Babi Yar memorial

Kiev, Day Two: June 11, 2016

We returned to the Podil neighborhood to shoot what we call “b-roll,” visual scene setters to fill in interviews.

Interacting on the street here with people is a little bit different than at home. I don’t know if they’re recognizing we’re not Ukrainian or if it’s cultural, but people don’t smile back. As a photojournalist, I smile at people as an ice-breaker when I’m out shooting on the street. At least in Ohio, the smile is almost always returned and most people will say “hi.”

Not here. The responses are pretty grim. I asked my guide about it, and she said people here take a bit to warm up – once they get to know you (and trust you), they will do everything they can for you. That’s what we’ve found with Rabbi Dukhovny. He has been incredibly helpful to us, opening his lists of phone numbers and email contacts to help us tell our story.

He invited us back to his synagogue to an adult Bat Mitzvah for Olena Kostenko, whose grandmother was Jewish but couldn’t practice her faith because she was in a “mixed” marriage in Kiev. Jews were only allowed to live in Kiev if they met certain requirements and her husband didn’t qualify. If she disclosed she was Jewish, they couldn’t live in Kiev, so she changed her name and hid her religion. You can read more about the restrictions on Jews in Kiev in this Google book on Kiev.

During the war, Olena’s grandparents lost all their papers, so she had a difficult time proving she had Jewish lineage. The Orthodox shuls would not accept her as a Jew so she had to pursue her religion in the Reform tradition.

Olena Kostenko’s Bat Mitzvah

Bat Mitzvah Olena Kostenko carries the Torah during her Bat Mitzvah at Hatikvah Synagogue in Kiev, Ukraine.

Bruce and I were both impressed by how similar the service was to what we’ve experienced in our own synagogue. Same music (slightly different tunes) and pretty much the same order of events. Olena’s Torah portion was much shorter than the ones our boys had to learn.

During the ceremony, a bit of mayhem breaks out as the audience throws soft candies at the b’nai mitzvah – then they each scramble to pick up as much of it up as they can. Here, the tradition is that the more candy you collect, the more good luck you will have. Other traditions, I understand, is that you’re adding sweetness to the happy event.

The attendees than have a kiddish lunch together. All in all, a lovely event to help celebrate and document.

We next went to a ramshackle flea market that sells about every kind of cell phone accessory one can imagine – we were looking for a small adapter for one of our pieces of camera gear. This place was a series of ramshackle, tin-roofed huts, kind of like a new version of the central market place. Apparently, it’s the best place to go if one needs any kind of electronic equipment, but they didn’t have our part.

From there, we went to the Babi Yar memorial. On September 29-30, 1941, German soldiers massacred more than 30,000 Jews, Gypsy’s, Ukrainian Nationalists and Soviet prisoners of war over two days and left them in the sprawling ravine on the property. Later, they went back to burn the bodies and hide the evidence. It’s considered one of the three largest massacres of the Holocaust. Over the following months, the Nazis killed many more people at Babi Yar – the estimate is around 100,000 total.

The memorialization of this place is piece-meal, in large part because the Soviet’s would not allow any commemoration of the Jewish deaths.

“If she disclosed she was Jewish, they couldn’t live in Kiev, so she changed her name and hid her religion.”

Today, we’re going to photograph on Independence Square and then head to the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, which is an historic building from 1898 and home to one of the Orthodox congregations in Kiev. We’re hoping to meet with the Rabbi, Yaakov Bleich, or someone active in the congregation to get a different perspective on Judaism in Ukraine.

Then, we head to Tetiev.

Correction: Alina Bodas writes: Thank you for these fantastic updates! I enjoy reading this as do my parents. One small correction, if you will: Ukrainian Nationalists were Nazi collaborators who thought the Nazis would help Ukrainians push back the Soviets. At that time Ukrainians helped round up Jews for murder. It is a uncomfortable history to talk about, perhaps, for Ukrainians today but these facts should not be whitewashed.

Editor’s note: Thanks for the correction. There is a memorial to some Ukrainian Nationalists murdered by the Germans, but I think it’s one of the crosses I don’t show in the photos. You’re right about the Nationalists — they were largely collaborators with the Nazis in WWII.

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