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Saturday, 22 August 2009

New Reflections on ‘Babi Yar’

Barely hours after a survivor of the massacre at Babi Yar was found sleeping rough in a Tel Aviv park he was inundated with offers of traditional Jewish help.

Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported:

Yevgeny Bistrizky survived the massacre at Babi Yar as a three-year-old, though he can't remember how. He trekked through the snow, endured the hunger and the cold, and managed to find his way to Israel. Today, he sleeps in a park in Tel Aviv because no one will rent him an apartment…

Bistrizky moved to Israel in 1993 with his wife and daughter. He lived and worked in Ariel, but  the factory that employed him closed. Then he found work in Tel Aviv, so the family moved there.

“Two years ago, he was fired from that job, and  everything fell apart. He separated from his wife; his daughter went to study in Germany. He returned to Ariel, but no one would rent an apartment to an unemployed senior citizen with no collateral or guarantors. He found an abandoned Amidar apartment (public housing) without electricity or running water, but eight months ago, he was evicted.

“Officials in Ariel advised him to go to Tel Aviv, saying its welfare department was excellent. He did, but got no help. He found a cleaning job that pays NIS 2,000 (about £318.00) a month. He also has his Israeli old-age allowance and the monthly 270-euro pension that he has received from Germany for the past three years. But he still cannot find anyone willing to rent him an apartment, given his age and his lack of collateral and guarantors. So he sleeps in the park”.

But within hours of publication, readers responded with warmth and sympathy:

Mussa Aliwat

08/20/09 10:46 AM

Come to Israel ... stay with friends.”

Jacob Amir

08/21/09 11:37 AM

Mr. Bistrizki was given an apartment by Amigur in Tel Aviv today.  Many readers have reacted generously and he will be able to furnish his new apartment”.

Norman Cone

08/21/09 11:38 AM

Even before this news item was published … Yevgeni Bistrizky received a new apartment and is not sleeping in the park anymore…”

Manuela Brociner

08/21/09 11:47 AM

That is the sad story of all seniors in the world, I’m glad someone helped him”.

This heart-warming story reminded me – as it must have thousands of other readers - of the infamous massacre at Babi Yar, Russia and the wonderful poem written by another Yevgeny - Yevgeny Yevtushenko - which it inspired.

But now I leave readers new to the poem to marvel afresh at its brooding sentiment and intense language which I post here with an accompanying commentary for which I claim  no prior knowledge.

Enjoy, consider and deliberate. This is how I’ve chosen to spend my Shabbat afternoon. If all this makes me a poorer Jew - then that’s tough!


Babi Yar

by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by Ben Okopnik

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. (*1*)
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok (*2*)
)Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"

It seems to me that I am Anne Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-"They come!"

-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"

-"They break the door!"

-"No, river ice is breaking..."

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fibre of my body will forget this.
Internationale thunder and ring (

When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!


1 - Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer, unfairly dismissed from service in 1894 due to trumped-up charges prompted by antisemitism.

2 - Belostok: the site of the first and most violent pogroms, the Russian version of KristallNacht.

3 - "Internationale": The Soviet national anthem.

Commentary on the Poem

Yevgeny.YevtushenkoYevgeny Yevtushenko


Babi Yar, a poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko,  tells the story of the Nazi invasion into a small part of Russia, in which, throughout the duration of World War II, more than 100,000 Jews, Gypsies and Russian POW's were brutally murdered. However, what is unique about this particular perspective is that the narrator is not a Jew, but a mere observer who is aghast at the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. It is through allusions, as well as other literary devices, that Yevtushenko elucidates caustically the absurdities of the hatred that caused the Holocaust, in addition to the narrator's identification with the Jews and their history of oppression.

Perhaps, the most effective literary device used in Babi Yar is the allusion. The first clear allusion seen in the poem is that Egypt(line 6). This reference harks back to the Jews' enslavement in Egypt before they become a nation. In line 7, the narrator makes reference to how so many Jews perished on the cross. The reason for these initial allusions in the first section is clear. Yevtushenko is establishing the history of the Jewish people, being one of oppression, prejudice, and innocent victims. The next illusion in the poem is a reference to the Dreyfus Affair, a more modern display of irrational and avid antisemitism. It was in the Dreyfus Affair that an innocent man was accused of espionage and sent to jail for more than 10 years, notwithstanding an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to his innocence, simply because he was Jewish.

Yevtushenko uses these allusions to lead up to his referral to a boy in Bielostok who is murdered by the Russian common-folk. Clearly, the narrator is teaching a lesson with a dual message. Firstly, he is informing the reader of the horrors that took place in Russia during the Holocaust. Perhaps even more of a travesty, however, is the fact that humankind has not learned from the past in light of the fact that this "episode" is merely one link in a long chain of terrors.

Then Yevtushenko refers to diarist, Anne Frank and how the Nazis stripped her of her  future when she died in the camps. Clearly, the allusion creates images in the mind of the reader that mere descriptions via the use of words could not.

Another effective literary device is the use of the first person in which the narrator identifies with the victims which he describes. The narrator does not claim to understand  the feelings and thoughts of these people  but rather acknowledges that they are feeling, "detested and denounced";  that unlike the rest of the world which turned away, or the Russians who abetted such heinous crimes, he can not empathise, but  sympathises with his Jewish "brethren."

Another extremely powerful device used by Yevtushenko is the detail used to describe events and feelings that he shares with those whom he identifies.  "I bear the red mark of nails"(line 8) seems to include much of the suffering that the Jews have to endure. The statement is almost one of a reverse crucifixion in which the Jews are crucified and now have to suffer  false accusations, blood libels, and pogroms for all time. The poet describes very clearly the contempt so many people have for Jews.

Clearly, Babi Yar is a poem about the tragedy of the Holocaust and how its effects and teachings transcend race, religion, colour, and sex, and involves the whole of the human race. Yevtushenko  speaks to each reader as if he were a Jew, not in the sense of having gone through the experience, but rather of being a part of the remembering process, part of the humane society which feels a moral obligation to recognise what took place and to learn from that experience, lest humanity be condemned to repeat what happened.

Finally, Yevtushenko says that only when antisemites are themselves  hated and  can the narrator truly be a "Russian", the standard for true humanity.


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