Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Babi Yar. Context


Dina Pronicheva

Director Sergei Loznitsa

Babi Yar. Context                   B                                                                                           Ukraine  Netherlands  (121 mi)  2021  d: Sergei Loznitsa

In Ukraine there are no Jews. Nowhere - not in Poltava, Kharkov, Kremenchug, Borispol, not in Iagotin.  You will not see the black, tear-filled eyes of a little girl, you will not hear the sorrowful drawling voice of an old woman, you will not glimpse the swarthy face of a hungry child in a single city or a single one of hundreds of thousands of shtetls [small towns].

Stillness. Silence. A people has been murdered.

Murdered are elderly artisans, well-known masters of trades: tailors, hatmakers, shoemakers, tinsmiths, jewellers, housepainters, furriers, bookbinders; murdered are workers: porters, mechanics, electricians, carpenters, furnace workers, locksmiths; murdered are wagon drivers, tractor drivers, chauffeurs, cabinet makers; murdered are millers, bakers, pastry chefs, cooks; murdered are doctors, therapists, dentists, surgeons, gynecologists; murdered are experts in bacte-riology and biochemistry, directors of university clinics, teachers of history, algebra, trigonometry; murdered are lecturers, department assistants, candidates and doctors of science; murdered are engineers, metallurgists, bridge builders, architects, ship builders; murdered are pavers, agronomists, field-crop growers, land surveyors; murdered are accountants, bookkeepers, store merchants, suppliers, managers, secretaries, night guards; murdered are teachers, dressmakers; murdered are grandmothers who could mend stockings and bake delicious bread, who could cook chicken soup and make strudel with walnuts and apples; and murdered are grandmothers who didn’t know how to do anything except love their children and grandchildren; murdered are women who were faithful to their husbands, and murdered are frivolous women; murdered are beautiful  young women, serious students and happy schoolgirls; murdered are girls who were unattractive and foolish; murdered are hunchbacks; murdered are singers; murdered are blind people; murdered are deaf and mute people; murdered are violinists and pianists; murdered are three- year-old and two-year-old children; murdered are eighty- year-old elders who had cataracts in their dimmed eyes, cold transparent fingers and quiet, rustling voices like parchment; murdered are crying newborns who were greedily sucking at their mothers’ breasts until their final moments. All are murdered, many hundreds of thousands, millions of people.

This is not the death of armed people during the war… This is the murder of a people…of a people’s soul and body. An entire people murdered.

Ukraine without Jews, by Vasily Grossman, 1943, (PDF) Vasily Grossman - Ukraine without Jews (excerpt)

A unique exploration of history, where the director combines the public and private archives in Russia, Germany, and Ukraine, working with the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo documents in Krasnogorsk (RGAKFD), with the Bundesarchiv in Berlin, with several regional archives in Germany, with the Ukrainian State Archive in Kiev and with private archives, including footage from soldiers on the front lines, reels from Die Deutsche Wochenschau, the Nazi propaganda news bulletin that was produced in Germany and distributed throughout the territory occupied by the Third Reich, as well as the help of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the aim of this documentary is to “plunge the viewer into the atmosphere of the time.”  Yet the origins feel more personal, as Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa grew up in Kiev and went to school there, not far from the Babi Yar ravine, but had no knowledge of what happened there, declaring “Even though I grew up close to Babyn Yar and to the old Jewish cemetery, which was completely destroyed, and as a child I stumbled across the Jewish tombstones many times during my walks, my parents were very reluctant to answer my questions on the subject.”  We now know that on September 29–30, 1941, in a large ravine in Kiev known as Babi Yar, the Nazis slaughtered more Jews in two days than in any other single German massacre, killing 33,771 Jews.  In total, from September 29, 1941, until October 1943, the Nazi forces, with no interference from local residents, killed nearly 100,000 people at Babi Yar.  Nazi authorities banned photo and film cameras from the places of mass executions, however through the use of archival footage, it is possible to reconstruct the surrounding circumstances of what happened.  With the troubling rise of xenophobic far-right groups in Europe, the unlearned lessons of history and the growing seeds of hate and resentment make this time we’re living in dangerous and extremely precarious times.  For instance, less known even to practiced historians is that fact that as many as 500,000 to a million former Soviet citizens were living in Ukraine and actually joined the Third Reich in fighting against the Red Army, as they were hoping the Germans would deliver them from Stalin.  With that in mind, the assembled footage is presented with no narration or talking heads, instead there is frequent use of introductory intertitles that place each historical setting in context, opening with “June 1941. Soviet Ukraine” as bomb blasts are dropped on the city of Lviv, the largest of the westernmost cities of the Ukraine, demolishing a bridge while targeting supply dumps and airfields, as Nazi troops are seen riding in diesel-powered Panzer tanks, rumbling motorcycles, and even horse-drawn vehicles as they move their artillery units in and begin to occupy the town, where a mass square is filled with POW soldiers, the first attack in Operation Barbarossa, a German plan to destroy the Soviet Union.  The city is surrounded by plumes of smoke, while dead bodies are strewn everywhere.  The Soviets left behind murdered prisoners, as corpses lay on the ground swarmed by flies, with bystanders, including many children, stopping to stare, yet Jews are blamed with collaborating with the enemy, ordered to line up by the prison and carry out the bodies, with Nazi soldiers going house to house setting them ablaze, with some seen in the foreground drinking in a celebratory mode, exacly as depicted in Elem Klimov’s Come and See (Idi i smotri) (1985), while citizens are seen bringing flowers to the tanks, openly welcoming them while destroying the posters of Stalin, replacing them with posters of “Hitler, the Liberator,” as children are seen fighting for hand-sized Swastika flags on sticks.    

