U.S. historian Timothy Snyder says there are several lessons to draw from Babi Yar, where more than 30,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis on September 29-30, 1941. One is that it was a tragedy for all Ukraine. Another is that we must stop thinking about people in terms of ethnic categories or be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Snyder, a professor at Yale University and an expert on the history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust, spoke with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Natalia Churikova in Kyiv, in Ukrainian. The following is a translation:
RFE/RL: Seventy-five years ago on the outskirts of Kyiv at Babi Yar ravine, 33,771 Jews were shot in just two days. Babi Yar has become a symbol of the destruction of Ukrainian Jews just as Auschwitz has become a symbol of the destruction of the Jews throughout Europe. Why is it not only a Jewish tragedy, but a Ukrainian one, too?
Timothy Snyder: First of all, we have to remember that Ukrainian Jews lived on the territory of Ukraine hundreds of years before the Soviets and before the war.
Secondly, Jews along with all other Ukrainians lived through, for instance, the Holodomor [the mass famine of the 1930s]. Some Ukrainians have said that Holodomor is our tragedy and the Holocaust is the tragedy of Jews. That is not completely true, because during the Holodomor, many who lived on Ukrainian territory, including Jews, Russians, Poles, and others, were annihilated.
It seems to me that in order to understand the link between the experiences before the war and during the war, it is necessary, first of all, to understand that the war brought radical changes, then the Soviet system collapsed and those who lived before the war changed their relations with others.
RFE/RL: Some local residents came together with Nazi troops and took part in organizing the mass killings in Ukraine, assisted in those killings. How do you explain that?
Snyder: First of all, we have to note that the Babi Yar killings were organized by [the Nazi] Einsatzgruppe 4A along with two groups of police.
However, from the very beginning, and that is true, some local residents, Ukrainians -- not only ethnic Ukrainians but also Russians, Tatars, and others -- collaborated. Some people from each ethnic group collaborated. The situation was that the German initiative [against the Jews] became possible because not only the SS, but the German Army, the German administration, as well as the German police cooperated with each other. And gradually, the Germans realized that there were also people among local organizations that were ready to cooperate.
RFE/RL: Why did the Stalin regime decide to wipe out from memory the fact that it was mostly Jews killed at Babi Yar?
Snyder: To be precise, the majority of those killed in Babi Yar were Jews. The truth is that some 100,000 people were murdered there. The majority of them were Jews. That is what historians say.
For the Soviet authorities the memory of the Holocaust was not useful. Because it would reveal the fact that Nazism is not just a form of fascism against communism, but also a force against Jews. Therefore, for the Soviet authorities, it was inconvenient to confirm that Jews had suffered more than other parts of Soviet society. That is why, from the very beginning and later, the Soviet authorities did not portray the Babi Yar massacre as mainly a tragedy of Jews.
That is very necessary to understand. Not just to understand that there was the Holocaust, but in order to fully understand what happened on Ukrainian territory. Because memory is not just about history, it is about the future. If Ukrainian society does not understand what sort of place [Babi Yar] is, the Ukrainian people will not be able to understand themselves. Memory is not just a matter of what happened. It is a matter of what kind of people you will be.
RFE/RL: Do you think Ukrainians will be able to accept the Holocaust as their own tragedy in the future?
Snyder: Yes, I agree with that. I think it is necessary. If people look at their history and understand it only in terms of ethnic categories, then they will not be able to see others as fellow members of their nation, either now or in the future.