Babi Yar redux

July 1, 2022 William A. Gralnick
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Brooklyn has decided to refurbish the Babi Yar Triangle. This is a good thing, albeit puzzling. The site has its own history. It was the site of the Manhattan Beach Hotel and Land Company. In its heyday the hotel was very “high-end.” It attracted upper-class folk to the area as does the Manhattan Beach neighborhood today. The days of glory ended with prohibition. In 1912 it closed.

One wonders, however, how many people who see the memorial know what it is commemorating or even how many people see it at all. Officially known as the Babi Yar Triangle Playground, according to the New York City Parks Department it is part of the Department’s Historical Signs Project. In the 1988 reconstruction of the park, the architects incorporated the memorial. The Star of David is a recognized symbol of the Jewish faith. It is inscribed in the center circle of the park. Its center is a bronze plaque commemorating the slaughter at Babi Yar.

Why is it there and not elsewhere? Brighton Beach has long been a haven for Jews beginning about 1920. During the Soviet Jewry movement, an influx of new immigrants settled there. The Ukrainian Jewish population is represented and at the 1989 ceremony there was Klezmer music (Klezmer is known as Jewish — Easter European — Dixieland). At the rededication, there was a reading of the 1961 poem by Yevgeni Yevtuchenko “Babi Yar. In 2022, the Department tells us that the site was rebuilt with “new play equipment, game tables, and green space for respite and contemplation. Here’s where the “Whoa Nellie” comes in.

It strikes me odd that such an event as Babi Yar would be recognized in a playground. How do you square a playground — games tables and all — with massacre? Secondly, if it is a playground, how many people are going there for contemplation. One would assume that most visitors have children in tow and rather than using the green space for contemplation of history, they use it to contemplate if this will be the day that their kid will do damage to him or herself on a piece of playground equipment. In fact, as a parent and grandparent, I wouldn’t urge soul-searching contemplation while at a playground. This is how one loses sight of a child or worse doesn’t see some skank angling around to see which child he might cut out of the pack. Having lived through and been part of the search team during Atlanta’s terrifying child murders days, I’m particularly sensitive to the watching of children. It is why when I took my kids to the park or a playground, our 140 lb. The Great Dane went with us.

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Now we come to the event itself. It commemorates, as the Parks Department admits, one of the darkest events of the Second World War. Over 33,000 Jews were erased in the space of two days by a Nazi death squad and Ukrainian bootlickers. Babi Yar, in a ravine, became a killing field and mass grave. Over the 778 days of occupation over 100,000 people were tossed into the ravine to be unceremoniously covered with dirt. They included Ukraine’s Jews, the Roma (Gypsies), Soviet prisoners of war, communists, homosexuals, those having physical or mental disabilities, and just ordinary political dissenters.

There is more to understand. First the name. According to my favorite source, Wikipedia, the first mention of the area was found in 1401. A baba (grandmother) sold the ravine (Yar) to someone. It is in Kyiv, something to give pause for thought today. The action was known as the largest massacre of the Holocaust up to that time. Head-spinning enough, it was surpassed several years later when 50,000 mostly Jews were massacred in Odessa. It has personal meaning to this writer because three of his four grandparents and great-grandparents hailed from these areas. By the grace of G-d, they had the sense to scram out of there to these wonderful United States, in the late 1800s.

How were the Babi Yar victims lured to their death? They were turned into Lemmings by the Nazis. Understand these were impoverished, starving people who were caught in the sub-war between Russia and Germany. If you want to see what their lives were like just look at the pictures of towns in the Ukraine that nightly haunt you from your television. It is worth noting that Putin, who claims the Ukrainian government, led by a Jewish president, is run by anti-Semites, and to rid it of them has ripped a few pages from Hitler’s handbook, an irony I hope the historians won’t miss.  They were desperate and were trapped in an evil ethnic cleansing pincer. And they were living amongst a population who by and large hated them.

On the one hand, a rumor was started by the Nazis that the Jews of Kyiv would be relocated and they should meet at Babi Yar, the jumping off point for the supposed resettlement. They grabbed what they could; family followed family. At the same time as the rumor was being spread externally, this was the order that was issued:

All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, 29 September, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Viis’kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

— Order posted in Kyiv in Russian, Ukrainian, and German on or around 26 September 1941. 

The crowds were so large, they occupied so much space that historians posit that the people at one end of the tumult didn’t know, couldn’t hear, didn’t see the fate of the people at the other. When they arrived, they were relieved of their belongings, likely having the gold in their teeth yanked out, and were ordered to strip naked. Those who didn’t fall into the ravine when shot were pushed in by machinery which then buried them.

Seen as so barbaric, Babi Yar has been the subject of books, poems, documentaries, and movies.

Let me close by saying I am not on a rant against the Parks Department. As it is said, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Clearly, the intent here is good, but… But it is a head-scratcher that during the several times this “playground” had been tended to, no one thought that rather than a sop to the immigrant Jews of Brighton Beach, that if the story of Babi Yar was going to be commemorated, that a lot more work would be needed to help visitors understand the enormity of what was being remembered and that maybe a playground wasn’t the right site in which to do it. As a retired professional in Jewish life, I believe the city could have found a foundation that would both have given money, and raised money, to build a proper memorial in Brighton, as so many communities have done around the nation to showcase the totality of the Holocaust. But I guess hindsight is 20-20.

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