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Politics of memory at massacre site

Few places illustrate the politics of memory like Babi Yar, a site in the center of Kiev where in September 1941, 33,761 Jews were shot over 72 hours by the Nazis. It was the first mass execution of World War II.

Over the next 18 months, 100,000 more Jews were killed at Babi Yar along with 60,000 other Nazi targets such as Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war.

John Paul II, in a late addition to his schedule, made a five-minute stop June 25, praying the “De Profundis” prayer for the dead.

There are two monuments at Babi Yar. The one visited by the pope is a piece of Soviet-era artwork, depicting distorted human figures in a scene of abstract suffering. It makes no mention that most victims were Jewish.

The other memorial is smaller and specifically Jewish, taking the shape of a menorah. It is located several hundred yards away on the precise spot where the first wave of killings occurred during Yom Kippur of September 1941. The ravine in which the bodies were buried is today a playground.

The chief rabbi of Ukraine, Yaakov Dov Bleich, a 36-year-old American of Ukrainian ancestry, requested the Babi Yar stop. He hoped the pope would visit the Jewish memorial. When Ukrainian government officials got involved, they decided to have the pope go to the site that recalls all the victims, Bleich said.

It would have been a “totally different” experience had the pope gone to the Jewish memorial, he said. But he was satisfied he came at all. “Jews are not trying to monopolize Babi Yar,” he said.

Tensions over interpretation of the visit were nevertheless obvious. Bleich called it an attempt to “unruffle feathers” after the pope’s mid-May visit to Syria, when some Jews complained that John Paul II had remained silent as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad railed against Jews. Assad suggested they killed Jesus Christ and had tried to kill Mohammad.

Papal spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls, on the other hand, told reporters that the visit to Babi Yar had “nothing to do” with the Syria episode.

Bleich told NCR that Jews in Kiev are also irked by a large cross erected near the Jewish memorial. To date, he said, neither Catholic nor Orthodox leaders have spoken against the cross.

After the visit, Bleich was angered that papal handlers had blocked him from engaging John Paul in dialogue. Bleich spoke the day before at an interreligious meeting about so-called “Holocaust children” -- Jewish children given to Christian families for safekeeping and never returned. Some have never learned their origins, and some Jewish leaders want the Catholic church to help identify them.

When the pope’s Mercedes pulled up, there were a few anxious moments when Bleich explained to aides what he wanted and was informed he couldn’t do it. In the end, he had to be content with simply explaining a bit of Babi Yar’s story.

As John Paul’s car pulled away, a clearly frustrated Bleich growled that the people around the pope had behaved like “bastards.”

He nevertheless maintained his sense of humor. A photographer had asked him, he said, if he wanted a copy of his picture with the pope. He turned it down.

“All I could do is send it to my mother, and she would want to know, ‘Who’s the guy in the yarmulke next to my son?’ ”

-- John L. Allen Jr.

National Catholic Reporter, July 13, 2001