At a ceremony hosted by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) last Friday, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmygal, the Head of the Presidential Office of Ukraine Andrii Yermak, and Ukraine’s Minister of Culture and Information Policy Oleksandr Tkachenko honored Ukrainians who saved Jews during the Holocaust and announced that those still alive will receive a lifelong monthly state stipend, in recognition of their heroism.
The ceremony marked the first Remembrance Day for Ukrainians who rescued Jews during World War II. Earlier this year, Ukraine’s parliament passed a resolution designating May 14 as an annual commemoration to honor their actions.
Following World War II, a total of 2,659 Ukrainians were awarded the prestigious title of “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Of all countries, Ukraine has the fourth-largest number of “Righteous Among the Nations.” However, it is believed that a far greater number of Ukrainians risked their lives and those of their families to save Jews from the Nazis. BYHMC is working to uncover many of these unknown stories.
At Friday’s ceremony, it was announced that the 18 Ukrainian “Righteous Among the Nations” who remain alive today, will each be recognized by the state for their bravery with a monthly state stipend for the remainder of their lives. The ceremony was attended by two of the “Righteous Among the Nations,” Vasyl Nazarenko and Oksana Antypchuk, plus the children of three others, Olena Malova-Zavadska, Lidia Savchuk, and Nadia Laznyuk.
Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmygal said, “This landmark event is a clear indication that the Ukrainian public consciousness affirms high ideals of respect for human life and recognition of responsibility and memory, which contribute to the construction of a free, democratic society…On the Day of Remembrance of Ukrainians who saved Jews during the Second World War, we honor the feat of these courageous people who have become and remain for us an example of humanity and self-sacrifice.”
Head of the Presidential Office of Ukraine Andrii Yermak commented, “Babyn Yar became a terrible symbol of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe because of the massacre of World War II. In just two days, almost 34,000 Jews from Kyiv were killed. Today, it is important to honor the memory of these people and praise those who saved them at the risk of their own lives. Express gratitude for the hope they have given back to the world. And I hope that future generations will remember this feat for centuries.”
33,771 Jewish victims were shot at Babyn Yar by the Nazis and their Ukrainian minions during just two days, September 29 and 30, 1941. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians, Roma, mentally ill, and others were shot thereafter at Babyn Yar throughout the Nazi occupation of Kyiv. The estimated number of victims murdered at Babyn Yar is around 100,000, making it Europe’s largest mass grave. This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre and commemorations will culminate in an international event including global leaders in September.
Minister of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine Oleksandr Tkachenko emphasized the importance to “honor the memory of tens of thousands of Jews from Kyiv who died in Babyn Yar during the terrible Holocaust,” adding “it is very symbolic that we are doing this on the Day of Remembrance of Ukrainians who risked their lives to save Jews. Today we also honor the feat of all these courageous people.”
Friday’s ceremony took place at the new symbolic synagogue at Babyn Yar and was attended by state officials, diplomats, religious leaders, cultural and community figures. They included Metropolitan Epiphanius (Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine), Sviatoslav Shevchuk (Head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman (Chief Rabbi of Kyiv and Ukraine – All-Ukrainian Jewish Congress), Father Patrick Desbois (Founder and President of Yahad-In Unum, Chief Strategist and Head of the Academic Council at BYHMC) and Manuel Herz (Professor at the University of Basel, designer of the symbolic synagogue at Babyn Yar).
The symbolic synagogue, which was opened last month on Holocaust Memorial Day in the Jewish world, is located next to Babyn Yar’s menorah monument. The design of the symbolic synagogue takes its inspiration from the pop-up book and 17th and 18th-century wooden Ukrainian synagogues. When closed, the building is a flat structure that is manually opened and then unfolds into the three-dimensional space of the synagogue structure. The imaginative, one-of-a-kind design also features an interior that references two destroyed 17th and 18th-century Ukrainian synagogues.
The symbolic synagogue is the first construction to be completed in the planned Babyn Yar memorial complex, which will stretch over an area of 150 hectares, making it one of the world’s largest Holocaust memorial centers. A dozen buildings will eventually be erected as part of the complex.
Synagogue designer, architect Manuel Herz said, “More people were killed at Babyn Yar than in any single massacre during the Holocaust. The answer to this terrible crime could be gloomy and minimalistic architecture traditional for Holocaust memorials. However, I am convinced that the monumental and static approach contradicts the tens of thousands of individual voices of the victims of Babyn Yar. So, the idea was born to create a performative architecture that transforms, surprises, and gives a sense of awe. The Babyn Yar Synagogue should bring people together for a collective memorial ritual.”
Chief Strategist and Head of the Academic Council at BYHMC, Patrick Desbois said, “Babyn Yar, a discreet ravine, where one thousand German people came to assassinate almost 34, 000 Jews, including children and women in broad daylight, in front of everybody. It is a place of mass murder, from where we have to teach the younger generation all over the planet not to engage in mass shootings, in mass crimes today. Unfortunately, until now, every day, on every continent, mass shootings are devastating the world – In Kabul, in Iraq, in Syria, and elsewhere. Babyn Yar must be an international center to prevent mass crimes.”