Harvey Doppelt, a member of our congregation called me a few weeks ago. “Rabbi, would you lead the Babi Yar Remembrance Ceremony at the Ukrainian Consulate in New York?” Harvey knew my story: I served as the first Reform Rabbi in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. My father’s parents grew up in shtetls near Kiev, the capital city of Ukraine. In the 90’s, when I told my Dad I was going to work as a rabbi in Kiev, he opposed the idea. “Your grandfather left there for a reason. You’re not supposed to go back!” Later, he changed his mind. “Maybe there is a reason our family came to America and was spared the Holocaust. Maybe it was meant to be that one day a grandchild of our family would go back and help the Jews still there.”
Shortly after starting my rabbinic position in Kiev, congregants asked me to join them for the yearly Babi Yar Yahrzeit ceremony. We gathered at the intersection in Kiev where the Jews were told in 1941 to gather to be resettled to the east, or to be shot. Members of my congregation wore photos of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters – their mispucha – who had been murdered at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kiev. They attached strings to photos, put them around their necks and wore the photos to remember and honor their family members. Many of these elderly grandparents wearing the photos clenched the hands of their children and grandchildren as we walked in silence on the same path the victims walked on to their death at Babi Yar. The night of Kol Nidrei in 1941 began the bloody massacre of 33,771 Jews shot over two days.
For the Jews of Kiev, the memory of Babi Yar is not remote. It is personal and close.
This past Wednesday at the Babi Yar ceremony at the Consulate, I chose to deliver my words in Ukrainian. I asked a Ukrainian-speaking Cantor to help me with my pronunciation. She told me that she hated doing this. She said “When I hear Ukrainian, it reminds me of the people who killed my family.” I felt her anger. I spoke with the current Reform Rabbi in Kiev and asked him if it was a mistake to speak Ukrainian. He told me “My mother learned Ukrainian from the family that hid her and her sister during the war. My Mother survived because of a Ukrainian family. Speaking in Ukrainian honors the 2,659 Ukrainians that saved Jews during the war.”
These are the words I spoke in Ukrainian.
“This is a very sad day of remembrance for the victims of Babyn Yar. Babyn Yar is a tragedy we must not forget. Our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who were shot in Babyn Yar, silently look at us and ask us to speak for them. We are their voice. They tell us that the future may be better than the past. Hatred leads to death. We must learn to respect the differences between people. People are a rainbow of colors, religions and beliefs. If we work together, we can bring peace to our world. I believe this is what the dead from Babyn Yar want from us. I pray that we will honor the memory of our dead by doing good deeds. Yizkor. We will remember and we will do.”
Babi Yar reminds us where hatred leads when left unchecked. I hope we will gather in the coming weeks to learn more the Jewish values that command us to engage society at-large to counter hate and to honor diversity and inclusion as essential to our people’s mission to repair the world.
Rabbi David Wilfond
Photo: On the right is congregant Harvey Doppelt, in the middle is Representative of Ukraine to UN: Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya