Babi Yar was part of a pattern
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Babi Yar was part of a pattern

New Jersey high schools to highlight horrific massacre on 70th anniversary

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Paul Winkler will remind New Jersey educators about Babi Yar lesson.

Seventy years ago this week, 33,771 Jews were murdered in Babi Yar, near Kiev. According to scholars, the event – commemorated so eloquently in poetry and song – was only one of many such actions taking place throughout that region at the time.

“Despite its singular horrific nature, it has to be seen in the context of Germany’s overall war against the Jews,” says Michael Riff, director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Ramapo College.

Still, Riff acknowledged that Babi Yar holds a special place in our memories, given the “sheer number” of Jews killed during the massacre.

This week in Israel, memorials included a wreath-laying ceremony in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem – done in partnership with the Association of Ukrainian Immigrants in Israel – as well as a special memorial concert, “Requiem for Babi Yar,” at the Jerusalem Theater.

In addition, the first-ever educator’s seminar for Ukrainian graduates of Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies was held in Kiev itself, focusing on the Holocaust in the Ukrainian collective memory, according to a statement from Yad Vashem.

Riff pointed out that while the Babi Yar massacre was a horrible event, “The horror of it all was already taking place. Jews were being killed on an unprecedented scale in areas of the Soviet Union occupied by Nazi Germany. That is the big story.”

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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!

<p>- An excerpt from Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar,” published 50 years ago.

Paul B. Winkler, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education, said the story of Babi Yar is presented in the curriculum designed for the state’s high schools. Since this year marks the 70th anniversary of the event, he intends to send a note to educators reminding them that “this might be a time to use that lesson” when they begin teaching about the Holocaust and genocide.

According to its website, the commission, which promotes Holocaust education in New Jersey, not only designs educational materials, but promotes their implementation throughout the state.

“We teach about [Babi Yar] in the same vein in which we teach about other destructions that took place,” he said. “It’s separate only in the sense that this happened not in Germany or Poland, but outside. It showed the tentacles moving further and further away from the center of Berlin.”

Riff said that while “the machinery of death was at its horrible climax in the concentration camps and killing centers,” research shows that many people were killed in massacres such as those at Babi Yar, through the actions of German units on the eastern front.

“It didn’t just start with the invasion of the Soviet Union,” he said, but had already begun with the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Riff suggested that one reason Babi Yar has captured our imagination is its portrayal in popular media.

“A lot of it has to do with the poem [“Babi Yar”] by [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko,” he said, referring to the poem published 50 years ago in Russian and five other languages. In addition, the depiction of the massacre in the television miniseries “Holocaust” was one “that no-one can ever forget. You want to put it out of your mind, but you can’t. And that was the most influential piece of media on the Holocaust.” [The four-part miniseries was broadcast on NBC in 1978.]

He noted that since 1980, Ramapo College has expanded its opportunities for students to learn about such events through a minor in human rights and genocide studies, with classes taken at the Holocaust Center. He estimated that he teaches about 100 students a year. In addition, he trains dozens of educators twice a year in teaching about the Holocaust.

“We teach them to put it in context,” he said. “People think everything occurred in Auschwitz, Sobibor, etc. But [the killing] took place on an unimaginable scale on the eastern front.”

Riff pointed out that the Ramapo College choir performs at many events commemorating the Holocaust, particularly gatherings marking Kristallnacht and Yom Hashoah. He noted that the Holocaust Center has worked for many years with Mahwah’s Beth Haverim – Shir Shalom in sponsoring such events.

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