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Babi Yar Through the Eyes of Soviet Poets

In September of 1941, Nazi forces in Ukraine committed the largest mass murder of Jews in all of World War II. Over 100,000 people were killed and buried at a ravine in Kyiv by the name of Babi Yar.[i] Unlike the recognition given the concentration camps in Germany and Poland and the drive for commemoration in Western Europe, the ravine, along with the Eastern Holocaust it represented, drew little notice from the authorities and the people nearby. The government wanted nothing more than for its citizens to forget about the specificities of suffering not their own. Yet despite censorship, some writers did address the massacre at Babi Yar and the greater tragedy it represented. Two Soviet writers, Ilya Ehrenburg and Yevgeny Yevtushenko, both wrote poems entitled “Babi Yar.” Their poems, written decades apart, demonstrate how the treatment of Babi Yar in Soviet memory evolved over time.


Soviet Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg wrote his poem on Babi Yar in 1944 as World War II dragged on. The poem was first published in the journal Novy Mir, the Communist government-approved literary monthly as part of a numbered collection of six poems. Originally, the poem held no title. When it was published again in 1959, Ehrenburg added the title, “Babi Yar,” explicitly linking the poem to the Jewish tragedy.[ii] Throughout the war, Ehrenburg worked as a war correspondent with journalist Vasily Grossman to document the horrors of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. At this time, documentation of the persecution and murder of Jews by the Germans served the Soviet Union’s anti-Nazi goals. However, the poem still represented a challenge to Stalinist ideals.[iii] In the midst of World War II, Babi Yar remained unmarked, still one of many sites of killing, lost in the fog of war.

Ehrenburg’s poem uses heavy imagery to represent the weight of the memory of Babi Yar and the author’s personal connection to the tragedy as a Jew. The first part of the poem uses the imagery of a stone and a convict’s ball and chain on the heart to emphasize the heaviness of memory. Ehrenburg goes on to describe the experience of seeing the tragedy everywhere, being now acquainted with every ravine, seeing each one as his home.[iv] The poem describes in personal terms the burden of memory that Babi Yar places on the Jews who survived the Holocaust. The jarring idea of the ravine, conjuring images of death and isolation, being a home to the speaker speaks to his burden. Where shall he find a home without his people, without his family? His cry, “My children! My blush! My countless relatives!” shows the rawness of emotion and further personalizes the experience.[v]

In the poem, Ehrenburg mourns the loss of the dead in their ravine burial ground but does not openly mention Jews, Slavs, or Nazis.[vi] Despite Soviet policy requiring the poet to leave out specificity about the people who perished at Babi Yar, its tone of loss still speaks personally to the Jewish tragedy. While any Soviet reader might see reflections of themselves in a poem about death and loss in the midst of World War II, the later addition of the title and the personal nature of the poem speaks directly to a Jewish audience, one who would recognize their own “countless relatives” amongst those in Ehrenburg’s poem.[vii]

While poems of Jewish authors bearing witness to the massacre at Babi Yar and the Holocaust took courage and dedication to publish, after the war the tragedy of Babi Yar found no representation in commemoratory events or monuments. In fact, government plans threatened to bury the site under various ignominious construction projects. In 1959 the Soviet government planned to build a stadium over Babi Yar. In 1961, as part of the initial construction, the government built a dam over the site, but the dam flooded and killed over a hundred people. After clearing the mud, workers dug up the bones and paved over the area, just as they attempted to pave over the Jewish suffering there.[viii] Babi Yar remained an empty ravine where people scattered litter and trash. This was the Babi Yar that Yevtushenko knew.


In 1961, just as Babi Yar faced the threat of burial under a modern policy of forgetting, Soviet writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko published his poem, “Babi Yar” in the Literaturnaya Gazeta. The poem begins with the statement of the simple fact that no monument stands at Babi Yar. While true, the statement also functions as bold indictment of a society that sought to forget the particulars of Jewish suffering in favor of internationalism. Yevtushenko, who was not Jewish, then enters an extended metaphor imagining himself as a Jew in different time periods, always cast aside and persecuted by the larger society no matter the time or place.[ix] His repetitive use of “I” might give the impression that he speaks over Jews who actually suffered from antisemitism, however, the idea that a famous Soviet poet would imagine himself as Jewish for the artistic sake of a poem must have been shocking to readers. The poem concludes by speaking to and for Russians, calling on them to end antisemitism through the internationalist ideology of Communism. The poem uses bold and direct language to combine Jewish particularism and politically correct Communist internationalism.

