When the late poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko visited the notorious ravine near Kiev in 1961, he was shocked to find no monument to the 34,000 Jews who were murdered there in September 1941. The absence of any sign of commemoration—which gave Yevtushenko’s poem “Babi Yar” its opening line—was not the result of neglect but of a deliberate Soviet policy of covering up the Holocaust and suppressing any recognition that the Nazis specifically targeted Jews. After gaining independence, Ukraine did little to alter Soviet policies toward Holocaust commemoration, but now, writes Norman Naimark, change is finally coming:
In September 1991, the 40th anniversary of Babi Yar and the eve of the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian authorities unveiled a large and distinctively Jewish menorah memorial at the ravine. . . . But attempts over the following decade to mark the site as one of special meaning to Jews were frustrated by the building of a number of memorials at different spots all over the area (there are some 30 at various places around the territory now), recalling the diverse victims who were killed along with the Jews in the ravine. . . . Meanwhile, Babi Yar still had playgrounds, a park, a television tower, and even some apartments on its territory. . . .
President Petro Poroshenko changed all of this as part of his intention, inspired in part by the Maidan demonstrations in the winter of 2014–15, to integrate Ukraine into European institutions. . . . Poroshenko’s decree of August 12, 2015, “Concerning Measures in Connection with the 75th Anniversary of the Babi Yar Tragedy,” for the first time, acknowledged at the state level the importance of Babi Yar as a crucial place of memory in the history of the Holocaust. . . .
Poroshenko’s decree was followed by an extremely important speech [by him] in Israel’s Knesset on December 23, 2015, which emphasized the importance of Babi Yar to the Holocaust, talked about the death of 1.5-million Ukrainian Jews, murdered simply because they were Jews, and spoke of the shared grief of Jews and Ukrainians for those lost in the war. Poroshenko also pointed to the Ukrainian “Righteous Gentiles” who had risked their lives to save Jews and were recognized formally by the Israeli state for their actions. He also proved willing to talk about Ukrainian collaborators in the Holocaust, who, he stated, “unfortunately, existed practically in all European countries that were occupied by the Nazis, and helped those monsters to implement the ‘final solution to the Jewish question.’” At the same time, he apologized to the children and grandchildren of Ukrainian Holocaust victims on behalf of the Ukrainian nation.