I was born and grew up in the former USSR. My family moved from my mother’s native
Kazakhstan to my father’s native Moldova in 1981, to the town of Bendery. When I was
fourteen I went on a school trip to visit the bloodiest battlefields of World War II in
Ukraine. The Soviet educational system approved of trips like this to maintain our
patriotism and inspire loyalty to the regime. We were excited to go to Ukraine
because we were promised a disco night in Donbas organized by a local Young Pioneer
group, a junior division of the Communist Party. The dance was cancelled after we
arrived because it was deemed inappropriate by the local government authorities. We
nearly rioted, but eventually we were forced to accept the grimness of the weeklong trip
without any non-patriotic interruptions.
We trudged by overnight by train from one dusty Ukrainian town to another where we
stood in open fields straining our imaginations to picture the atrocities that took place
there only 45 years before. To our adolescent minds it seemed like ancient history. We
never imagined that in our lifetime these places would be reawakened again to absorb
more blood, pain and suffering. We visited stuffy local museums where veterans, their
uniforms covered in rows of colorful medals, would re-trace the advance of the Nazi
troops across Ukraine on old, crumbling maps. They looked like our grandparents,
ordinary pensioners, who shuffled around their shabby Soviet apartments in worn, plaid
slippers. They did not look like heroes who risked their lives to save their country from
being invaded by a ruthless foreign enemy. We saw them stand in line for kefir and
everyone knew that their heroic acts of bravery earned them little more than occasional
milk delivery and a ration card for sugar.
My grandparents survived the war in very different ways. The Faydas on my mother’s
side of the family came from Lughini, a small Jewish shtetl near Kyiv. They fled to
Kazakhstan to escape Nazi occupation and resettled there for good after the war ended.
Growing up I knew little about the Ruvinskys, my father’s side of the family. My
grandmother Polina and my grandfather Yakov Ruvinsky lost their entire families in the
war. She came from the town of Beltsy in Moldova and was sent to a Nazi concentration
camp in Romania during the war. He came from a village in Ukraine called Dymer,
joined the Russian army and in spite of being a Jew was promoted to the rank of
captain. He took part in the siege of Berlin and the taking of the Reichstag.
When I was a child I did not know the meaning of the numbers tattooed above my
grandmother’s wrist. My grandmother spent her days baking, as if she were determined
to make the rest of her life sweeter, until she died of diabetes. My grandfather took care
of her, ran her errands and played chess in the park. He had a military bearing even
when he lounged around the house in a white mayka (t-shirt ) and a pair of tightly-
belted slacks. He died of a heart attack at the age of sixty. They never talked to me
about the war.
The culmination of our patriotic journey was the city of Brest, which frequently changed
hands between Ukraine and Belarus. The citadel of Brest, where 2,000 soldiers and
officers died in a course of eight days in June of 1941, became a symbol of courage and
resilience of the Soviet people. We spent the day visiting the barracks, the fortress,
Courage Monument, and listening to the local guide’s stories of sacrifice, bravery and
death. But what I remember now are the stories that we weren’t told on that trip. The
account of the Second World War presented by Soviet authorities entirely omitted the
Holocaust. We did not know about concentration camps, gas chambers and we knew
nothing about Babyn Yar/Babi Yar- – a mass grave where 70,000 to 120,000 Jews, Ukrainians,
Russians and Roma people were massacred including almost the entire Jewish
population of Kyiv.
On Friday, September 26, 1941, all Kyiv Jews were order to assemble near the site of a
Jewish cemetery. That morning, the day before the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur was
set to begin, over 33,000 people gathered—mostly women, children and the elderly and
marched to the ravine called Babyn Yar. Over the next thirty-six hours they were stripped
naked, robbed of their possessions and murdered while forced to lie on the bloodied
corpses of previous victims. Germans continued to use this site for mass executions for
the next two years.
There was no physical memorial to commemorate those deaths until after the fall of the
Soviet Union in the 1990s. The Soviet government tried to conceal what happened at
Babyn Yar because it did not fit into the Soviet version of the war. According to that
version all Soviet citizens shared equally in the suffering of the war. Silence about
Jewish victimhood in the Holocaust helped to maintain that myth.
in 1960 Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote the poem “Babyn Yar” in protest against Soviet
revisionism and Dimitri Shostakovich was inspired to compose 13th Symphony in B-flat
minor subtitled “Babyn Yar.” But it wasn’t until after Ukraine declared its independence
in 1991 that a menorah-shaped monument was erected at Babyn Yar for the fiftieth
anniversary of the massacre. It was the first official public acknowledgment of the Jews
who were murdered at the site. Plans for a more permanent memorial began in 2016
and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial was projected for 2025. Eighty years since the
massacre the site of the memorial has again been transformed into a battlefield.
When I type my last name in the Babyn Yar memorial site twelve names appear:
When you click on each male name, dozens of other names surface– those of women
and children. They are my grandfather’s family. I never knew that they existed and
until recently I did not know how they died. The country that I lived in concealed their
deaths. Their stories were erased from history. This is happening again in Ukraine.
The Memorial which it took decades to build is again under threat of destruction.
Watching images of Russian tanks rolling through Ukraine feels like watching World War
II footage in reverse. It is not just the Holocaust memorial that this new war in Ukraine
threatens to destroy. It threatens to destroy peace, it threatens to deny history, it
threatens to shatter hope in a future that is different from the past. Seeing this war
unfold I am reminded of Yevtushenko’s words:
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.
When the Germans were defeated in 1945, Romanian soldiers were told to liquidate all
the remaining prisoners. Polina, my future grandmother, my father’s future mother,
survived along with her daughter Nina. They tried to escape and were stopped on the
road by a Romanian soldier. When he looked at Nina’s dark hair and black eyes he was
reminded of his own daughter. He let them go and as a consequence of that act of
mercy I am here writing these words.
Irina Ruvinsky is a professor of philosophy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When she is not shaping young minds into brilliant critical thinkers, she enjoys long walks with her mini dachshund. Her work has appeared in Eclectica magazine.