Mass Murder and the Scar that is Dnieper River

An ugly sore that bleeds and does not heal is a tell-tale sign of skin cancer. Covering it over may hide it for a while, but the deranged cells will only grow and become even more malignant. Such is the case with sites of mass murder as I contend that they are lesions upon the face of the earth, reminding us that such inhumanity is actually part of humanity. Unlike a battleground where both sides are armed and follow some rules of engagement, a burial pit filled with the decomposing bodies of helpless victims murdered at point-blank range makes us want to look away in unspeakable horror. As Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1966), the Russian poet, brought the truth of Babi Yar to the world’s attention, he declared: “And I myself am one massive, soundless scream above the thousand thousand buried here.”

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The deep ravine along the Dnieper River is such a scarred place. As the major waterway that runs directly through the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the infamous ravine is the site of one of the largest mass murders of the Holocaust. Over 33,000 Jewish victims were shot by Nazi killing squads in just two days. Aided by Ukrainian soldiers and civilians with their own hatred of Jews, the inhabitants of Kyiv had just survived weeks of relentless bombing attacks before the city surrendered to the Nazis. The task of ridding the city of the “Jewish problem” was evidently a collaborative effort that both sides could agree upon. The Jews had been blamed for a series of explosions in the downtown area that destroyed many buildings as well as killed many German soldiers and Ukrainian civilians.

Most likely caused by a booby-trapped ordinance placed by the Russians during their hasty retreat just before the Nazi assault on the city, this shocking welcome terrified and infuriated the Nazis. Their revenge was enacted upon the arch-enemies of the Reich: the Jews. The Ukrainians who eagerly assisted the Germans were markedly willing to do anything to ingratiate themselves with the aggressors after yet another struggle for their survival. What we have been witnessing through video of Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine takes us back to what they endured over 80 years ago: They were mercilessly bombed, shot, starved, raped, tortured, weakened, and traumatized to the point of surrender.

Genocide in Historical Context

In late September 1941, a Draconian edict was issued that ordered all the Jews in Kyiv to either report to a checkpoint near the train station or be shot on sight. They were commanded to bring their identity papers, valuables, money, extra clothing, and food. This subterfuge created the slightest shred of hope that they might be deported to a work camp and was designed to reduce the chances of their resisting. By this time, most of the over 100,000 Jewish people living there who had the means and the strength had already fled. Those who remained were largely the elderly, the infirm, women, and children. Jews trying to hide were eagerly denounced by the neighbors and met their fate accordingly. At the appointed times on September 29-30, 1941, the doomed souls were then directed to the ravine where they literally dug their own graves and were summarily executed by a bullet to the head at point-blank range. As soon as they fell into the bloody, writhing pit of corpses, the next line of victims was then murdered in the same way. There

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was ample documentation in the form of photographs of the proud German men performing their patriotic duty. Local Ukrainian citizens, weary from the Nazi assault on their city, were eager to show their conquerors that they too had this hatred in common. More than ready to contribute to the Jews’ fate, they shared in the bloodlust.

To put the significance of this genocidal event in historical context, the infamous Wannsee Conference was convened just several months later; the “Final Solution” was set in motion. Encouraged by the progress achieved in Eastern Europe, but wanting a less laborious and less traumatizing method, the industrialization of genocide quickly followed suit. Thus, the death camps were born. It has been estimated that at the peak of their efficiency later that year, the gas chambers and crematoria at Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec were able to murder about 15,000 Jews a day. In 1942, from August to October, Operation Reinhard was so successful that about 1.3 million Jews were exterminated, fulfilling the Führer’s dream of making Poland essentially Judenrein, or cleansed of the Jew (Sone, 2019). This average daily murder rate approximated the two-day rate of executions at Babi Yar, but, incredibly, was sustained on a daily basis for months. It was a bureaucratic triumph that became the signature achievement of the Third Reich.

Rewriting History in Sachsenhausen

During my first visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, it was a raw gray day with very few living souls on site. The camp was not quite ready for the crowds that would visit following the reunification of East and West Germany. Rusting hulks of the crematoria, exposed to the elements, were listing and disappearing into the muddy earth, like a once-mighty ocean liner getting swallowed up by the sea. Befitting a crime scene, there was yellow caution tape surrounding the perimeter of the wreckage, forbidding anyone to cross the line. Times had changed. They didn’t want anyone to get hurt there anymore.

I communed with this twisted metal sculpture for quite a while; there was no line behind me. I wondered how many bodies reduced to ash were dumped into the Styxian canal, separating this hell from the lovely picnic grounds on the other side, and how long it would take for the memory of these crimes to also sink into the blackness. The village of Oranienberg, a 40-minute commuter train ride from Berlin, surrounds Sachsenhausen. That is where my father first tasted the bitterness of degradation, dehumanization, and

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daily threats of death. I grew up with the stories of his scars from there. While much of all of this is a subject for another time, what needs to be mentioned here is the confusion I felt about the massive obelisk placed there by the Russians.

This monument was dedicated solely to the Russian victims of Nazi aggression. Their sacrifice alone was considered the key to victory in the Great Patriotic War to defeat Nazi Germany. Others were not acknowledged. Just the Russians. Having heard about the extra humiliation and sadistic murder reserved for the most pious Jews, I was appalled that there was no mention of my people. Evidently, I was still a bit naïve about the enormous power of the state to erase and rewrite history.

History Repeating Itself

When Putin began his shocking attack on Ukraine in February 2022, the news coverage of the unprovoked bombing of civilians revived images of WWII, 80 years ago, when Hitler invaded neighboring countries. In keeping with what Vamık Volkan and Jana Javakhishvili (2022) call this “time collapse,” Putin cynically alleged that Russia had a mission to “denazify” and free Ukraine from the grip of fascist forces. Expecting a short operation and a hero’s welcome, the Russian military was surprised by the Ukrainians’ fierce resistance. In response, the Russian army resorted to extremely barbaric atrocities against the unarmed populace. As the world helplessly witnessed crimes against humanity being perpetrated by another ruthless, seemingly unstoppable ruler bent on world domination, there was a merging of past and present, what Judith Kestenberg (1980) termed a psychological “time tunnel” of history was repeating itself. As has been described in the minds of children of Holocaust survivors, their parents’ survival trauma may form an unconscious blueprint for their perceptions of the here-and-now world, those viewing the carnage seemed to be experiencing a similar layering of time (see my 2019 Handbook of Psychoanalytic Holocaust Studies: International Perspectives for more details).

The architect of this historic moment, Vladimir Putin, is reportedly also a child of survivors, as he was born after the war in 1951. His mother barely survived the Nazi siege of Leningrad, while a baby brother did succumb. He grew up in the shadow of his own family’s trauma and unresolved grief, but instead of seeking healing, he seeks retribution and revenge as his solution to his burden. As a result, there will have been an untold number of victims of his pursuits.

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The Failed TV Tower Attack Brought History Back

One of the early targets of the Russian campaign was the TV tower in central Kyiv. The attack was intended to halt communication that would otherwise keep the Ukrainians informed of the deadly developments and help in the defense of their beloved homeland. With its own history of persecution and stymied efforts at independent statehood, the western world has marveled at Ukraine’s fierce determination to fight for its freedom. However, when the TV tower was built in 1973, the country was an integral part of the Soviet Union. Designed by the Russians to be a grand symbol of Soviet power, it had to be very tall, but not as tall as the one in Moscow. The site chosen for this mighty structure was near the ravine and directly over the old Jewish cemetery in another effort to erase evidence of Jewish existence. As the descendants of those buried there were murdered in the nearby ravine, there were no family members to relocate the remains and gravestones, which were destroyed and covered over.

The Russians’ continued efforts to erase the memory of Nazi atrocities toward the Jews got foiled again. The missiles aimed at the tower caused damage to a structure at the Babi Yar memorial site; this new desecration brought unwanted worldwide attention to the ravine’s dreaded history. Before the tower was even built, Russian efforts to hide the evidence failed miserably back in 1961. The ravine, which had been dammed up and intentionally filled with industrial waste, had given way, causing a deadly mudslide and creating widespread damage. It resulted in a major biohazard as the residue of the horrors lurking below came to the surface and contaminated the surrounding area. This disaster was an uncanny repetition of the flooding described in Anatoli Kuznetsov’s (1970) graphic firsthand account, which was all but forgotten until Yevtushenko (1966) brought Babi Yar to the world’s attention with his immortal tribute.

