Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people

About ten years ago, I read a poem by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko dedicated to Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre of 100,000 Ukrainian and Russian Jews. I was so moved by its indignation, its pathos, that it's always stuck with me. And today, I went there.

Babi Yar today is a winding, grassy, mowed ravine just a few hundred meters from a metro station on Kiev's green line. People on cell phones walk past it on their way to and from work or school, and couples push strollers along the same ground where children, women, men were slaughtered 60 years ago.

I sat on the edge of the ravine, dangling my feet over it, and tried to fathom 100,000 people. Tried to fathom the people who pulled triggers and pushed bodies down the slope – what did they think in that moment? And what did those people, those fathers, mothers, those children, think as they saw bodies piling up, what were their last thoughts, their last words, as they tumbled down into the gulch?

I wanted to say a prayer in that moment, but for who? For the people who died? For the people who killed them? It all seemed so cliche somehow. In the end, I prayed for all of us, for, as FDR put it, “not just an end to war, but an end to the beginning of all wars.” For people today who kill and are killed in places like Sudan, for those who are trying to do something about it, and for those who just don't know what to do about it.

I stepped over the edge, walked into the middle of the ravine, looked back at the monument and remembered the end of Yevtushenko's poem:

The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.

The trees look ominous, like judges.

Here all things scream silently,

and, baring my head,

slowly I feel myself

turning gray.

And I myself

am one massive, soundless scream

above the thousand thousand buried here.

I am

each old man

here shot dead.

I am

every child

here shot dead.

Nothing in me

shall ever forget! …

In my blood there is no Jewish blood.

In their callous rage, all anti-Semites

must hate me now as a Jew.

For that reason

I am a true Russian!

Read the whole thing here. Seriously, read it.

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