As the Wehrmacht army entered Ukraine in 1941, prosecutor Maj. Alexander Maiboroda grabbed the last truck in the column of people fleeing from the oncoming soldiers. Into its open luggage compartment he helped his Jewish wife, Ethel, and their three young children – a boy and two girls.
The short distance separating them from the armed men formed the quivering line between being and non-being, between future and nothingness. With tanks following them, Ethel held tight onto her youngest, Zina, born in the spring of 1939. She knew that her children, in whose veins ran the blood of the two races targeted by Nazism – Slavs and Jews – might have been taking their last breaths.
But the army was in a good and celebratory mood the day it crossed the Ukrainian border, and did not seek to kill the unarmed families just yet. Or maybe it did fire, but the shots missed that last vehicle. Or maybe, somewhere among the soldiers, someone’s heart skipped a beat in the right direction. I’ve heard both of the first versions; the third is my own. I’m not sure we will ever know. What we do know is that Ethel and the children made it through the war. Through suffering and struggle, Zina grew up and became Zinaida Alexandrovna, my grandmother.
This account is about Drobitsky Yar, a ravine near my hometown, Kharkov (Kharkiv), where she and her family could have been slain, but weren’t. A timely evacuation to the Urals saved their lives. Had they been in Kharkov that winter, their fate would likely have been sealed. By various accounts, between 16 000 and 30 000 human beings were shot there, on the south-eastern city outskirts, in December 1941. Most of them were Jews; the rest were prisoners of war, resistance fighters, and the mentally ill. Over the years, an impressive memorial complex has grown here to commemorate them.
Drobitsky Yar is quite unlike its far better known counterpart, Babii Yar, the darkly infamous ravine in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev (Kyiv) that swallowed over 33 000 Jews in September 1941. Today, Babii Yar is marked solely by a minimalistic sculpture of a menorah. In some distance, closer to the nearest metro station, a monument to the murdered children has been erected. Composed of somewhat frightening life-sized dolls, it completes the limited physical memorial reference to the horrors committed here.
Meanwhile, all around the park, Kiev leads its usual hectic life. The breathing city has incorporated what had once been its outskirts.
This process never took place at Drobitsky Yar. The place itself isn’t widely known, either internationally or domestically. When I tried to hire a taxi to visit it, the driver had to call around, and still couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go. Another company didn’t know where it was, either, but they did know they wouldn’t take me there, as their services were limited by the Ring road that circles our city. To reach the place where thousands lie murdered, one must step slightly beyond the Ring. The city stays behind, and only the wind stirs in the silent green plains above the mass graves. Stepping out of the car into that wind today, I listened for echoes of shots fired seventy years ago, and I thought what I often think in such places. We could have been here, in the moaning pits of death that have grown quiet now. But we are not. Why? And how does one possibly, ever, internally justify that?
Kharkov was occupied during the night of October 23-24, 1941. Several weeks later, on December 5, a census was held to identify the Jewish inhabitants of the city. Their names were entered into a separate yellow list. On December 14, 1941, the Nazis issued an order that gave all Jews two days to relocate to the barracks that had been set up for factory workers in an area known as KhTZ, abbreviated from the Kharkov Tractor Factory. The penalty for failure to move within the given timeframe was death.
That week the temperature dropped below -15 °C. For three days (December 14-16) a river of near-frozen families, totaling at least 16 000 persons, flowed down the wintry streets – mostly along the Moscow Prospect – to the designated location on the outskirts. Fearing the worst, some mothers dropped their babies into the snow, where the remaining population could find and save them. Tatyana Bezzubkina, the Drobitsky Yar tour guide to whom many thanks are due for her time, points out that the factory barracks were designed to hold 70-80 people each. When the families arrived, however, those numbers hit 700-800 instead. Conditions were atrocious. Generally, ghettos were not set up in East Ukraine; Kharkov was one of the few cities where one did exist – albeit for less than a month.
After the move to the ghetto was completed, the people were taken to the nearby Drobitsky Yar, where mass graves had been prepared for them. They were shot by the hundreds. A single trip from the ghetto ended the lives of up to 300 persons. Accounts of the contemporaries contain bloodcurdling testimonies: after each execution, the ground of Drobitsky Yar moaned and moved for days. Crawling around these pits of hell, some locals reached for the rare survivors who emerged from the blood-soaked earth. This image is invoked by Yevgeny Yevtushenko in his 1987 poem, The Apple Trees of Drobitsky: “Расскажи нам, Рувим Рувимович, как подростком, в чём мать родила, весь в кровище, в лице ни кровиночки, выползал, разгребая тела.” Russians, Ukrainians and Armenians were also executed here; this stands behind the poem’s pained lines about four murdered girls – Jewish, Ukrainian, Russian and Armenian – who give rise to young apple trees that whisper in each of their languages, while their skeletons hold each other underground:
Человечество, слышишь, видишь –
здесь, у сестринской кровной криницы,
Сара-яблонька шепчет на идиш,
Христя-яблонька – по-украински.
Третья яблонька – русская Манечка,
встав на цыпочки, тянется ввысь,
а четвёртая – Джан, армяночка.
Все скелеты в земле обнялись.
The memorial complex
Today, nine mass graves have been identified at Drobitsky Yar through biochemical testing of the ground. They are marked by simple white signs: e.g. “Burial Site 3”. The very first small commemorating obelisk was set up in the 1950s:
In 1988, a newspaper called Vecherny Kharkov published the first article about these murders. Until then, Kharkovites rested and camped in the area, among human bones that sometimes emerged from the ground. One website mentions a little girl’s braids, complete with bows, that appeared there one day.
