I was privileged to witness the United Nations General Assembly mark the very first International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2006. The need to educate against discrimination and to accept difference regardless of color, race, religion or belief has not diminished. It is perhaps more pressing than ever. Therefore, on this day, the world will solemnly bow its head in remembrance and pledge never to forget.

However, if this is to be anything more than lip service, then Holocaust remembrance must extend beyond an annual 24-hour event. The enormity of the tragedy, the six million individual worlds that were obliterated, demand that we do more.

The challenge is not straightforward. As the Holocaust begins to drift beyond living memory, we must find new ways to remember and we must discover new stories to tell. Sadly, there is no shortage. While the names of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Majdanek and so many others are rightly etched into the public consciousness, there are many other lesser-known tragedies which have largely evaded the historical record. And none more so than Babyn Yar.

Just days after occupying the Ukrainian capital of Kiev in September 1941, the Nazis ordered the city’s Jews to assemble and promptly marched them to their deaths at the Babyn Yar ravine. Around 34,000 Jews were shot dead in 48 hours. Babyn Yar became a prototype for the Nazis, who then carried out similar massacres across Eastern Europe. This ‘Holocaust by bullets’ killed 1.5 million Jews.

No single horrific episode during the Holocaust is more tragic than the next. Yet, what sets the likes of Babyn Yar aside is that mass murder was committed on its victims’ doorsteps. Kiev’s Jews weren’t ‘sent to the East’ for euphemistic ‘work.’ Instead, they were cut down in the very place they had called home for generations.

As such, Babyn Yar had a profound local impact. People watched as their neighbors walked to their executions, children saw friends disappear overnight, tens of thousands of homes lay eerily empty before being looted. In short, local residents became witnesses to evil. Some may have watched with horror; others may have applauded.

What is certain is that the moral trauma was never dealt with. In fact, in the aftermath of the Second World War, the memory of Babyn Yar was deliberately suppressed by the Soviets. They regarded the particular suffering of Jews or indeed any other national, religious or ethnic minority as an affront to the Communist narrative. Consequently, they metaphorically and physically buried the history of Babyn Yar, building roads and housing over the haunting site where multitudes were murdered.

For so many Ukrainians, the reality of Soviet oppression and the distorted Communist worldview remains well within living memory, part of everyday existence just three decades ago. As a result, the dark past of the country’s Nazi occupation remains entirely unfamiliar to many. According to a recent survey, just 16 per cent of Ukrainians know that more than one million Jews were shot by the Nazis in the killing fields of Ukraine and Eastern Europe. 68 per cent of Ukrainians acknowledge that awareness of the Holocaust is fading. Clearly, there is much work to be done. Furthermore, as the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles, there is no time to lose.

If inspiration were needed, look no further than Germany. The very country which plunged the ultimate depths of inhumanity has largely come to terms with its past in a mature, responsible fashion. Moreover, the country is clearly better off for it, having learnt crucial lessons. The result is a society which is an example of freedom, tolerance and respect.

Fortunately, the tide of memory is beginning to turn in Ukraine and beyond. The Abba Eban Institute of International Diplomacy at IDC Herzliya, with the University of Kyiv and the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, will hold a special online academic seminar which will bring together historians and experts from across the world to discuss the significance of Babyn Yar.

At the same time, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is establishing a world-class Holocaust museum at the very place where so many perished. Already, the Center is spearheading numerous educational and research projects, finally shining a light on a tragedy which has been hidden in the shadows for too long and breathing new life into a lost world.

By bringing the story alive, not only will Babyn Yar finally take its rightful place in the annals of history, but crucially we can help ensure that the next generation is morally equipped to face the challenges of a rapidly changing world. If young people can internalize the lessons of Babyn Yar – the need to recognize evil, to love your neighbor and to respect difference – then they can develop the moral backbone required to build a much better tomorrow. That would truly give renewed, sincere meaning to the promise of ‘Never Again’ on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.


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