Bishop Borys (Gudziak): Marking the 75th anniversary of the executions of Jews in Babyn Yar

Friday, 30 September 2016, 15:04
There are matters and there are tragedies whose enormity renders words powerless, about which silence is in fact more eloquent.

Half a century ago ago, in 1966, on the 25th anniversary of the massacres in Babyn Yar, these were the intuitions of the dissident Ivan Dziuba, one of the most prominent Ukrainian intellectuals of our time.

As he later admitted, this address, relevant still today, was impromptu, a spontaneous response to the pain, fear and perplexity, which Dziuba saw in the eyes of those who had gathered for this anniversary.

For many of them, the war, its terror, the preceding Holodomor, and the unspeakable catastrophе – the Shoa that befell the Jews in Ukraine were lived memories.

Maybe, they themselves witnessed how on Sept. 28-29, 1941, more than 30,000 Jews were led to be shot — their neighbors, fellow Kyivans.

The stark blackness of hatred among peoples, countries, and the spectre of ideology, be it brown or red, negating the God-given dignity of human beings should rouse us all, move us, force us to break out of our callous, sometimes, sordid and shameful frame of reference—also in this Rada.

After 75 years, there are few alive today who remember, but the memory lives on.
For example about the family from Sophia Street:

Lahodskyj Hersh Khayimovych, age 56
Lahodska Anna Leybivna, age 56
Lahodskyj Zynoviy Hershevych, age 31
Lahodska-Brahinska Rozaliya Hershivna, age 29
Brahinska Beba Semenivna, age 6
Brahinskyj Eduard Semenovych, age 5

The ages and names reveal family relations. This is only one of the families whose members’ names have reached us. Thousands remain nameless, forgotten.

The Holocaust is a tragedy, a catastrophe, a Shoa in human history. Ukraine became one of its main arenas. Along with Auschwitz, the symbol of death in the gas chamber, Babyn Yar has become a symbol of the brutal execution by shooting.

Babyn Yar is a tragedy for all humanity, because in it human dignity was trampled and the ultimate value of human life was negated. Myroslav Marynovych called Babyn Yar another place of the great Fall of man. Through the killing of the innocent, evil was articulated, fully exposed, so that we could repent and begin to protect human life and human dignity, always and everywhere.

Babyn Yar is the tip of an iceberg of tragedies that followed one after another. Between 1932 and 1947, residents of Ukraine experienced a numbing list of catastrophes: the Holodomor, Holocaust, starvation of imprisoned soldiers of the Soviet Army, the Volyn tragedy, the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the operation “Wisla” and the other atrocities before, during, and after World War II. No other land experienced such pervasive evil, such intense hatred. The historian Timothy Snyder included Ukraine in the “bloodlands,” calling it the most dangerous territory at that time on the whole planet for the human body and soul.

For decades, the history of Babyn Yar, like the history of the Holodomor, was hushed up and ignored, cancelled from the chronicles.

A terrifying symbol of this perfidious camouflage was the Kuren tragedy of 1961. To erase the memory of Babyn Yar, literarally cover it geographically, Soviet authorities perpetrated a landslide that buried more than a thousand innocent lives. This pattern was repeated.

The Nazis destroyed Jews physically, and the communists obliterated their memory. The latter were so successful, that today many think that Jews with their rich millenial spirituality, culture and social life were never in Ukraine, that they were not our fellow countrymen, that our grandmothers and grandfathers did not recognize in the Jews who marched to their executions their own neighbors and acquaintances.

In fact, Babyn Yar is our common history. It is the history of all Ukraine, not only of the Jewish people. They were after all Kyivans, Lvivites, Odessans, Vinnytsians. In almost every city and town in Ukraine, there is a “Yar,” a ravine, a ditch in front of which people were executed only because they were Jews. Victims of the Holocaust on Ukrainian lands numbered over a million Jews. Most Ukrainian Jews died not in distant concentration camps; they were shot at the walls of their cities, close to their homes.

Along with Ivan Dziuba in 1966, we are silent—and cannot remain so. We must recover the names of the victims and return their memory to their descendants, to us all. We must remember together. Sometimes it seems that Jews commemorate “their” Shoa, and Ukrainians begin to remember “their” Holodomor. We forget that this is our shared history—our Catastrophe, our Holodomor, our Volyn, our Wisla, and our Crimean Tatar deportation.

We must recognize when Ukrainians were offenders. Such cases were, unfortunately, not few in number. At the same time, we cannot forget about the role of the many Ukrainian righteous ones, who, risking everything, saved the life and dignity of Jews. Among these eminent among the righteous is Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Lviv. There were also righteous ones on a simple, everyday level, such as both of my grandmothers who delivered food to Jews hiding from the Nazis. He and they serve for us as an example and a source of hope. The fact that we are proud of our righteous ones, argues that their behavior, stance, and courage should become ours.

The events of the XX century are a trauma for our people that we must and can overcome. We are called to live, to leave behind the syndrome of trauma and victimization, to which we are once again driven by Putin, the war in the East and the perverse populism paradox today spreading through countries and continents. It is necessary to include Babyn Yar in our history and our consciousness, in the history of Eastern Europe, in the history of the world, so that such a tragedy may never be repeated. So that hatred may never become a guiding spirit for politics, deadly ideologies, and homicidal passion.

What conclusions are to be drawn for those of us who consider ourselves Christian? Our conclusions based on the Gospel seem absurd to some, scandalous to others, because “we preach Christ the Crucified One,” a God who suffers to save. We preach the Cross, but do we live it? This question is paramount today as we celebrate the feat of the Exaltation of the Cross. The answer humbles us. Modernity shows that often we hardly live it at all.

Not all Ukrainian sacrifices and suffering are recognized by the world. But this does not mean that we should not respect the sacrifices of others. We. Christian, are called to look truth in the eye, admit historical facts, including our transgressions, and open up to the pain of others, not awaiting for the other to act first. This is a hard paradox of our faith and a paradox of the radical example of our Saviour, who urged his followers to love their enemies and to forgive those who have wronged us. This is not a strategy for instant results. Yet, in this world, both beautiful and fallen, this is a strategy that can lead to truth, reconciliation and mutual love.

Our commemorations will be futile if they do not lead us to truth, reconciliation and love: a truth about God, people, and the world; reconciliation not with evil, but in what is good, in respect, and love between brothers and sisters created in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1, 26). The quest for truth, reconciliation, and fraternal love is full of antinomy, contradictions that lead us from the logic of “either/or” to the wisdom of “both/and.” Human evil and sin is a black opaque enigma, and God’s sacredness and our salvation in Him—a mystery and sacrament. Let us strive for this sacrament, despite the efforts of the Enemy of humankind. In God, truth, reconciliation, and love win in both the heavenly Kingdom and here, on Earth, and on this Ukrainian land as well.


Bishop Borys Gudziak, the president of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, is the eparch of the Paris Eparchy of St. Volodymyr the Great for Ukrainians of the Byzantine Rite in France, Switzerland and the Benelux countries.

Photo by Anastasia Vlasova


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