Russia bombed the Babi Yar monument in Ukraine. Photo: Facebook

Babi Yar (Бабий Яр) is the name of a ravine in Kiev. The word Yar in Russian is translated as a ravine or stream. The name Babi is the short name for a Babyushka, or old woman. So Babi Yar is an old woman’s stream or ravine where the washing was done.

Babi Yar is also the site where the Nazis massacred 33,000 Jews in 1941, the largest single massacre in the Holocaust. There is a monument there today, although there was another one there previously, a large stone marker with Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem engraved on it.

Yevtushenko wrote in this poem Nad Babim Yarom pamyatnikov nyet, or There are no monuments over Babi Yar: 

“The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar. The trees look ominous, like judges. 

“Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head, slowly I feel myself turning grey. 

“And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here.

“I am each old man here shot dead. I am every child here shot dead. Nothing in me shall ever forget.”

I visited Babi Yar in 1973. My Intourist Guide – in those days Ukraine was part of the USSR – did not want to take me there, but I insisted.  There was, then, only the large stone marker with the poem on it, in Russian. The rest was a field of grass with the city and apartments nearby. My family thinks some of our family lie beneath the dirt.

Later Yetuvshenko gave my wife and I a book of his poetry. We cherish it.

But why did Russia fire a missile at the replacement monument in Babi Yar? That attack is inexplicable.

Was it an accident? Such accidents don’t tend to happen at the graves of 33,000 people. A missile smashing directly into the monument, missing the empty field?

What was the Russian army trying to say? To scare the remaining Jews in Ukraine to run away? Despite the Nazis, 300,000 are still there in Ukraine, although the smell in the air tells them they could be targeted by the Russians. 

Some have already fled to Moldova and Poland, some to Israel. Some are fighting. The Nazis killed one million.  

The synagogue at Babi Yar opens like a book. Image: Screengrab / BBC / AFP

To frighten Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the grandson of Holocaust victims? He does not look like a man who is going to run away. Jews in the modern era have had enough of cowering in the face of dictators. Zelensky is a modern man. Vladimir Putin had better understand that, and understand where he comes from.

This despicable act, an atrocity within the bigger atrocity of the Russian attack on Ukraine, is shameful beyond words. It is a black mark on Putin, who otherwise said he was a friend of the Jewish people, and a friend of Israel. Did he authorize the shelling of Babi Yar?

Yevgeny Yevtushenko was not Jewish – he died in 2017 at the age of 84 – but he grasped the meaning of antisemitism and it appalled him. In his poem he says:

“Let it thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried forever. 

“In my blood there is no Jewish blood. In their callous rage, all antisemites must hate me now as a Jew. For that reason I am a true Russian!”

I don’t know if Putin directly authorized the strike on the Babi Yar monument. But the attack, like the use of a thermobaric weapon in Kharkiv at the RSA Building – the Regional State Administration Building, the site of attacks in 2014, and the location of the mayor’s office, a civilian structure – tells us the Russians are running a terror war against Ukrainians.  

Perhaps it was a harbinger, but in 2014 the mayor of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, also Jewish like Zelensky, was shot in the back by a professional sniper, but his life was saved by an Israeli hospital. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Six years after the failed assassination attempt, in 2020, and still Kharkiv’s mayor, Kernes died from Covid in a German hospital.  

Bombs and shells smashing into apartment houses and family homes is an indecent way to fight a war, and is a terror war against civilians.

Terror goes beyond killing civilians. The Russians allegedly have “kill lists” and special forces to carry out executions. As Zelensky has said, he knows he is number 1 on the list and his family is number 2.

Putin talks a lot about Nazis, but now behaves like them.