Unlike Ehrenburg, who wrote under Stalinist repression and as a Jew, Yevtushenko wrote as the voice of an idealistic new generation who enjoyed greater freedoms under Khrushchev’s thaw.[x] Both poems invoke empathy and memory through the conduit of imagined memory. Ehrenburg calls up a constructed memory of himself meeting people who perished at Babi Yar that he never met, increasing the poem’s sense of loss.[xi] Yevtushenko imagines himself as a Jewish person in different decades of history in order to call attention to the antisemitism that has always lurked within society. Both authors worked within the context of their time to call attention to the plight of the oppressed, whether their own people or another. Though sometimes criticized for his dramatic and attention-seeking style, Yevtushenko’s bold poem sparked protests from the Komsomol and vandalism of his property.[xii]

In the literary world, the boldness and directness of Yevtushenko’s “Babi Yar” immediately inspired controversy. Other Soviet authors accused Yevtushenko of reawakening “racial hatred” for focusing on Jewish lives lost in the war rather than the common suffering of Soviet people.[xiii] Yet the also poem inspired other important works on Babi Yar and the Holocaust to be written and published;[xiv] for instance, the famous composer Shostakovich wrote a symphony including words from Yevtushenko’s poem, which could only be performed once before censorship forced the composer to wait until the fall of the Soviet Union to perform again.

According to E. W. Clowes, Yevtushenko's poem was a “literary bombshell” on Soviet society, sparking opposition, support, and debate. Clowes states that the poem and the commotion it inspired kept Khrushchev from realizing his plans to build the football stadium at Babi Yar.[xv] In 1967, people erected a granite stone with an inscription stating that a real monument would soon be created. In the early 1970s, the government arrested Jews who sought to commemorate the deaths at Babi Yar by laying flowers and organizing religious services.[xvi] Ten years later that monument finally appeared on appropriately Soviet terms, commemorating the “Soviet citizens” slain rather than specifically Jews. Like Yevtushenko’s poem, the monument brought out an aspect of society that years before had been censored and wiped from the collective memory, even if imperfectly. Nonetheless, progress was progress, and after Ukraine’s independence, a stone menorah erected in 1991 finally openly commemorated the Jewish tragedy of Babi Yar.

Ehrenburg and Yevtushenko’s poetry helped bring Babi Yar and the Holocaust into the public memory. While the poets brought to light a painful memory, their poetry also contained a call for a better future, one that began with remembering the past. Though commemoration of Babi Yar is no longer shrouded by censorship, its future remains delicate. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the threat of burial under new developments lurks always under the surface. As recently as 2009, development companies sought to build a hotel on the site to accommodate tourists arriving for the European Football Championship.[xvii] Today, Russia’s war in Ukraine has already threatened to destroy Babi Yar’s monuments and their future remains uncertain.[xviii] Once again the midst of continued danger and peril, the monuments that took decades of painstaking work stand as a new testament to the horror of hatred, war, and antisemitism, none of which have yet left Eastern Europe.

Two monuments that currently stand on the Babi Yar site, the first to the children killed in the massacre and the menorah to the Jewish victims.

Elsewhere in the park, a wagon shaped memorial filled with flowers pays tribute to the Roma victims of the massacre. I took these pictures in July of 2021 during my time in Kyiv.

[i] Jessica Rapson, “Marginalized Memories,” in Topographies of Suffering, 1st ed., Buchenwald, Babi Yar, Lidice (Berghahn Books, 2017), 83, [ii] Maxim D. Shrayer, “Jewish-Russian Poets Bearing Witness to the Shoah, 1941- 1946: Textual Evidence and Preliminary Conclusions,” Studies in Slavic Languages and Literatures. ICCEES Congress Stockholm 2010 Papers and Contributions. Ed. Stefano Garzonio (PECOB’S VOLUMES), January 1, 2011, 74–75. [iii] Shrayer, “Jewish-Russian Poets Bearing Witness to the Shoah, 1941- 1946,” 85. [iv] Илья Эренбург, “Бабий Яр,” Культура.РФ, 1944, [v] Илья Эренбург, “Бабий Яр,” Культура.РФ, 1944, [vi] E. W. Clowes, “Constructing the Memory of the Holocaust: The Ambiguous Treatment of Babii Yar in Soviet Literature,” Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 3, no. 2 (2005): 164, [vii] Shrayer, “Jewish-Russian Poets Bearing Witness to the Shoah, 1941- 1946,” 165. [viii] “The Long and Uncertain Journey of the Babyn Yar Memorial,” Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, March 24, 2022, [ix] Евтушенко Евгений, “Бабий Яр,” Культура.РФ, 1961, [x] Clowes, “Constructing the Memory of the Holocaust,” 166. [xi] Илья Эренбург, “Бабий Яр,” Культура.РФ, 1944, [xii] Clowes, “Constructing the Memory of the Holocaust,” 169. [xiii] Clowes, “Constructing the Memory of the Holocaust,” 169. [xiv] Ibid. [xv] Ibid, 167. [xvi] “The Long and Uncertain Journey of the Babyn Yar Memorial,” Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, March 24, 2022, [xvii] Rapson, “Marginalized Memories,” 8. [xviii] Mike Wagenheim, “Russian Bombs Damage Kyiv’s Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Site,”, March 1, 2022,


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