Israeli President Isaac Herzog delivered a speech at the official international ceremony marking 80 years since the notorious Babi Yar Massacre of Jewish civilians during World War Two by the Nazis and their collaborators.
By Erin Viner
33,771 Jews are estimated to have been murdered within 48 hours between the 29th and 30th of September 1941 and thrown into the Babyn Yar (as the site is known in Ukrainian) ravine in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv (sometimes spelled Kiev). It was the first known largest single massacre during the Holocaust. Subsequently, 50,000 Jews in Odessa were murdered the following month by German and Romanian troops; and up to 43,000 others were killed in Poland at the Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki concentration camps in Poland during the Third Reich’s so-called “Operation Harvest Festival” by the SS and local Ukrainian battalions on 3–4 November 1943.
“There was no colder or more awful act of murder, no more murderous representation of the “Holocaust by bullets,” than the Babi Yar Massacre,” said Herzog amid the first state visit of his presidency.
He recited the Jewish Yizkor prayer of remembrance for the “souls of our brothers and sisters. Babies, children, women, men, and the elderly. Shot, massacred, and murdered in cold blood here, a place that became the biggest mass grave on European soil” as part of “the most terrible tragedy to befall the Jewish People and the family of humanity, at mankind’s darkest hour: the Holocaust.”
“May God remember the souls of our brethren, Children of Israel, victims of the Holocaust and its heroes, the souls of the six million of Israel who were killed, murdered, suffocated, and buried alive and the holy communities destroyed for the sanctification of the Name,” said the Israeli leader, calling out, “May God remember their binding, with the binding of all of Israel’s other martyrs and heroes since time immemorial, and may he bind their souls up in the bond of life.”
“There is no escaping the terrible thought that the sun rose over this valley. The birds chirped. The forest was quiet. And the butchers—they butchered. For two days, the machine guns of the Nazis’ death squads and, alas, also local collaborators mowed down tens of thousands of the Jews of Kyiv and the region. Whole families were erased,” the Israeli leaders told those gathered for the memorial.
President Herzog acknowledged the presence of Marina Vorobeichik, whose grandmother Nadia Elgart and cousin miraculously managed to survive the massacre, which claimed the lives of 26 other family members.
He went on to recount the testimony of the last living Babi Yar survivor, 85-year-old Michael Sidko, who resides in Israel. Sidko witnessed his mother being repeatedly shot, while his 4-month-old baby brother Volodia and 3 ½ year old sister Clara were crushed to death under the perpetrators boots, before all were dragged by their feet and thrown into the ravine. The then-6-year-old and his brother Grisha were held captive by the Nazis for intended slave labor, but both later escaped and survived the remainder of the war in hiding.
Herzog said that “three terrible crimes were witnessed by this valley,” the first of which was the massacre and attempted “erasure of human beings. The second and third were the cover-up and the denial—the erasure of evidence, and the erasure of memory. The desire to eras determined the extent of the annihilation. Tens of thousands of people, and yet—no records were kept. The bodies were burned and the ashes were pulverized. From most of the people murdered at Babi Yar, no trace survived—neither a name, nor a memory.”
“The time for memory has come. That is why we are here,” stressed the Israeli President.
Ahead of his address, President Herzog inaugurated the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv, alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and other leaders.
The Memorial Center is dedicated to commemorating the personal stories of the 2.5 million East European Jews including 1.5 million from Ukraine alone – who were murdered and buried in mass graves.
The innovative museum complex marked the 80th anniversary by publicly releasing the names of the 159 Nazi SS troops who perpetrated the Babi Yar massacre.
Some of the soldiers “were shooters, others extracted the Jews from their homes, others took their belongings and their luggage. Others armed the weapons while others were serving sandwiches, tea and vodkas to the shooters,” said the Head of the Center’s Academic Council Father Patrick Desbois, who went on to stress that, “All of them are guilty.”