The memorial complex of Drobitsky Yar stretches far into the fields, and is comprised of several key points spread over nine hectares of land. Its idea was proposed half-a-century after the tragedy, in 1991, when a foundation stone was laid. Architect A. Leibfreid won the design competition. The memorial’s construction was blessed in 1994 by a Rabbi and an Orthodox priest. It halted shortly afterwards due to a lack of funds, reflecting the turbulent 1990s, and restarted again five years later, in 2000. The memorial was officially opened in December 2002, sixty-one years after the city’s Jews were given two days to move to KhTZ. In 2005, a Mourning Hall was opened underneath the main structure of the complex.
At the entrance to Drobitsky Yar, a black sign announces that one has arrived to a Place of Bloody Terror:
Nearby, a black stone summarizes the story in three languages: Ukrainian, Hebrew, English.
Walking past these signs and up some steps symbolizing Mount Sinai, one arrives at a broken and twisted rendering of a menorah. It is styled into burnt wood to convey the wasted lives it commemorates. A sign under it says: “Here the dead teach the living” – in three languages: Latin, Ukrainian and Hebrew.
From the menorah, the view over the valley is open and beautiful. Glancing along a curving road, one can catch a glimpse of another part of the memorial complex – a white, candle-like structure, barely visible against the glow of the sky. This road, leading from black to white parts of the memorial, is the route thousands of people covered on their last day in 1941.
This furthest part of the memorial is styled after the dome of the sky, a synagogue, and a candle, combined. A menorah and a Star of David rise over an open book, which repeats the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” in ten languages. (The Wikipedia entry, as seen in September of 2011, is incorrect; these are not the Ten Commandments, they are a single commandment in ten languages). On a sunny day, the white walls form a striking contrast with the blue sky and the surrounding green openness.
The discovery seemed to suggest that these victims were those who could not make the Dec. 1941 forced march to Drobitsky Yar, where most of Kharkov’s Jews were gunned down and left in a mass grave.
Under the white dome, in the Mourning Hall, a black Cup of Sorrow stands in the middle of a darkened room. It is filled with small colourful lights that flicker on and off, symbolizing souls born and extinguished. The Cup’s reflective effects are designed to make it appear bottomless, alluding to suffering that has no end. All around it, names of over 4 300 known victims cover the dimly lit walls.
Some names have a detail added to them: e.g. “and newborn baby”, or “with her two small daughters”, or “and maid”. When I came here for the first time, I remember being struck by that maid – noted only as Fedorovna – who must have been a Slav following her Jewish family to the grave.
When I asked Tatiana Bezzubkina how the four thousand names were identified, she sighed. “Through the relatives who come here,” she said. The desk and walls of the memorial’s office contain photographs brought by such visitors:
… as well as a guest book. One of the visible entries is: “Lord! Teach me what I should do to ensure that this never happens again.”
Nearby lies a letter brought by German visitors to the memorial. It asks forgiveness in several languages.
On one of the office shelves, bullets discovered in the area stand against a notebook entitled “Towards Memory”. This symbolism concluded my visit and sent me home, feeling as overwhelmed as anyone would – perhaps as overwhelmed as one is meant to get there.
The wrong kind of ending?
On the way back, looking out from the Ring road to the fields surrounding my city, I thought about ways to start and end this blog entry. It would have to do with time, and with memory, of course. But reality entered its own checks and balances into my thoughts. A few minutes before getting home, I stopped at a grocery store. As I paid at the register, a young and rather square-looking security guy checked out the Drobitsky Yar brochure I had picked up. He wanted to know what it was. “It’s about the thousands of Jews murdered in a ravine outside our city,” I said. He replied: “Not enough. I would toss there a few more.” The cashier, a young woman, chuckled approvingly.
You know those times when your mind races through a lightning-fast set of things to say? Those decisions you make in milliseconds from a number of inner options. The thing is, none of the options that crossed my mind at that moment did justice to the lives that ended in Drobitsky Yar. None, except silence. Several seconds later, I took my things and walked out, saying nothing – something I didn’t quite expect to do. “Maybe a dozen!” he continued into my back, realizing I wasn’t picking up the confrontation he was hoping for.
Outside, I talked myself into calming down. Answering him would achieve nothing. Given the way I tend to get engaged with things, it would only brutalize the trip I wanted to preserve in my mind. He wasn’t worth it. I told myself I’ll put the energy into this text instead. At least, I’d try.
If anyone plans to visit Kharkov / Kharkiv and would like to reach Drobitsky Yar, please don’t hesitate to contact me through the MAW website (or here). The memorial staff plans to open a homepage soon, but does not have one yet. Depending on where in the city you are staying, we can plan your trip. For oblivious taxi drivers, the general pointer is just past the crossing of the Ring road and Moscow Prospect. The entrance will be on the left, so a car coming out of the city will have to make a U-turn. For a more complicated public transport route, the Proletarskaia metro station would be key, with a bus ride or a long walk from there. Map-wise, look to the south-eastern corner of the city, in the direction that says Rogan’.
The strangest feeling about being out there, past the last city buildings, in the green open area, is just that: the openness, the silence, the lack of urban energy, which make Drobitsky Yar seem untouched by time. It’s as if the years have rolled by, and the bodies are silent.
But the wind whispering in the trees – an invisible, eternal, tireless witness – is still the same one.
October 2012: A shortened version of this piece can be found in the Memory at War newsletter (Issue No. 11, October 2012).