Visualizing the memory Multicultural tragedy embodied in Babi Yar Memorial (Kyiv, Ukraine)

I am Ukrainian and for my culture, Babi Yar is a place deeply associated with Holocaust. Located in the very heart of of capital city - Kyiv, this place creates the memory of shocking events that happened here during Second World War. Babi Yar is intimately contextual space. Including various vintage and modern elements that carry out the story behind through visual entities, this memorial creates homogeneous contested space supported by existing relationship between the objects within. Propen (2012) defines such places as heterotopias. Local landscape, buildings, historical markers, artifacts, socio-historical background, all that work with and against each other to represent specific moments of Babi Yar history.

Babi Yar - the Story behind the Place...

The German army took over Kyiv on September 19, 1941 and special SS squads prepared to carry out Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s orders to exterminate all Jews and Soviet officials found there. Beginning on September 29t, around 33,771 Jews were marched in small groups to the Babi Yar ravine to the north of the city, ordered to strip naked, and then machine-gunned into the ravine. The massacre ended on September 30, and the dead and wounded alike were covered over with dirt and rock.

Between 1941 and 1943, thousands of Jews, Ukrainians, checks, Byelorussians, Soviet officials, and Russian prisoners of war were executed at the Babi Yar ravine in a similar manner. As the German armies retreated from the USSR, the Nazis attempted to hide evidence of the mass killings by burning them in large stoves of the concentration camp. 18 eyewitnesses who survived from the camp, however, attest to the atrocities at Babi Yar, which became a symbol of suffering in the Holocaust for the representatives of different cultures (Pronicheva, 2017; Vinogradov, 2016).

Nowadays there is a memorial park at this place with several structures which serve as reminders about the events happened at the site during Nazi occupation. The first monument you can see approaching to the entrance of the park is the monument to Olena Teliga, famous Ukrainian poet was killed by Nazis during time of German occupation of Kyiv. The monument was installed in February, 2017.

The next statue you see as you explore the site, is the monument to Soviet soldiers and officers killed at Babi Yar. Due to political reasons, Soviets did not disclose the information on mass executions of Jews in Babi Yar, so the information on Holocaust during Soviet times was not easily available (Vinogradov, 2016). Established in 1976, this historical marker does not project any national or cultural differentiation but rather represents "official" loss recognized by established civic entity. The front portion of the statue projects young, strong men ready to defend their Motherland and a woman in a grief, who can be seen as symbol of broken motherhood.

The rare perspective of the monument represents naked bodies of young men in different postures, symbolizing the sufferings and burden Soviet people had to carry during time of war. As Sanford Levinson mentioned earlier about the moment that can be "written in stone" (Nicoletti, 2008), this monument, however, projects not just the moment, but the whole life of the country at the times of Second World II. This massive monument is deeply contextual and emotional. Made in the traditions of classic Soviet architectural monumentalism, it looks dynamic and diverse as human memory and experience depicted by it. Made of granite, the human crowd looks falling down from its pedestal under the pressure of Nazi occupation. For those, who are aware of Jewish massacre, naked bodies certainly attach additional symbolic value to this marker.

As Loewen mentioned, "Who controls the present controls the landscape. Who controls the landscape controls the future" (Nicoletti, 2008), this monument not only focus audience's attention on the tragedy of one group but also redirect us from recognizing others (Jews), serving as an example of propaganda.

Next monument will touch everybody’s feelings. “Kids and broken forever toys”, this statue composed of bronze personifies little girl with stretched hands. She looks forward as if being in despair and searching for mom. the girl is surrounded by broken toys.

According to the history, up to 150 000 Jewish people were killed in Babi Yar. That number does not include kids under 3 years old, whom nobody registered. Nazis often grudged for bullets for children and killed them with sticks or buried alive. Very few kids survived that tragedy. The monument was installed in 2001

Informational alley in the very center of the park gives audience a lot of historical facts revealing terrible crime against Jews, roms, Russians, Ukrainians, Checks during Second World War. Visual artifacts include pictures of the execution process and concentration camp sceneries, photos of people, who were killed at Babi Yar in 1941-1943.

A bit aside from informational alley there is another marker – Gipsy cart made of bronze. It is installed to the memory of roms, who were killed at this place. According to historians, roms, or another name for this culture - gypsies , became first victims of Babi Yar – 22-24th of September 1941 five camping-grounds of gypsies were shot in Babi Yar. In addition to identity-shaping function, this monument also creates cultural memory. The audience is empowered not only to remember, but to remember in a certain perspective, constructed by designers and ideologists of the site.

