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Thursday, September 29, 2016
On September 29-30 in 1941, Nazi troops shot over 33,000 Jews at the edge of the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev – an event that many believe to be the largest single massacre of the Holocaust.
Yet for many years, this immense loss of life was surrounded by silence. Visitors to the ravine would only see a large pit, which trucks occasionally filled with garbage.
But art has a way of not letting tragedy be forgotten. When Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a poet (and novelist, dramatist, actor, and screenwriter, among other things) particularly known for his justice poems in the 1960s and ‘70s, learned of the mass execution, he felt that he had to write a poem about it – “out of shame.” His poem was not just about the Nazis’ act, but also about the callousness of those who lived, but did not remember.
The poem begins:
Над Бабьим Яром памятников нет.
Крутой обрыв, как грубое надгробье.
Мне сегодня столько лет,
как самому еврейскому народу.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.
Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
The poem’s speaker goes on to imagine plodding through time, experiencing vicariously the suffering of the Jewish people – from slaves in ancient Egypt to targets of prejudice and violence in more recent history. But he doesn’t stop at lamenting history’s cruelty: he puts himself in the place of those were derided, tortured, or killed:
Я - каждый здесь расстрелянный старик.
Я - каждый здесь расстрелянный ребенок.
each old man
here shot dead.
here shot dead.
That Yevtushenko makes the tragedy of the Jewish people the tragedy of the reader is especially striking given Russia’s own history of anti-semitism. Yet the mentality of “us vs. them” that spurred segregated living regions, scapegoating, and pogroms in Russia is overshadowed by the magnitude of the massacre Yevtushenko depicts. Furthermore, the speaker explicitly links Jews to Russians in several ways.
First, by addressing the poem to his compatriots, he implicates them in the tragedy:
О, русский мой народ!
- Я знаю
По сущности интернационален.
Но часто те, чьи руки нечисты,
твоим чистейшим именем бряцали.
O my Russian people!
are international to the core.
But those with unclean hands
have often made a jingle of your purest name.
Here, the speaker suggests that anti-semites – “those with unclean hands” – are distinct from the Russian people, at the same time implying that Russians who are anti-semitic had better rethink their biases.
Second, because an astronomical number of Russians were killed during the war, the shared pain of lost life at the hands of the Nazis makes it easier to feel connection, even for those who do bear feelings of anti-semitism.
Finally, the poem comes close to equating Jews and Russians:
Еврейской крови нет в крови моей.
Но ненавистен злобой заскорузлой
я всем антисемитам,
и потому -
я настоящий русский!
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
In these final lines of the poem, the speaker suggests that being Russian and being an anti-semite are mutually exclusive: Russians know the pain of loss and can feel the suffering of the Jews – and that characteristic is part of what defines them as Russian.
Yevtushenko’s message of empathy, tolerance, and erasure of difference through shared sorrow made some call his work “political,” reading it as a challenge to repression within the Soviet Union. Some of Yevtushenko’s works certainly were dissident in nature, but he wrote “Babi Yar” as simply a lamentation of lost life gone unremembered.
The great composer Dmitry Shostakovich – who happens to have turned 110 earlier this week – gave Yevtushenko a call to say that he wanted to write music to accompany the poem. In Yevtushenko’s words, “The music of Shostakovich made this poem 10 times stronger.” The music became part of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13.
And if you’re not the musical type, you can hear Yevgeny Yevtushenko recite his own poem with true dramatic flair.
It took decades after the massacre, but in part thanks to Yevtushenko’s poetic reminder of the tragedy of Babi Yar, the ravine is now a public park, dotted with monuments to those who died there.
The translation of "Babi Yar" used above is from The Collected Poems 1952–1990 by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Edited by Albert C. Todd with the author and James Ragan (Henry Holt and Company, 1991), pp. 102-104. To read the full text in English, you can find it here.
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