There was a quiet that prevailed over Babi Yar as people walked slowly to the edge of the sloped grass covering the bowl-shaped field. A lush thick turf filled the deep ravine where over 200,000 Jews were gunned down by Nazi machine guns, their bodies set on fire. A huge granite stone sculpture towered from a platform atop a concrete stairway depicting victims clutching one another in desperation, mothers shielding their babies and children in the throes of death. The monument stood as a memorial to the thousands killed there with no record of their names, or pictures with their faces, their life ending from a spray of bullets, and a plume of smoke rising up into a gray ash sky.
Birch trees graced the outer ring, as if each a declaration to life, and an image of the roots from these beautiful trees sending out new ‘shoots’ across the landscape like little sprouts. The scripture verse written on a piece of paper left in grandfather Jacob’s Bible came back to me “…there is hope for a tree: if it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water; it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant.” Job 14:7-9.
Marble benches placed alongside the walkway like chapel pews held people who sat weeping, some in prayerful pose, others just staring at the sculpture as if seeing a face, or a look they’d seen before.
The images of Holocaust victims killed in death camps, cremated in large ovens, their ashes rising from furnace flues like white dust into the black plumes filled the archives and libraries of media documentaries covering the horrendous events. Thousands more were gassed while cyanide crystals spewed out its poisonous powder through shower heads. Hundreds more left to starve in concentration camps from the Baltic to the Black Sea, from Germany, and east to Siberia would only live on in history, or in the minds of those who were there, but somehow survived. Mass graves with no names or markers, just the remains of its victims filled the grounds across the Russian Steppes and Eastern Europe. Memorials erected like the one here at Babi Yar, in Kiev, Ukraine would never allow one to forget the cost of lives it took to remind us all of a persecuted, suffering people.
My mind reeled with the images. My heart wept for their pain. Where did it all begin? Why no end to their suffering? Where would they find acceptance? A place where peace would reign?
Always migrating, always wandering since the beginning of time, Jews searched for a piece of land to set down roots, build a synagogue, establish a trade or business, raise a family, only to be exiled again to another. Hoping to find a country where prejudice and malice would not be welcome. Where ‘pogrom’ was a foreign word, not one spoken in warning or threat. Where the words, ‘extermination,’ or ‘Final Solution’ would never be real.
For those freed and liberated from death camps after the war Hitler’s Final Solution turned what was meant to be their end into the catalyst that changed their lives.
The world learned of their stories. But, that part of history would never to be repeated, as they declared, “Never again!”
The names of gentiles who wanted to make a difference for the Holocaust survivors and their families became sponsors, contributors and financiers for the memorial project. Their names and a bio were mentioned on the tour guide brochure.
As I turned to leave a guided tour group was just arriving, somber faced, some perusing the material about the memorial in their hand.
Then I noticed a man walking with the group while passing through sun dappled trees lining the path. Sunglasses, camera bag hanging from one shoulder, reading the brochure, blending into the crowd, a face I had seen before. It did not seem like a mere coincidence.
Spotting a café across the street, I hurried over, entered and chose a table across the room. A waiter took my order for a ‘coffee to go.’ My bus schedule showed none leaving or arriving for another two hours. Though I rode a shuttle bus to the memorial site I paid little attention to the schedule for those returning to the hotel. After getting my coffee, I saw a taxi dropping people off across the street and hailed him over. He did a sharp U-turn and I jumped in.
Is it just me, now suspicious of everyone I see? Standing outside my hotel room door, cautious, waiting, listening as if expecting to find one going through my things, my files and laptop.
No! I cannot be this way and do my work here. I have a job, an assignment that requires my total focus and concentration.
With trepidation I turned the key in the lock, opening the door. Everything looked the same, just as I’d left it. Maybe it was I who was changing. Now afraid of my own shadow, a door, a noise. A face I’d seen before.
To be continued…
Joyce E. Johnson (2013)