While the German organizer of the Babi Yar massacre Paul Blobel was eventually convicted and executed for his role in the atrocity and other Holocaust-related mass murder at the Subsequent Nuremberg and Einsatzgruppen Trials, most of the perpetrators escaped justice and were never prosecuted for their crimes.
President Isaac Herzog’s full speech: (Courtesy of his Spokesman’s Office)
There is an ancient Jewish prayer called Yizkor.
In the Jewish calendar, we usually recite Yizkor—the prayer to elevate the souls of the departed—be they relatives, or people whose deaths had national significance—on the most sacred dates and festivals for our people.
This past month, we marked several of these occasions. With your permission, as President of the State of Israel, the state of the Jewish People, I would like to recite the Yizkor prayer, for the elevation of the souls of our brothers and sisters. Babies, children, women, men, and the elderly. Shot, massacred, and murdered in cold blood here, a place that became the biggest mass grave on European soil, in the valley of death of Babi Yar. In the most terrible tragedy to befall the Jewish People and the family of humanity, at mankind’s darkest hour: the Holocaust.
There was nobody to recite the Yizkor prayer for them.
May God remember the souls of our brethren, Children of Israel, victims of the Holocaust and its heroes, the souls of the six million of Israel who were killed, murdered, suffocated, and buried alive and the holy communities destroyed for the sanctification of the Name. May God remember their binding, with the binding of all of Israel’s other martyrs and heroes since time immemorial, and may he bind their souls up in the bond of life. Those gentle and beloved in their lives; in their deaths, not separated. May they rest in peace, and may we say Amen.
Your Excellency Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Elena, President of Ukraine; Your Excellency Frank-Walter Steinmeier, President of Germany and his wife Elka; families of survivors—those who are with us, and those watching—honored guests.
I come here as the President of the State of Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish People. I come here from Jerusalem, our eternal capital. In the heart of Jerusalem, in the Israeli Parliament—the Knesset—on the government floor is a painting by the painter Joseph Kuzkovsky, who was born in Ukraine and studied art in Kyiv. “Led to the Slaughter—Babi Yar” is its name.
It shows men, women, and children, walking in silence, in deathly darkness, the jackboots of the Nazi devil and local police officers pointing their weapons at them, setting sharp-fanged dogs on them.
In the middle of the painting—which nobody who has ever seen it, even once, can ever forget—is a woman, holding in one hand her young daughter, and in the other clutching her baby to her chest. Surrounded by parents and children, brothers and sisters, all together, on their way to their terrifying death.
Here, in the heart of darkness.
Thousands of times have I walked up those stairs, and time and again, I paused and looked at the picture. I felt a pinch in my heart, appalled by the atrocity.
I thought about how at the end of that walk, these Jews were stripped naked, thrown into this valley of death, and massacred in a hail of bullets, here at Babi Yar.
Every time leaders from around the world visited, I showed them this picture and told them the story of the massacre at Babi Yar. A chapter that must be studied till the last generation.
* * * * * *
There was no colder or more awful act of murder, no more murderous representation of the “Holocaust by bullets,” than the Babi Yar Massacre
There is no escaping the terrible thought that the sun rose over this valley. The birds chirped. The forest was quiet. And the butchers—they butchered.
For two days, the machine guns of the Nazis’ death squads and, alas, also local collaborators mowed down tens of thousands of the Jews of Kyiv and the region. Whole families were erased.
* * * * * *
We are joined here today by Marina Vorobeichik. Marina is the granddaughter of Nadia Elgart. Her son’s daughter, Ilia, Ilusha. Both of them, Nadia and Ilusha, managed to miraculously escape the pits alive. At Babi Yar, Nadia lost 26 members of her family: her parents, her brothers, her sisters, and their children!
* * * * * *
Michael Sidko, the last survivor from Babi Yar, was only six when the massacre took place. Michael made aliyah to Israel. This is what he describes, and I quote: “We walked, my mother, my brother Grisha, my sister Clara, aged 3 ½, and my baby brother Volodia, aged just four months. My mother stood with the baby in her arms. Clara clutched her skirt. The policeman grabbed Clara and hit her over the head. He stepped on her chest and suffocated her to death. My mother fainted. The baby fell. The policeman crushed it with his boot and shot my mother. They grabbed everyone by the feet—and threw them into the valley.
Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, three terrible crimes were witnessed by this valley. The first was the massacre—the erasure of human beings. The second and third were the cover-up and the denial—the erasure of evidence, and the erasure of memory. The desire to eras determined the extent of the annihilation. Tens of thousands of people, and yet—no records were kept. The bodies were burned and the ashes were pulverized. From most of the people murdered at Babi Yar, no trace survived—neither a name, nor a memory.
The time for memory has come. That is why we are here.
* * * * * *
Ladies and gentlemen, eighty years have passed. Exactly thirty years ago, an independent Ukraine was established, and diplomatic relations with Israel were formed.
The Jewish People have a long and complicated history, interwoven with that of Ukraine. On the soil of Ukraine, for centuries there flourished one of the greatest and most important Jewish communities in the world. Leaders and statesmen, intellectuals, poets, and great rabbis. They all worked, thought, and wrote on the soil of Ukraine. Here, on this soil, flourished Hasidism. Here flourished several of the leaders of Zionism. Here were born and raised important leaders of the State of Israel. And here were also terrible pogroms against Jews throughout the ages. Here too was the massacre of Babi Yar. A tragic event that must never be erased from the annals of the family of nations. An eternal scar on the surface of our planet.
* * * * * *
The establishment of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which tells the story of the 2.5 million Jews of Eastern Europe, including 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews, who were murdered and buried in mass graves, is an important step and an important chapter in the shared history of Ukraine and Israel, of Ukraine and of the Jewish People.
It corrects the historic injustice of many years of denial and forgetting, and represents a lesson learned, and a study resource for future generations.
Let us make no mistake: even in the present, Holocaust denial is still alive and kicking. Antisemitism still exists. Just in the past day, we all heard of another ugly manifestation of antisemitism at the Auschwitz extermination camp, in the form of antisemitic graffiti that disgraces the memory of the people killed at this terrible death camp. We, world leaders, must all vigorously condemn the slightest hint of this phenomenon and fight it with all our might.
Commemoration and remembrance are vital for the whole of humanity, against evil, cruelty, and apathy. In order that we not forget what shoah—what destruction—one person can do to another, by deed or by silence. How far hatred, ignorance, antisemitism, and racism can reach. What they can do to human beings, created in the image of God! As we Jewish communities around the whole world read last Shabbat, in the first parsha of the Hebrew Bible, Bereshit. We must ensure for the whole of humanity—from this wretched place, of all places—from a place where the world bore witness, knew, and was silent—that there shall never, ever be another Babi Yar.
I want to thank everyone who has played a role in the sacred task of Holocaust remembrance and commemoration and the establishment of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, and chiefly the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky and your government, and of course to you, my friend, Natan Sharansky, Chairman of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, and to those who have accompanied this center since its inception: Mikhail Friedman, German Khan, Victor Pinchuk, Vladimir Klichko, Ronald Lauder, and others.
For as we know today, this decision, and certainly the establishment of this center, has made a tremendous contribution to the discovery of hundreds of new names from our brothers and sisters executed at Babi Yar. Every one of these names is a world unto itself. A world that was destroyed. A world of which something, through memory, nevertheless remains with us.
Shaul Tchernichovsky, one of the greatest Hebrew poets, composed here, in this land, “I Believe.” One of the most important and best known poems of the Hebrew revival. Thus he wrote: “Rejoice, for I’ll have faith in mankind / for in mankind I believe… For I shall yet have faith in mankind / in its spirit great and bold.” I too believe in man. We believe in man. That is why we are all here. For man. For mankind.
Earth, cover not the blood of our brothers and sisters! May the memory of our brothers and sisters remain in all of our hearts, in the heart of the nation, and in the hearts of all humanity.