:

"The soldiers kept shouting: "Schnell, schnell!" laughing happily, as if they were watching a circus act; they even found ways of delivering harder blows in the more vulnerable places, the ribs, the stomach and the groin.

Screaming and crying, the Jews exited the corridor of soldiers onto a field, here they left their clothes and all their belongings. Those who resisted had their clothes ripped off them by force."

In small groups of ten, the Jews were taken along the edge of the ravine called Babi Yar. One of the very few survivors remembers she "looked down and her head swam, she seemed to be so high up. Beneath her was a sea of bodies covered in blood."

Once the Jews were lined up, they were shot and their bodies, some still living, fell in to the ravine. Then the next group....

Shotakovich bravely set the poem by Yevtushenko as a memorial to the Jews and as a step in parting the vail the Soviets had placed over their indifference to Nazi atrocities in their own country. The poem was widely circulated with Yevtushenko making the cover of "Time" magazine. But the Soviets had Yevtushenko (and thus Shostakovich) add a line to the poem declaring that the atrocities were against Soviet citizens, not specifically acknowledging the genocide of the Jews.

Shostakovich's symphony was almost scuttled by Nikita Khrushchev, who tried to stop its performance. The premiere went ahead to great acclaim. The work was gleefully presented in the west as a symbol of Soviet protest. However, after the furor died down, the work was infrequently performed.

Not light music, but an incredible statement and a fitting memorial to over 100,000 Jews, gypsies and their supporters who died at Babi Yar.

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