Survivor honoured on anniversary of Babi Yar massacre

In the autumn sun, six-year-old Yelena Kurchinsky heard she was on a death march, and she tugged at her mother Hana's skirt.

They'd packed their most valuable things, as the Nazis ordered. Abandoning their home in Kiev, Hana and her three daughters walked toward Babi Yar, a vast ravine with pretty woodlands.

They were told they'd be deported from there. Yelena had never seen so many women, children and old people crammed into the streets. Many men were away fighting, and Yelena's father Volodya was away on mail runs. "We didn't want to leave without my father."

But a neighbour told them they must, "because it was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. And staying was punishable by death."

At 82, in her commission flat in Melbourne, Yelena Gorodetsky (her married name) remembers September 30, 1941 "like yesterday".

"Look," she points to her forearm. "It still gives me goosebumps."

"God is calling," the neighbour said, giving Hana a black tzitzit, a tasseled rope worn as a reminder of the Exodus, and a keepsake for when they reunited with Volodya.

As they schlepped their knapsacks, the sisters didn't hear gunshots and screams ahead. The crowds drowned out any din, and closer to Babi Yar, loud dance melodies bellowed from speakers at the checkpoint. A cemetery wall obscured people beyond, who were forcibly stripped of their clothes and valuables to the soundtrack of waltzes and polkas, and herded to the ravine's edge.

Some were shot or thrown into its pits; others forced to climb down and lie on top of the mounting piles of corpses. By that evening, 33,771 bodies were stacked "like wood" in ordered layers.

Ahead of Yelena, survivor Dina Pronicheva, who later testified at war crimes trials, reported falling into the ravine and being engulfed in warm blood. A tide of suffocating people undulated beneath her, "groaning, choking and sobbing". One SS soldier later testified: "When the layers rose higher, we had to trample down the bodies."

Many Jewish neighbours fled before the Germans came, but Yelena's grandfather insisted on staying. She recalls him saying: "Remember the Germans in 1918 in Kiev? They are a civilised nation!"

By 1941, centuries of folk anti-Semitism had fused with a toxic mix of nationalist sentiment abetted by the fake news of the time, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In Yelena's neighbourhood, "Kill Jews - Save Russia" signs were pegged to fences.

By the time Yelena saw Einsatzgruppen (death squads) enter Stalin Square "on motorcycles with cameras in their hands" to document the carnage, "the Germans were literally dragged off their motorcycles to exchange the triple kiss".

Some Kiev citizens helped soldiers identify Jews. When someone was taken away opposite the Opera House, Yelena burrowed into her mother's skirt.

Many routes led to Babi Yar, but Hana decided to take Melnykova Street. By chance, they crossed paths with a friend who lived in Kiev's north. She'd heard machine guns all night. "Hana! Girls!" Marusya yelled. "They're killing people!"

Incredulous, they turned back and hid in the furnace under their Borschagovskaya Street home, where "our neighbours - Poles, Russians and Ukrainians - helped us," giving them milk and soup throughout the war, even as radio announcements threatened death to those who concealed Jews.

Volodya returned, shattered from his mail run. His train was bombed, and an improbable rumour about mass killings awaited him at home. He set out across the city to covertly survey Babi Yar.

Returning to his family, he looked "lost, hands shaking ??? he started going mad". From that night, he and Hana slept with nooses around their necks, whispering words to this effect: If they come for us, we'll tighten the ropes. The girls have red hair. They'll pass as gentiles and survive.

One evening, the copper-haired Yelena watched Volodya tie the black tzitzit around a high-backed chair. In the morning, she awoke to find him strangled in its grip.

'Every day I say God bless Australia'

Although Hana died soon after the war, her red-haired girls survived. Yelena, who laughs easily now, became a communications engineer and married. She was among hundreds of thousands of Jews resettled in Israel during the Gorbachev era. There Yelena looked at the ground and cried, "because the dirt was yellow [infertile] and the shops were full. Where I came from, the dirt was black [fertile] and the shops were empty."

Believed to be the last Babi Yar survivor in Australia, Yelena settled here in 1998. "Every day I say God bless Australia. I'm very happy here." She has two Australian grandsons - one from each daughter.

Next week, she'll be honoured at a concert where a 75-voice chorus will join the Zelman Symphony Orchestra and other luminaries to commemorate the 110,000 people killed at Babi Yar. These were mostly Jews, but also people who hid them, as well as gays, communists, prisoners of war and people with mental illness.

