Encountering Fate at Babi Yar
Babi Yar, once a desolate ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, has now become a painful reminder of one of the worst examples of Nazi brutality during World War II.
On September 29-30, 1941, Nazi troops rounded up 33,771 Jewish men, women and children, marched them to Babi Yar, forced them to strip, stand side by side, row after row—and then, with Teutonic efficiency, they massacred them, stacking their bodies layer upon layer and covering them with earth.
Everyone knew that tens of thousands were killed then and in later massacres that occurred in subsequent months—an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 Jews in total, along with thousands of Roma and Soviet political prisoners—but no one spoke of it publicly. Not until 1961, when Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, outraged by the refusal of the Kremlin to acknowledge the slaughter, wrote a poem that heart-achingly captured the tragedy: the helplessness of the Jews, the cruelty of the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators, and the indifference of Russian authorities.
“No monument stands over Babi Yar,” wrote Yevtushenko. “A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.” (In 1976, the Soviet authorities finally felt the need to acknowledge the slaughter at Babi Yar, mentioning in a memorial only that Soviet citizens were killed there. Other memorials, erected years later, acknowledged the Jewish victims, and the Ukrainian government last year announced plans to create an official Holocaust memorial on the site.)
When I think of Kiev, the city where my mother was born, and when I note this year’s 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, I cannot but reflect, in the words of Yevtushenko, that “wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.” That is when I wonder what would have happened if my mother, Bella, had not left in 1914, fleeing the omnipresent anti-Semitism and the onrush of a world war.
In 1956, 42 years after she left, I visited Kiev and the Podol, as the Jewish quarter was known. I was at the time a young diplomatic attaché at the United States Embassy in Moscow. I imagined from my mother’s dinnertime stories about her childhood that the Podol would be a middle-class community of merchants, artisans and teachers. What I found was anything but; I noted in my diary that I was “thunderstruck…by the incredible poverty, filth and misery.”
Friday evening, I went to the Podol’s only synagogue and found people already gathering for prayer. Seeing me—standing, it seemed, a head taller than many of them—they immediately gushed with questions.
“Where are you from?”
“New York? I have an uncle who lives there. Maybe you know Moishe Cohen?”
“Are you married?”
“No? What’s wrong? Are there no nice Jewish girls in New York?”
“Where did you go to school?”
“City College and Harvard.”
“They are good schools? Jews are allowed to go there?”
“Yes, very good, and yes, Jews are allowed to go there.”
An old man sidled up to me and, with the experienced fingers of a tailor, felt the lapel of my jacket. “Where was this made?”
“New York,” I replied. “A store called Brooks Brothers.”
He turned to a friend and said in Yiddish, “You know, 40 years ago, we made better suits than this right here in the Podol.”
“Yes, and better fabric, too. Of course, this was all before the revolution.”
“Where were your parents born?” many of them wanted to know. A key question, as it turned out.
“My mother was born in Kiev, probably right here in the Podol,” I replied.
What I would later come to appreciate as the highlight of my visit then unfolded—one question, one answer at a time.
“When did your mother leave?” an old woman in a babushka asked.
“In 1914, just before the war started.”
The tailor, who had earlier melted into the crowd, reappeared. Looking up at me with eyes that had seen much of Kiev’s recent history, he asked, “And what was her name?”
“Bluma,” I replied, giving my mother’s Yiddish name.
A hint of a smile lit up his lips. “And what was her father’s name?” And before I could answer, another question quickly followed. “And what did he do?”
“His name was Volf, Volf Portnoy, and he was a furrier.”
The old man’s smile spread across his face. Something extraordinary, almost magical, had just occurred. “Volf Portnoy,” he sighed, recollections from the past forming around the wrinkles of his eyes. “Of course. Volf Portnoy, the furrier—he left with two children, his oldest daughter, Bluma, and his oldest son. Forgive me, I don’t remember his name.” The old man scanned my shoes. Looking up, he added. “We never heard from them again.”
Overwhelmed, I burst into tears. Bluma, the daughter he remembered, was my mother. After more than four decades—filled with war, revolution, collectivization, famine, more war and then the Holocaust—this man remembered Volf Portnoy’s daughter.
Had my mother stayed, would she have ended up in Babi Yar? Or would she have survived? No one knows.
But of one thing I am certain: There but for the grace of God go I.
Marvin Kalb, a former network correspondent and Harvard professor emeritus, is author of The Year I Was Peter the Great: 1956—Khrushchev, Stalin’s Ghost, and a Young American in Russia (Brookings Institution Press), from which this essay was adapted.