Future of Babi Yar pits Jew against Jew

KIEV, Ukraine — Opponents of a planned multimillion-dollar memorial and community center at Babi Yar are trying to rouse the public to their side.

A group called the Community Committee for the Commemoration of the Victims of Babi Yar invited a range of Holocaust experts, members of the media and the public to attend a discussion forum April 2 in Kiev.

Presiding over the committee was a trio of high-profile Ukrainian intellectuals — psychiatrist and former Soviet dissident Semyon Gluzman, the only Jew among the leaders of the group; Philosophy Institute director Miroslav Popovich; and writer and dissident Ivan Dzyuba — who said they had formed their group earlier this year following months of public demand for an organized opposition.

"After people began appealing to me and to the others not to keep silent on this issue, I appealed to other members of the intelligentsia," Dzyuba said in opening the session.

At issue is a proposal by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to fund and build the Heritage community center complex at Babi Yar, site of the largest Nazi killings on Ukrainian soil during World War II. As many as 100,000 people were killed at Babi Yar, including 33,000 Jews during two days in September 1941.

The ceremonial groundbreaking took place in September 2001 with members of the Ukrainian government, including President Leonid Kuchma, in attendance.

But debate over the appropriateness of building on what many people claim is a mass grave erupted into controversy in spring 2002 following the first open forums staged by the Heritage center steering committee.

The debate was waged in newspapers, institutes and synagogues across Ukraine, with the country's rabbis, who are mainly orthodox, supporting the plan and many prominent secular Jewish leaders opposing it.

The JDC made efforts to compromise when it announced that plans to include a theater in the community center complex had been scrapped.

But the JDC remained firm that, besides a memorial to the victims, the complex should include a museum, research center and administrative offices.

With differences unresolved and both sides claiming the support of Kiev's Jewish community, the controversy simmered through the winter. Publicly, the Heritage steering committee spoke of the need to move ahead.

"In my opinion, we have to stop discussion," committee chair and Hillel director Osik Akselrud said last month. "First of all, it could mean losing the money and, second, the concept was discussed by all Jewish leaders."

"The center is uniting the community," he said.

The JDC has remained vague on how long the planning stage would last and when construction might begin.

Further, it announced as recently as last month that it had no intention of implementing suggestions from opposition leaders such as Leonid Finberg, director of the Institute for Judaic Studies, who argued that the proposed complex should be divided, with a memorial at Babi Yar and the community center somewhere else.

"There is no timetable yet: only after architect selection and legal contracts with various professionals are completed is there any point in setting a timetable for construction," an assistant executive vice president of the JDC, Amir Shaviv, wrote from New York in early March.

"There is no secondary plan either: The main plan — Babi Yar — is going on, with actually a solid consolidated support for the project from the Jewish community and the authorities as well."

Without challenging the JDC directly, the Community Committee for the Commemoration of the Victims of Babi Yar made it clear on April 2 that it plans to try to rally support for a new approach to the project.

"The simple answer is that it is not our task to stop or not stop the JDC proposal," Gluzman said. "We only know that we need to start a discussion."

The Community Committee envisions a multinational memorial. Among the panel of experts on hand April 2 were Dmitry Molokov, vice director of the Kiev Historical Museum, and Oleh Verchuk, director of the Library of Ukrainian Patriots.

They stressed the Community Committee's position that the tragedy was not solely a Jewish one, since thousands of minorities, Soviet partisans and Ukrainian nationalists also died there during the war.

Presentations focused on the history of Babi Yar, building a case by which the Community Committee could argue against building anything, especially a purely Jewish project, on the site.

Controversy also erupted over details such as the number of Jews killed at Babi Yar.

Verchuk rubbed some of those in attendance the wrong way, suggesting that the Jewish victims at Babi Yar went to their deaths "like sheep" — and that any exhibition or historical project be incorporated into the state-run Ukrainain Museum of the Great Patriotic War, as World War II is called here.

Some in attendance, such as pensioner Gilary Lapitsky, came down on the side of the Community Committee.

"I support the idea that Babi Yar become a sacred reserve and that nothing more than a memorial ever be constructed there," Lapitsky said.

Afterward, Gluzman called the meeting the first — and not the last — attempt to broaden the Babi Yar debate and force the JDC to reconsider its plans.

"It was our idea to open the very closed discussion surrounding Babi Yar and we witnessed some immediate fights on the subject, but even so we'll continue," he said.

"The plan to build a Jewish Heritage Memorial and Community Center in Babi Yar area is the desire of the overwhelming majority of the Kiev Jewish community," the JDC's Shaviv said. "The JDC supports the center as part of its worldwide mission to facilitate the revival of Jewish life. Such a memorial center could certainly become a part of a wider Ukrainian memorial complex in the area."

And the JDC representative for central and Western Ukraine, Volodymyr Glozman, said the launch of the Community Committee does not pose any threat to the JDC proposal or represent a potential delay.

"In May 2002 we opened a public discussion, we invited it, and we heard a lot of different views," Glozman said. "We worked a lot at refining the conception, and we're still working with the architects. We hope to start building in half a year."

Glozman dismissed charges from the Community Committee executive secretary, Vitaly Nakhmanovich, that both the Kuchma administration and the Kiev municipal administration have cooled to the Heritage project, saying everything is on schedule.

He also invited Community Committee members to join the JDC steering committee discussions.

"I should see exactly what this committee is proposing," he said. "If they take a mainly negative approach, we won't be able to use their proposals.

"But if there are positive ideas, they may be incorporated in the project,'' he added.