Nicoletti (2008) observes, that memorials situated in a protected space often add to the idealization of the historical moment. Very deep in Babi Yar park, you can find Menorah monument, hidden from occasional visitors. Composed of bronze on granite pedestal, the monument was created and installed in 1991 by Jewish community .

Menorah monument is an example of unofficial monument created by ordinary citizens.

Why Menorah?

Menorah is one of the oldest Jewish faith symbols. It represents a seven-branched candelabrum used in Temple. By legend, God came to Moses and asked him to create golden menorah and gave him all the instructions how to make and decorate it. But the task seemed to be very hard for Moses and God had to make golden candelabrum by himself. For centuries menorah used to be a symbol of renaissance of Israel nation with its mission to be “a light unto the nations”. From the other perspective menorah is often seen as a symbolic tree with its roots up. Historians say that it looks similar to sages growing in Israel. Sages emphasizes that light is not a violent force and Israel is to accomplish its mission by an example, not by using force. This idea is highlighted in Zechariah 4:1-6. Zechariah sees a menorah and explains: “Not by might, nor by power, but my spirit”
The three central branches of menorah have an engraving of a bird with open wings and an eye looking straight forward. The eye can often be found on the memorials as representations of victimization. it may be seen as a symbol of spirit or soul, and serve as a reminder to the audience that soul is immortal. Below the bird we can see Bible scene “Sacrifice of Abraham” engraved in bronze. Jewish people who are considered as God's children in Judaism, are depicted here as a victim that has been sacrificed during World War II. All other parts of the monument are decorated by faceless human beings of different age, some of them are with stretched hands as if they are looking for help or are in despair. The scene serves as personification of different generations of murdered Jews, their unidentified faces represent Jewish nation as a whole.

Menorah monument here commemorates the abstract loss and sacrifice of Jews due to collective destructive behavior of Nazi occupants. Gregory Ulmer developed the theory of repulsive monuments that can be applied to the majority of Holocaust memorials in general and Menorah monument in particular. Within the framework, monuments are seen as repulsive when they memorialize the abject losses caused by collective behavior and recognize that losses as sacred. By admitting and honoring such losses we are able to recreate own identities and values. "Repulsive monuments treat abject losses as sacrifices on behalf of collective well-being "(Mauer&Venecek, 2016). Menorah as a repulsive monument projects has power not only to point on our, human responsibility for that losses, but also persuade the audience to transform the depressive content into idolatry object.

It is important to mention that since the time of Menorah installation in 1991, the monument was vandalized multiple times due to specific local political and ideological attitude to Jews. Bronze Menorah was covered with paint; the granite pedestal was broken and later renovated by Jewish community. The memorial plate initially set up by Israel prime minister had to be removed because of continuous vandalism attempts (Vinogradov, 2016).

"and my pain is always in front of me" (....) Moshe Kacav, President of Israel 22.01.2001

Pictures of Menorah from different times show that at some point the monument was surrounded by black metal chain on posts, which served as a fence to protect this symbol of Jewish tragedy from further vandalism. Keeping in mind that human attitude is diverse and mutative explains the possibility of changes in design or structure of the monuments (Nicoletti, 2008). The metamorphosis with Menorah monument add to the conversation that Jewish drama did not finish in 1943 but have been continued years ahead.

The history of menorah monument and its evolution with time resonates with Erika Doss', art historian, opinion on theories of memory. She pointed that "sites of memory exist because of their capacity for metamorphosis... Sites of memory are, at their core, sites of struggle, with stakes in larger cultural struggles over national collective identity" (Nicoletti, 2008)

Babi yar as a complex of visual-rhetoric artifacts and various context allows audience to connect space, place and individual bodily experience into a heterotopic space we live in. Through the story it tells, the memorial functions as a timeline connecting its history to the audience. Visual objects promote our understanding of the importance of historical, social, cultural contexts in relation to collective memory and how all these elements shape the meaning of heterotopia. From the material rhetoric perspective, audience is empowed to explore how individual, bodily experience of those connected to Babi Yar have influenced the shaping of spacious history. As a result, through the use of visual and textual objects, each fragment of Babi Yar serves to commemorate abject drama of certain human group, and Memorial as a whole presents the story that took place during that time period by creating visual unity and coherence for its audience, both past and present.


Created by Olena Simmons, MA English - TAMUCC, 2017

Credits:, Salay G.

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