Jewish World Review Oct. 12, 2001 / 25 Tishrei, 5762
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- AS America continues to confront the horror of Sept. 11, a nation halfway around the globe is coming to grips with a similar face of evil.
Ukraine's Jewish community, joined by friends all over the world, hosted a moving commemoration of Babi Yar, a prime Nazi killing field 60 years ago. The transition of the old Soviet Empire to democratic capitalism has not been easy. Western values are not deeply rooted and ugly anti-Semitism persists. But Ukraine, at least, is moving beyond the persecutions of the past.
Ukraine has had a tortured history -- a proud, independent people successively incorporated in Tsarist Russia and communist Soviet Union. With the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 came independence for Ukraine. The succeeding 10 years have been difficult, with economic hardship and political deadlock. Among those who suffered most are Jews. Imperial Russia hosted numerous anti-Semitic pogroms. The Soviet Union's animosity was better hidden, but persistent. Most virulent, however, was that of the Nazi conquerors. Although their rule was short, it was bloody. Outside of Kiev lies a ravine named Babi Yar. Sixty years ago, German SS forces machine-gunned more than 30,000 Jewish men, women and children and dumped their bodies into mass graves.
Although they completed their task in just two days, they were not finished. Eventually as many as 200,000 Jews were murdered there. Unfortunately, the end of communism has not ended the plague of anti-Semitism. Ancient hostilities remain powerful throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
However, Ukraine is forthrightly tackling the issue. Last year, Pope John Paul II visited Ukraine, and included a stop at Babi Yar, along with Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, Chief Rabbi of Kiev and Ukraine. There the pope acknowledged the suffering of Jews "for being true to the religion of their fathers."
Rabbi Bleich lauded the pope, especially his call for tolerance and cooperation. Last year also saw the rededication of Kiev's historic Central Synagogue. Built in 1898, it was taken over by the communist government in 1926 and turned into a puppet theater. The synagogue was restored to its true purpose once Ukraine was free. This year is even more special. On Sept. 29 and 30, the Jewish Confederation of Ukraine, made up of more than 300 Jewish organizations, sponsored, along with the independent television network 1+1, an international remembrance at Babi Yar.
Rabbi Bleich sees this not just as a remembrance of evil done six decades ago, but of the hard-fought advance of human rights over the same period. He hopes to remind people around the world of "values that could defeat death itself," values that must continue to battle evil, reflected in the events of Sept. 11.
Joining him was the political leadership of Ukraine, a testament to a nation attempting to bury a prejudice that has so dogged its history. But even more revealing is the foreign contingent joining the celebration. Former German President Richard von Weizsacker, who helped his nation confront its horrid past, attended. Poland sent Yatsek Kuron, the chief ideologist for the Solidarity Movement, which helped destroy communism in Poland and ultimately throughout Eastern Europe.
Russian President Vladimir Putin endorsed the program; former President Boris Yeltsin planned to attend, but was ill. From Israel came Natan Shcharansky, a one-time Soviet dissident, Yelena Bonner, wife of Andrei Sakharov, another human rights giant, and Knesset Speaker Abraham Burg.
Actors, musicians, singers and other public figures also joined in. Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., a vocal human rights advocate, participated. Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., a Holocaust survivor, joined in via a satellite link. State Department officials and New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver also participated.
Sept. 29 was Memorial Night, with a performance of Dimitry Shostakovich's 13th Symphony, dedicated to the Babi Yar murders, which was long banned in the Soviet Union. The following day, Steven Spielberg's "The Last Days" was shown.
American policymakers should take note of the Babi Yar ceremonies. During the Cold War, Congress restricted trade to pressure Moscow to free Jewish emigration. Today those laws continue to apply, punishing Ukraine for the sins of its past oppressor. Yet the Babi Yar remembrance offers powerful evidence that, while anti-Semitism may not yet be vanquished in Ukraine, it is on the run. For that, Ukraine deserves to be rewarded, not punished.
Historical remembrances are common, and most are eminently forgettable. But something special occurred in Ukraine. Leaders of a nation in which Jews have suffered for centuries are saying "No more." The horrible old memories of Babi Yar neither can nor should be erased. But it will now sport a new memory, a commitment to combat religious and ethnic hatreds. And that commitment is no less important today, as demonstrated by the tragic events of Sept.
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