Babyn Yar: Poetic Responses to the Tragedy
Ostap Kin

Here is a selection* of poems about Babyn Yar, the Holocaust massacre that claimed the lives of between 100,000 and 150,000 people in Kyiv (1941-1943). From the earliest days of the atrocities, Soviet Ukrainian poets managed to create an array of poetic responses. These poems are of particular interest to us since, trapped in the circumstances of Soviet censorship, they nonetheless came up with a language that could depict––through allusions, similes, imagery, allegory––the recreated, imagined visions of the tragedy. The unique qualities and complexities of these poems are that the poets had to deal with two different systems of impossibility: they had to work with the seemingly unrepresentable historical atrocity, and they had to write within strict Soviet ideological limitations.  

Half of all Holocaust victims––nearly three million people––were killed in the Soviet Union. And a significant number of these victims were murdered in what is now Ukraine. If in Poland the main killing sites were death camps and concentration camps, in Ukraine these were the ravines and pits located outsides the cities and towns. One of the most significant places of such mass annihilation of the Jewish population of Ukraine is Babyn Yar, then an outskirt of Kyiv and now a part of the city. From September 29-30, 1941, 33,771 Kyiv Jews were marched to the site and machine-gunned in the ravine. This is the largest single Nazi shooting of Jews in the Soviet Union.

Even though the tragedy was officially reported in the newspaper during the war, and readers across the Soviet Union knew about the site in general, few poems were written about these events in Ukrainian. The poetry in Ukrainian that exists was written in different historical periods and at times published right away. But some of the poems were not published (or republished) for many decades. After perestroika and specifically after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new wave of poets tackling this theme appeared. While reading all the poems collected here, readers can vividly see the way poets have worked with the theme of the Holocaust and Babyn Yar, and they can notice and trace the changes to poetic language.

The poems deal with one of the ever-lasting questions: can we have poetry written about the Holocaust in Ukrainian? What kind of poetry was it and what sort of poetry do we anticipate in the future? Have the poets already come up with a (poetic) language to express this historical tragedy or is it still in the process of creation?

In light of the eightieth anniversary of the first massacre in Babyn Yar, this theme is undergoing yet another reassessment. This selection of poems offers a dialogue which was begun in the past and is being transformed presently between different generations of poets across time and place.
*Issue 7 of Volume contains poems by Borys Dabo-Nikolayev and Arkadiy Anin taken from the wider selection of work Ostap Kin introduces here.

©2024 Volume Poetry
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