The Bloody Echoes of Babyn Yar

The Bloody Echoes of Babyn Yar

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When Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, there was an eerie familiarity to the images: tanks rolling down snowy Eastern European roads, families of refugees packed into trains seeking safety, aerial bombardment of a European capital. It all reminded me too clearly of World War II. Blood was once again spilling on the very same ground where it spilled in the 1940s.

The parallels were obvious; I just didn’t realize how deep they ran.

“The current war in Ukraine is so oversaturated with historical meaning; it is unfolding on soil that has absorbed wave after wave of the dead, where soldiers do not always have to dig trenches in the forest because the old ones remain,” writes Linda Kinstler in a remarkable Times Opinion essay published today. Kinstler’s essay is accompanied by a series of graphics that make these layers of history and the brutality of Russia’s invasion visually and viscerally impossible to ignore.

This project has been in the works for months. Shortly after the war began, I reached out to Eyal Weizman, who leads Forensic Architecture, an incredible organization that uses open-source investigative techniques and forensic modeling to examine, among other things, war crimes. The group was behind some of the most important work I’d seen on conflicts and human rights abuses in Syria, Iraq, the Israeli-occupied territories and elsewhere. I wanted to know what they were working on in Ukraine.

Weizman told me that he and his colleagues had been collaborating with the Center for Spatial Technologies, a Ukrainian organization led by Maksym Rokmaniko that does similar research. Rokmaniko’s team had been looking at Babyn Yar, a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where the Nazis killed and buried some 100,000 people during the Holocaust, which was subsequently — for complex reasons — covered up by the Soviet Union when it controlled Ukraine. On March 1, Russian missiles landed on the same site.

When Weizman, Rokmaniko and their colleagues gave me a preview of their investigation, I was deeply moved. Even amid the horrors of the war, something about this shook me. One of my colleagues, who happens to be Ukrainian, described it succinctly in a meeting: “It’s like the Holocaust’s victims are being killed twice.” I’d argue that it’s more than twice: They were killed once, then their memory was erased. Now, in a grotesque twist, they were once again being attacked, this time as part of a mission to supposedly “denazify” Ukraine, a country with a Jewish president.

This is the fate of this patch of Eastern Europe: a site of recurring horror, repressed memories and bloody historical echoes.

There are few writers who know more about these echoes than Kinstler, who recently wrote a fantastic book on the Holocaust, memory and war crimes and who has written on Babyn Yar, specifically, for Jewish Currents. I wanted to know what she would make of Rokmaniko and Weizman’s investigation. After looking at their research and speaking with them, Kinstler wrote her essay for us.

This project doesn’t just reflect on history and memory or the layers of destruction and oblivion in Ukraine. It also helps us understand why the work that Rokmaniko, Weizman and their colleagues do is crucial — because the collection and preservation of evidence, the written and visual record for history, are acts of resistance, ways to fight against brutality. They are also acts of hope.

See the full project here.

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Last Update: Mon, 13 Jun 22 06:29:07