Babi Yar Park, Denver, Sunday, September 28, 2008
“No monument stands over Babii Yar. A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.”
With these words of complaint, Yevgeny Yevtushenko the great Russian poet opens his mournful and grief-stricken poem about Babi Yar. He bitterly and bravely berates the Soviet Government for not putting up a proper memorial to commemorate the civilian massacre during World War II at a ravine called Babi Yar near Kiev in the Ukraine.
Soviet Russia built no monument to memorialize this Nazi atrocity.
In contrast, the city of Denver has had for many years a most fitting and proper memorial to remind us of this tragic inhumanity.
Babi Yar Park at Parker Road and Havana in Denver.
I was honored to attend a very solemn ceremony last Sunday, September 28, 2008, at Babi Yar Park. The ceremony commemorated the 67th anniversary of the 1941 Nazi murder of over half of the Jews of Kiev. For two days, the Nazis slaughtered Jewish men, women and children, with the vast majority being women and children, at a deserted ravine called Babi Yar, outside the city. For a long time thereafter, they murdered “others:” gypsies, Ukrainians, over 100,000 in all. Rabbi Richard Rheins of Temple Sinai here in Denver reminded us that later the Nazis returned and had prisoners dig up the dead and destroy their bodies in order to eliminate the evidence of their atrocities.
Midway in the program, Maria Verizhnikova emotionally read Yevtushenko’s poem in Russian and translated it into English. Maria’s reading, a symphonic requiem of sound and fury, reminded me of a project I assigned in my Mass Media class which I taught for many years at Regis. The text for the class was a media workbook by Marshall McLuhan, and Eric McLuhan, his son, entitled, Media, Messages and Language: The World as Your Classroom. Many of the exercises suggested by McLuhan’s text probe the nature of ground/figure analysis in relation to various media. The exercises helped the students understand the nature of the different media.
One exercise illustrated the power of spoken language, this time a foreign language, Russian, expertly proclaimed by Yevtushenko to communicate the powerful themes of his poem to those who knew no Russian. I would ask my students to listen to a recording (ancient technology) of Yevtushenko reading his poem. Though they knew no Russian, I then asked my students to listen carefully as Yevtushenko recited his Russian words in the poem and write down what images or thoughts came into their minds as they resonated to the harsh sounds of his voice and the gloomy tones of his words. Students in every class over my many years of teaching wrote down words like “Anger, terror, death, sadness, destruction, and fear.” Yevtushenko’s deep voice proclaimed for my students the litany of sad emotions he wrote about in his poem. The experience allowed Yevtushenko’s words of the poem to become a new figure to a unique sound ground. I recommend that readers try the same exercise and listen to Yevtushenko reciting this poem. Let his words flow into you like a mighty stream.
The wind gusts blew down one of the flags at the ceremony. Someone wearing a yarmulke up righted the flag and stood by holding it against the wind. The long prairie grasses at Babi Yar’s Denver Park rustled in the dry hot wind.
“The wild grasses rustle over Babii 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.” (From the poem).
Julian Bonder, architect for the newly refurbished Babi Yar in Denver, gave the keynote address. Bonder spoke of Emanuel Levinas, the renowned French--Jewish philosopher who probed in his writings, “who is the ‘other in our lives, who is our neighbor?” Levinas asked this question in light of the atrocities like Babi Yar committed in World War II. How was it that so many could kill “other” human beings? It was fitting and proper, after hearing Yevtushenko’s poem, that Bonder reminded us that Levinas wanted all human beings to commit to an ethical relationship with any “other” as soon as one beheld the face of the other and looked into the other’s eyes. Levinas at that moment asks us to be compelled at that special communicative moment to realize “the other” is a human being like ourselves. Apologies for such a brief summary of Levinas theory here but you get the drift.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Victorian Jesuit poet in his poem “As Kingfishers…” suggests the face of the “other” is indeed the face of God himself.
Yehoshua Hoffman, son of Lillian Hoffman, who fought for many years in Denver to allow Soviet Jews to leave Russia, said Kaddish for all who were slalughtered at Babi Yar.
The noon day sun beat down on the huge black marble monuments at the entrance to the park. The yellow leaves rustled in the wind offering a promise that winter and cold was on the way. People left to go on park tours or head for home.
“My need is that we gaze into each other.” (From the poem).