‘Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar’ – but for how long?
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‘Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar’ – but for how long?

“No monument stands over Babi Yar,” wrote Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961 about the ravine in Ukraine where, between Sept. 29 and 30, 1941, the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators shot to death some 100,000 people, more than 30,000 of them Jews.

Eventually, at the last gasp of the Soviet Union, a monument was indeed erected at the site – three plaques in Russian, Ukrainian, and Yiddish, below a towering sculpture of agonized bodies. I stood there in 1989 and placed a rose on the Yiddish plaque in memory of my great-aunt, who was murdered there.

Other monuments were raised nearby in subsequent years – but now, Yevtushenko’s poem may ring true again – no monument but a hotel to accommodate sports-lovers expected to come in droves to the 2012 European soccer championships.

Surely, if the Ukrainians care nothing for dead Jews (they do not seem to have cared for live Jews, either), they should care about the other victims – Soviet prisoners of war, members of the Ukrainian resistance, Communists, Gypsies, the mentally disabled.

In 2006, Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko was quoted as saying “Babi Yar will get the status of a reserve and a museum to the Babi Yar victims will be built there.”

The Ukrainians seem to have short-term memory loss.

Meanwhile, here is a translaton, by Ben Okopnik, of the Yevtushenko poem:

Babi Yar

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 Belostok.

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 anti-Semites 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,

But much is still allowed – very gently

In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

“They come!”

“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 judgment.

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 anti-Semites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,

But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive

Am I by anti-Semites like a Jew.

And that is why I call myself a Russian!

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