Vladimir Putin and his Russian henchmen have no heart. That’s obvious as we watch their naked aggression against the Ukrainian people and their wanton murder of innocent women, men, and children.
This week Putin’s sins were compounded when his military bombed a sacred World War II memorial site at Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv where on two days in late September of 1941 the Nazis marched 33,000 Jews to this site and shot them dead.
The Soviet-Russian poet Yevgeny Aleksándrovich Yevtushenko (1932-2017) published a poem called “Babi Yar” in 1961 as a protest against the former Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar as a national Ukrainian memorial site.
I visited Babi Yar in the late 1990s and there were, at the time, two memorials at the site. The first was a national memorial for Ukrainians killed there but without mention of the murder of Kyiv’s Jewish community. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Kyiv Jewish community erected a large menorah and set it closer to the actual ravine where the shootings took place as the Jewish memorial for those 33,000 lost Jewish souls.
I first read this poem during the famed Leningrad Trials in December of 1970 when eleven Jews sought to take a small plane out of the Soviet Union but were stopped at the airport, arrested by Soviet authorities, accused and tried for high treason. On December 24, 1970 a Soviet court convicted them all. Two of the leaders were sentenced to death and the rest to years of hard labor. Only as a consequence of protest first by the international Jewish community and then by the Congress of the United States were the death penalties set aside. Eventually all those convicted were freed. The Leningrad Trials galvanized the American Jewish community in support of Soviet Jews in an effort to call the world’s attention to what Elie Wiesel called “The Jews of Silence” in his book published in 1966.
Putin’s irreverent bombing this week of the Babi Yar memorial is yet one more example of his heartlessness and disrespect for the dead. Senator John McCain put it right years ago when he said, “When I look in the eyes of Putin, I see the KGB.”
I offer below that poem that so moved me 52 years ago. Its message holds true today.
“Babi Yar” by Yevgeny Aleksándrovich Yevtushenko – Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, October, 1996
No monument stands over Babi Yar. / A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone. / I am afraid. / Today, I am as old / As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite. / I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt / And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured / And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. / The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge. / I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped, / I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and / The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills / Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Bialystok / Blood spills, and runs upon the floors, / The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded / And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left, / In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom, / To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!” / My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you / Are international, by inner nature. / But often those whose hands are steeped in filth / Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land. / How vile, that without the slightest quiver / The antisemites have proclaimed themselves / The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank, / Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April, / And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases, / But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes. / How little one can see, or even sense! / Leaves are forbidden, so is sky, / In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
“No, fear not – those are sounds / Of spring itself. She’s coming soon. / Quickly, your lips!”
“They break the door!”
“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar, / The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement. / Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand, / I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream / Above the thousands of thousands interred, / I’m every old man executed here, / As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this. / May “Internationale” thunder and ring / When, for all time, is buried and forgotten / The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine, / But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive / Am I by antisemites like a Jew. / And that is why I call myself a Russian!
For those wishing to help the Jews of Ukraine in this crisis, I recommend sending contributions to the World Union for Progressive Judaism (the international Reform movement) website at https://wupj.org/give/ukraine/
This blog is also posted at the Times of Israel – https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/babi-yar-by-yevgeny-aleksandrovich-yevtushenko/