The Return of the Repressed

Sigmund Freud’s (1912) notion of the return of the repressed seems to also apply to global consciousness. Despite efforts of one of the most powerful regimes in history to erase and rewrite history to suit its purposes, forces even greater seem to prevail. Yet, even in the midst of “setting the record straight,” new revisions cannot help but occur. The Babi Yar memorial site, still a work in progress, is quite controversial as it is seen by skeptics, such as Masha Gessen (April 18, 2022) and Glenn Kates (personal

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communication, May 5, 2022), as yet another example of Russian political influence. In the analytic treatment of an individual, we can see the phenomenon of Nachträglichkeit or “afterwardness” in which the very process of remembering the past can be colored by the context of the present circumstances. Markedly, the battle continues over how to remember and dignify this mass grave, but it is likely going to be obscured yet again owing to the growing number of mass graves that are now metastasizing throughout this tragic land.

Sachsenhausen: A Tourist Attraction

On my second pilgrimage to Sachsenhausen, about a decade after my first, the entrance to the camp had drastically changed. Once again, I was taken aback. A glitzy, modern visitor center greeted me. It was staffed by unenthusiastic young people selling maps and souvenirs as well as renting self-guided audio equipment. Tickets were now needed to gain entry. The Russian occupation of the camp had ended and the new caretakers had a more familiar version of history. In the effort to present a more accurate picture of the camp’s history and make it accessible for large groups to visit and learn, I feared it would suffer the fate of other Western hallowed sites and start to resemble a tourist attraction. The parking lot was full of chartered buses. The crematorium remains were removed from their original site and the ground was smoothed over. The graphic, life-size photos of dissected prisoners in the Pathology Lab were also gone. However, one of the two “Jewish Barracks” that was nearly destroyed by neo-Nazis had been restored and open to visitors. I was free to revisit where my father and grandfather were imprisoned for three unimaginable years before they were transferred to Auschwitz.

It is impossible for me not to remember. It is always there. The past and the present. But, for those who do need help remembering and for those who need to learn the truth, such places must be visible and kept open. If not, the unseen forces that inhabit our minds will find a dramatic way to remind us. During this latest devastation of Ukraine, the cover-up of the carnage in Kyiv 80 years before was catapulted back into the news. Perhaps it was not a coincidence.

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References:

  • Freud, Sigmund (1912). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, volume XII (1911-1913). Hogarth Press.
  • Gessen, Masha (April 18, 2022). The Holocaust memorial undone by another war. The New Yorker.
  • Kestenberg, Judith (1980). Psychoanalyses of children of survivors from the Holocaust: Case presentations and assessment. Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association28(4), 775-804. https://doi.org/10.1177/000306518002800402
  • Kuznetsov, Anatoli (1970). Babi Yar – a document in the form of a novel (David Floyd, Trans.). Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
  • Sone, Lewi (2019). Quantifying the Holocaust: Hyperintense kill rates during the Nazi genocide. Science advances5(1), eaau7292. https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.aau7292
  • Volkan, Vamık, & Javakhishvili, Jana (2022). Invasion of Ukraine: Observations on leader-followers relationships. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 82.
  • Yevtushenko, Yevgeny (1966). In Herbert Marshall (Trans.) Yevtushenko Poems. Pergamon Press, p. 108.

Authors:

Ira Brenner

Ira Brenner, MD, is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Sidney Kimmel Medical School at Thomas Jefferson University as well as Training and Supervising Analyst at the Psychoanalytic Center of Philadelphia. He has a special interest in psychic trauma and has authored over 100 publications and six books. He can be contacted at .

How to Cite This:

Brenner, I. (2023). Babi Yar: The scar that does not heal. Clio’s Psyche, 29(2), 202-208.

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