The Holocaust Memorial Undone by Another War – The New Yorker

Posted By on April 16, 2022

That wall is beyond critique, Petrovsky-Shtern, the Northwestern history professor, said. Whatever is done there needs to be modest, a noninvasive way of connecting all these sorrows.

The difference between Khrzhanovskys showy approach and more conventional ways of memorializing the Holocaust goes beyond issues of dignity and taste. The primary purpose of most Holocaust memorials is to document the names and the fates of the victims, the customs and the traditions of the lost world, and to convey the scale of the tragedy. For Khrzhanovsky, this is only a part of the project. Early in his time in Kyiv, he shared a slide presentation with his staff and investors which leaked to Ukrainian media. It included references to building a labyrinth of narrow dark corridors with an interactive exhibit; it would be enhanced by facial-recognition technology that would chart a separate path for every visitor. The ideas were not wholly unrelated to existing Holocaust memorials: the main exhibit space of Yad Vashem is built to feel claustrophobic; the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in Berlin, features rows of hundreds of concrete slabs that lean in, creating a narrowing and darkening path; and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in Washington, D.C., encourages its youngest visitors to identify with a composite character named Daniel. But Khrzhanovskys leaked presentation gave rise to fears that he was going to create some kind of Holocaust theme park. (He later explained that the presentation contained results of a brainstorming session, and not anything near the final blueprint.)

Khrzhanovsky collaborated with Patrick Desbois, a French Catholic priest whose title at Georgetown University is professor of the practice of the forensic study of the Holocaust. Desbois, who wrote the book The Holocaust by Bullets, led the scientific committee for the Babyn Yar project, which he called a historical and anthropological revolutionthe first museum to mark the site of a genocidal massacre. Normally, we build countries on mass graves, he told me over Zoom from Georgetown. Where is the museum of the mass graves in Darfur? Who is going to visit the museum of the destruction of Native Americans in Costa Rica?

Desbois shared Khrzhanovskys commitment to re-creating the context and the circumstances of the Babyn Yar massacre in every possible detail, including the inhabitants of what Primo Levi called the gray zonethe unwilling or unthinking assistants to the perpetrators. (Desbois found testimony from a man who had delivered sandwiches to the executioners.) Most of all, Desbois wanted to identify all the perpetrators: The victims were not killed by a storm or a tsunami. Every one of them was shot by someone. The hangings of some of the executioners, in Kyiv in 1946, were followed by a few other trials and punishments. In 1951, Paul Blobel, who had directed the mass executions in Ukraine, was hanged in Germany. Eleven more executioners were tried in Germany in 1967; they had long since returned to civilian lifeone worked as a salesman and another as a bank director. A fourth trial, of three men, occurred in 1971. But most of the Babyn Yar executioners never faced justice.

I want to restablish the responsibility of humans for mass crimes, Desbois said. Unlike the annihilation of millions in death camps, mass murder by bullets still happens all the time, and usually goes unpunished.

When I told acquaintances in Kyiv that I was writing about the project at Babyn Yar, they sighed, rolled their eyes, or laughed uncomfortably. No one, it seemed, trusted the projectpartly because it was privately funded, partly because it was directed by Khrzhanovsky, but most of all because of Russia. The projects most outspoken opponent was Josef Zissels, a seventy-five-year-old former dissident and a leader of Ukraines Jewish community. I met with him in January at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, one of Ukraines largest and oldest universities, where he runs the Jewish-studies center. His primary objection to the project, he said, came from the sense that Putin and his imperial agenda were the forces behind it. Although all four of the rich men who were bankrolling the memorial were Jews who were born in Ukraine, they had benefitted from their connections to Russia, and three of them had carried Russian passports at some point. Its hybrid warfare, Zissels said. They are trying to foist memory thats not our memory.

He talked about what Ukrainians and some Russians call pobedobesiye (literally, victory mania), which forms the foundational historical myth and the central public ritual of Putins Russia. Every year, the Soviet victory in the Second World War is celebrated with greater fanfare and bigger fireworks, military parades, and renactments. For months leading up to May9th, when the country celebrates Victory Day, Russians wear orange-and-black commemorative ribbons on their clothes and bags. The especially zealous decorate their vehicles with slogans such as Onward to Berlin or 1941-1945. We could do it again. One popular decal features two stick figures in the act of anal intercourse; the top has a hammer and sickle for a head, the bottom a swastika.

The Russian memory project is explicitly anti-Western. What the world calls the Second World War, Russia calls the Great Patriotic War. What for most of the world began on September 1, 1939, for Russia started on June22, 1941, when the non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin ended and the war between the two countries began. The U.K., the U.S., France, and many other Allied countries look back on the war with a sense of both tragedy and victory, but the triumphalism in Russia is more pronounced. Now Russian leaders brand real or imagined challengers to their power as Nazis.

