Sep/Oct 2018 Current Moscow Time: 04:34:55
24 September 2018


  The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.


The Babi Yar Tragedy, Remembered in Poetry
 

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Babi Yar Tragedy, Remembered in Poetry

by Alice E.M. Underwood

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 страшно.
    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
a Jew.

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.

I am
each old man
here shot dead.
I am
every child
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
       - ты
По сущности интернационален.
Но часто те, чьи руки нечисты,
твоим чистейшим именем бряцали.

 

O my Russian people!

I know

you

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,
     как еврей,
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.

visitkievukraine.com

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.

Related Content

June 22, 2017
Why Invading Russia was Hitler's Downfall
By Alice E.M. Underwood
Why Invading Russia was Hitler's Downfall

June 22nd marks the 76th anniversary of Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of Russia that changed the course of WWII and, perhaps, history itself.

Read More
December 2, 2015
Poetry, The Russian Riddle, and What Both Have to Do with International Politics
By Alice E.M. Underwood
Poetry, The Russian Riddle, and International Politics

What can we learn about Russia, now and throughout history, from its poetry? This month we try to find out, with help from The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, to be released later this month, as reviewed in the Nov/Dec issue of Russian Life.

Read More
July 13, 2015
The Tower of (Isaac) Babel
By Alice E.M. Underwood
The Tower of (Isaac) Babel

July 13 is the anniversary of Isaac Babel's birth. Now celebrated as one of teh great writers of the twentieth century, he had a very difficult time gaining acceptance during his lifetime, and repeatedly suffered from antisemitism, official and otherwise.

Read More
July 1, 2014
Isaac Babel and Russian Jews
By Eugenia Sokolskaya
Isaac Babel and Russian Jews

Ever wonder why so many Russian Jews ended up in the US? Perhaps it was the educational quotas, or the restrictions on travel and residence, or maybe the rampant anti-Semitism and violence – and all the other miseries chronicled by Jewish writer Isaac Babel.

Read More
October 9, 2011
Jews in Service to the Tsar
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.

Read More