“Babi Yar: My Family, the Holocaust & the Specter of Denial” by Georgi Vogel Rosen

On September 29 and 30, 1941, more than 33,000 Jewish men, women and children were herded into a barbed-wire area at the top of the Babi Yar ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, Ukraine. The Nazis forced them to lay naked, face-down on the ground, and then shot each to death with their machine guns. Among these tens of thousands of innocent victims likely included my grandmother’s aunts, uncles and cousins. (The Nazis had murdered my great-great-grandparents, Kheena and Leibl, just days earlier in Korosten, Ukraine, in a similar manner.)

The Shekhtmans

My great-great-grandparents, Leibl and Kheena Shekhtman z”l, who were murdered by the Nazis in Korosten, 100 miles to the east of Kiev, in September 1941.

Seventy years after this unthinkable tragedy, during the 2011 Muslim Jewish Conference, I visited Babi Yar, the site where my family and so many other families were murdered, the site of the single largest massacre of Jews during the Shoah (Holocaust in Hebrew). I hesitated to step foot on this horrible site, but doing so with an interfaith group of Jews and Muslims was undoubtedly the most powerful, moving experience I have ever had.

Coincidentally, we had spent the day in my committee talking about Holocaust denial in parts of the Muslim world. I had been horrified to learn that even my new well-educated Pakistani friends had been taught in school that: “There was a Holocaust during World War II. Many people, including Jews, Roma, and disabled people were killed. Some say as many as six million people died, but it might have been less.” While none of our Muslim friends had questioned that six million Jews had been murdered in the Shoah, one had drawn a parallel to the situation in Israel and Palestine, prompting a deeply emotional committee session. One Israeli woman, the granddaughter of survivors, talked in chilling detail about Hitler’s “Final Solution” and the unspeakable horrors that had occurred throughout Europe. As a group, the Jews spoke about how scared we are to hear world leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad question the very existence of the Holocaust, and how upsetting it is to listen to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict likened to the Shoah. We had set out to have a rational conversation as to how the Holocaust and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict vastly differ, but with this topic, it was difficult to remain calm and objective. There were tears, lots of tears. It had been a very intense afternoon, and I think the last thing any of us wanted to do at that point was to go on a scheduled field trip to Babi Yar.

But we went. Together, sixty of us filed into a double-decker bus to visit Babi Yar, as well as a synagogue and a mosque.

Muslim MJC participants reciting the Surah Fatiha prayer for the dead at Babi Yar.

Muslim MJC participants reciting the Surah Fatiha prayer for the dead at Babi Yar.

I had mixed feelings about going to Babi Yar. When I had first learned that I would be going to Kiev for the Muslim Jewish Conference, I had had high hopes of tracking down distant relatives still living in the city. I looked into making a side trip to travel to the hometown of my great-grandfather, Jacob, to see where he had lived as a child before journeying to the United States alone at the young age of 14. But the more I looked for the places where my family had lived, all I could find was where they had died. In Korosten, there is a large mass grave where hundreds of bodies are buried, including my great-great-grandparents. In Kiev, there is Babi Yar. I had traveled all this way from the United States to see the land from which my father’s family had hailed, but I had little desire to make a pilgrimage to the sites where they were murdered.

At Babi Yar, we stood beside the recently-constructed memorial outside the ravine. We listened to our tour guide as she recounted the horrific acts that had occurred 70 years ago on the very ground we were standing. We then walked in silence down the narrow path by the ravine where so many Ukrainian Jews had been gruesomely murdered. I remember shaking and feeling sick to my stomach. This was where my family likely had been killed. A stream of images from yellowed family photos passed through my mind. At the same time, I was aware that I was walking side by side with a Pakistani Muslim woman who had never met a Jew until just two days before. A woman who heroically had defied the hatred and the ignorance that surrounded her in her rural, provincial home in Pakistan, where a classmate dismissively had told her, “When you meet the Jews at the conference, tell them we hate them,” so she could come to the conference and work toward interfaith peace and tolerance. A woman who the night before had asked me to show her how to do to the hora (traditional Jewish dance). Walking on the path through the ravine was a peculiar juxtaposition of evil and hate with hope and inspiration.

Menorah memorial at Babi Yar.

Menorah memorial at Babi Yar.

Then spontaneously, it seemed, all of the Muslims in our group gathered in a circle, held out their hands before them, and began to pray. At first, the Jews were confused. What was going on? What were they doing? We soon realized that they were reciting the Muslim prayer for remembering the dead, Surah Fatiha – the Muslim version of the mourner’s kaddish, so to speak. Many of them were crying. Many of us were crying. In fact, one Austrian Jewish woman later recounted how, after years of regularly visiting Auschwitz, she had grown hardened to hearing about the Holocaust; watching the Muslim participants pray at Babi Yar was the first time she had cried about the Holocaust in years.

I later told my friend Osama about how much their prayer had meant to us. Earlier that day, he too had talked about the misinformation he had been fed growing up attending school in Pakistan. He seemed surprised that we had been so touched by something so simple. “How could we not have prayed for all of those people who died?” he asked, “It is what any human would do.”

When asked why I am so dedicated to Jewish-Muslim interfaith work, I often tell this story. I was already involved in the cause before the day we visited Babi Yar, but this moment sticks with me. Seeing the group of Muslim participants from all parts of the world join together without any prompt to pray for the fallen Jews of Babi Yar – for my own great-great uncles, great-great aunts and distant cousins – was immensely touching. This showing of solidarity, “what any human would do,” has become for me the defining moment of not only the Muslim Jewish Conference but of my Jewish-Muslim interfaith work. So much emphasis has been put on our differences: in politics, in prayer, in custom. But we often forget about how much unites us. There, on the land which had seen such unimaginable atrocity and inhumanity, we stood together not as a group of Jews and a group of Muslims, or even as a group of Jews and Muslims. Instead, we stood together as partners. We had traveled to this far away place from all parts of the globe so we could end the cycle of hatred that has plagued our peoples. We had come to put aside our differences, stereotypes, and misconceptions so that we could construct a new future together: one of hope, peace and partnership. And of all places, this happened at Babi Yar.

– Georgi Vogel Rosen, USA