Some critics suspected that Khrzhanovskys project, in keeping with Russian propaganda that increasingly labelled Ukrainians as Nazis, would focus on local collaborators in war crimes. In 2021, Sergei Loznitsa, one of the best-known Ukrainian directors, made a documentary, Babi Yar. Context, under the auspices of the memorial center; other members of the Ukrainian film community charged that the movie was filled with the narrative accusing... the people of Ukraine of collaboration in the mass killings of the Jewish population. In fact, Babi Yar. Context, which employs footage shot by German and Soviet propagandists, does not address the question of collaborators.

I spent many days talking with members of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center team and combing through the materials they had produced. I encountered occasional pockets of ignorance, primarily on matters of Soviet Jewish history, but didnt see any indication that the project or its funders were promoting a Russia-centric, much less a Putin-style, narrative. Few on the team had been educated in Russia or had lived there for a significant amount of time. Khrzhanovsky had spent the majority of the past two decades in Kharkiv and London.

Fridman told me, I expected that wed encounter resistance, but I never thought wed be called agents of the Kremlin. He was born in Lviv. Both of his grandmothers were from Kyiv and had been lucky to leave Ukraine in 1941 with their children. Fridmans great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust; Fuks, Khan, and Pinchuk had lost relatives, too. At least seven of Khans family members were killed at Babyn Yar. (Khrzhanovskys maternal grandmother, too, fled Ukraine in 1941.) Sure, the funders of the memorial had made their money in Russiait was a good place to do businessbut they had complicated relationships with the country. Several years ago, Fuks renounced his Russian citizenship.

I asked Zissels what aspects of Khrzhanovskys project reflected the Kremlins historical narrative. I cant prove it, he said. But I can feel it. The apprehension, it seems, was a fear of contagion. The problem with Putins revisionist history is not just the centrality of the Soviet Union and Soviet military glory; its that, like all Russian propaganda, it intentionally sows chaos. The effect is to produce a preferred historical narrative and a sense of nihilisma consensus that good and evil are indistinguishable, that nothing is true and everything is possible. This was what made it hard for so many Ukrainians to trust a project funded by people who still did business in Russia. Khrzhanovskys avowed obsession with the nature of evil, his willingness to examine it at close range, only fed the distrust.

Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. A few days later, Khrzhanovsky was on the phone with Anna Furman, who had been in charge of compiling the list of victims at Babyn Yar. Khrzhanovsky was begging: Anechka, you know how this goes. Please take your mother and leave. Furman and her mother ended up going to western Ukraine, as did a few other staff members; still others left for Poland. Shovenko, the artistic director, and Didenko, Khrzhanovskys assistant, surprised everyone by announcing that they were getting married. After a small ceremony (Khrzhanovsky attended via Zoom), Didenko went to Lviv, and Shovenko reported for duty with the Ukrainian Army.

Khrzhanovsky used to say, Babyn Yar is not in the pastit is now. But he didnt realize that now meant now. He is no longer surprised that so many Ukrainians were suspicious of his work on the memorial. When I came to Kyiv, I knew that Putin was a scumbag, that the Donbas was at war, that his troops were helping fight it, but I didnt realize the extent of it, and the Ukrainians did, he told me from London in March. The memorial center has reoriented itself toward helping Ukrainians flee to safety, starting with Holocaust survivors, other elderly people, and the disabled. Its clear that there wont be a Babyn Yar memorial the way we envisioned it, Pinchuk told me in late March, from his home in London.

Fridman was one of the super-rich Russians to be sanctioned in response to the war, initially by the European Union and then by the United Kingdom. He complained to the media that the sanctions were unfair, but he resigned from the memorial center. Days later, the E.U. sanctioned Khan, and he, too, resigned. That left Pinchuk. On my computer screen, a month into the war, he still looked and sounded shocked. This is just beyond, beyond, he said. It was impossible to imagine. Its genocide. He told me that he was focussing his time and money trying to get military equipment and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Desboiss Ukrainian team of six researchers of mass murder were now interviewing victims and witnesses of new Russian war crimes. By the first week of April, they had completed thirty-seven investigations in Bucha, Mariupol, Irpin, Kherson, and Kharkiv. The day before Desbois and I spoke, the team had interviewed a young Ukrainian man who had been tortured by Russian troops for three days. The Russians had demanded that he confess to being a Nazi.

See original here:

The Holocaust Memorial Undone by Another War - The New Yorker

Related Posts


Comments are closed.

matomo tracker