Leaders from Ukraine and across Europe mark the 2016 anniversary of the massacre at the site.

Leaders from Ukraine and across Europe mark the 2016 anniversary at the site by a new memorial to the Jews slain there. Photo: AP

At the end of the 75th Jewish year since the massacres, this concert arose from what Yelena calls the "terrible silence". The Soviets refused to memorialise the Babi Yar atrocity, now regarded as a defining moment of the Holocaust. Unprecedented in scale, Babi Yar was a test case among "pit killings" that preceded more methodical genocide in camps such as Auschwitz.

Within months of SS commander Heinrich Himmler reporting that the horror of the pits was disturbing his troops, Hitler's Final Solution - a more efficient instrument for mass murder - was devised.

Despite Nazi documentation, Babi Yar wouldn't be spoken about, nor recognised as part of the Shoah. A repressive silence inhibited Soviet people. "For decades," notes historian Maria Tumarkin, "one word, a joke, a complaint, a sentence said in passing or wildly misinterpreted, could become grounds for arrest, camps, exile or execution."

Even beyond the Khrushchev Thaw of the '50s and '60s, when censorship relaxed, state-imposed silence was habitual and normalised in everyday culture, says Tumarkin.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1962: the poet railed against official silence regarding the murder of Jews.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1962: the poet railed against official silence. Photo: AP

But in 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko broke the silence by publishing his now-famous poem:

No monument stands over Babi Yar.

A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone ???

The poem itself was monumental. Denounced by authorities, Yevtushenko read 15 stanzas to packed audiences in Kiev, then worldwide.

I am each old man here shot dead.

I am every child here shot dead...

No fibre of my body will forget this.

Dmitri Shostakovich was emboldened by Yevtushenko's poem to compose his symphony on the massacre.

Dmitri Shostakovich was emboldened by Yevtushenko's poem to compose his symphony on the massacre. Photo: Supplied

Emboldened by the poem, Dmitri Shostakovich composed his 13th Symphony "Babi Yar" to Yevtushenko's words. To the Soviets, "sung poems" worked on a subversive register when the banal slogans of totalitarianism couldn't be trusted, according to Tumarkin. When the symphony, with its spiritual and satirical elements, premiered in Moscow, officials cancelled broadcasts and demanded revisions.

But it was performed unaltered to a rapturous audience. It shot Yevtushenko (who died in April) to fame, and he twice toured Australia. Although by official order his poem was revised, the unrevised version will be performed at the Victorian Arts Centre next week.

Star reception: Yevtushenko toured Australia twice to acclaim after writing his poem

Star reception: Yevtushenko toured Australia twice to acclaim after writing his poem "Babi Yar". Here he answers questions in Adelaide in April 1966. Photo: R. Walker

Soloist Adrian Tamburini, who won this year's Opera Australia Award, was a moving force behind the concert. He'd never heard of Babi Yar, but in 2015 he listened to the symphony for the first time. It was "one of the most moving aural experiences of my life. It touches a place in my heart I didn't know existed."

Tamburini, who isn't Jewish, was mobilised by the symphony. Through it, he felt "the lifeless bodies of children ??? that may have been my daughter. An elderly man ??? my grandfather."

Today, I am as old

As the entire Jewish race itself.

Opera singer Adrian Tamburini called hearing the symphony for the first time

Opera singer Adrian Tamburini sees next Sunday's concert as a living monument to humanity. Photo: Eddie Jim

Amid its darkest moments, the symphony also transmits light - even humour. To Tamburini, this is its ultimate riposte to inhumanity.

He says the concert speaks against resurgent anti-Semitic and nationalist movements globally, as well as "imprisonment of gays in Chechnya [and] ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya Muslims".

At a time when monuments are flashpoints of nationalist anger, he says the symphony is a "living" monument to humanity.

Various memorials have now been erected at Babi Yar. Despite what the Nazis did with music there, it remains "the lingua franca of humanity. It transcends nations and boundaries," says concert organiser George Deutsch, a Holocaust survivor.

To Yelena, the concert is a form of vigilance: "People must remember so it can never happen again."

The Zelman Memorial Symphony Orchestra will perform Shostakovich's Symphony No. 13 ("Babi Yar") in Hamer Hall at 2pm on Sunday, September 17.

The story Survivor honoured on anniversary of Babi Yar massacre first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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