We walk past small ledges chiselled into a swell of red sandstone almost every day. Deep in the valley there is a narrow divide where the track runs between two dusty, ruby walls of sedimentary rock sculptured and smoothed thousands of years ago by a mighty river.
The man-made shelves are a permanent testimony to the evils of Nazism, totalitarianism and despots, but also to the human spirit, resolve and memory, for this ravine of shadows and silence was once a sanctuary from bombs and mass murder.
The ledges supported beams and crude cover between the walls of red, where children and the elderly were brought as the German Luftwaffe and Italian air force bombed homes in our village, one community among many, during the savagery of civil war. Civilians were prime targets for Hitler’s Condor Legion and their fanatical tacticians, who would command and wreak havoc and misery during the second world war. Corbera, 30 kilometres south of us, still bears witness and the scars to the insanity of terror, as do Belchite in Aragon, Guernica in the Basque lands and many other communities. The Nazi-coordinated murders of thousands of people in Barcelona through indiscriminate bombing were a dire portent of what was to follow across the continent.
There is a totalitarian state at war in Europe now, and it isn’t, of course, Ukraine. Putin’s iron grip and his grasp on reality and how to wage the vital information war are visibly slipping. To justify Nazi tactics by claiming to free Ukraine from Nazi rule is beyond madness.
Ukraine’s democratically elected president is Jewish. Most people now know that. You may not know that his grandfather was one of four brothers. The other three were murdered by the Nazis during the holocaust, as were many of the president’s relatives.
Within the city limits of Kyiv (but 80 years ago beyond the urban area) there is another ravine. In June 1941, before Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa invasion of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was home to the largest Jewish population on the continent. Of those that could not flee – predominantly children, the sick and old – less than 2 percent survived the genocide. In just two days in September 1941, more than 33,000 were murdered in that ravine.
I have ordered and am seeking the strength to read Wendy Lower’s astonishing, vital and meticulously researched book on the Ukraine holocaust of 1941. The Ravine, A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed, (Mariner Books, February 2022, ISBN-10 ? : ? 0358627931) faces up to the desperate truth, with the dignity of names and stories, not only numbers, setting out, as the Smithsonian review defined it, “to hold the perpetrators accountable while restoring the deceased’s dignity and humanity”.
The same has to be true of now.
The ravine where so many were killed is known as Babyn Yar, and it is not forgotten. Next year, a holocaust memorial centre was due to open on the site. As many as 100,000 died there. The Russian soldiers must be close to it now.
Last words must go to the non-governmental international foundation determined to keep the memory of that ravine alive. The echo carries.
“Eighty years have passed since the tragedy at Babyn Yar. Babyn Yar was not forgotten, but in the USSR its memory was discouraged and intentionally distorted. The truth about the disappearance of the bright, vibrant world of pre-war Kyiv did not meet the ideological tasks of the Soviet regime. Now, in Ukraine that has gained true independence, it has become possible to revive this memory, to flesh it out, to rescue from oblivion the names of the victims and the righteous who saved them.
“Knowing the truth about our past is important for each of us who grew up on the blood-soaked land of Europe. Without knowing and understanding the past, a free society cannot live a fully-fledged life, nor can it build a future.”