Using only found and restored archival footage, mostly black and white, the film images were restored by Jonas Zagorskas, a colorist and VFX artist, who colorized some of the images, with Vladimir Golovnitski adding an innovative sound design, adding aural effects and even dubbing voices to what is otherwise silent footage.  Throughout, people inevitably stare at the camera as they walk by, as there are endless scenes of troop movements lugging heavy equipment across muddy terrain, including lines of captured POW Soviet troops walking along in single file, yet there are also lines and lines of soldiers marching, so massive that one wonders where they all sleep, as there couldn’t possibly be adequate accommodations for either group.  Even for prisoners, where could you possibly hold them all?  As it turns out, what we see is unfathomable, a giant expanse of people packed together like sardines for as far as the eye can see, where the number of Red Army POW’s was actually 600,000, most dying of starvation as the Nazis never made provisions to feed them.  A small number of about 10,000 were released if a family member came present and they signed a document swearing to never fight against Germany again, as the films shows scenes of recently freed Ukrainian POW’s being processed, greeted briefly by their smiling wives who take them home.  Yet it’s scenes not normally seen that stand out, like women trying the clean the bodies of the dead with branches and brooms, or hideous footage of people being pulled from their homes and beaten with sticks, stripped naked and paraded through the streets by their neighbors, some dragged by their hair, long lines of trenches are dug, mostly by women, apparently to bury the dead.  By the time the Nazis get to Kiev, there are more explosions, as several days after the Germans took control of the city remote-controlled explosives were detonated by the Soviets, who mined the central streets and planted the bombs, causing mass destruction and many civilian casualties, as buildings burned for days, leaving 25,000 people homeless, drawing the ire of the Nazis who again accused Jews of collaborating with the enemy, posting an ominous public order in Russian, Ukrainian, and German language:  

All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, 29 September, by 8 o’clock in the morning at the corner of Mel’nikova and Dokterivskaya streets (near the Jewish Viis’kove cemetery).  Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc.  Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot.  Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

Expecting 5 or 6,000, nearly 34,000 reported under the false belief they would be resettled, and were taken to the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of town where one by one they were systematically stripped, giving up their luggage, then their coats, shoes, clothing and underwear, leaving their valuables in a designated place, before being led into the ravine in groups of ten where they were gunned down by SS police battalions and units of the Ukrainian auxiliary police, who actually walked among the corpses shooting anyone still breathing.  According to testimony afterwards, they were made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot, with bodies placed atop bodies, covering them with a layer of dirt at the end of the night before commencing again the next day.  According to some reports, many were still alive after the shootings, but were in a state of shock, where as many as 10% may have died from suffocation under all the other dead bodies.  As there is no existing footage, still shots are shown of half-buried bodies, discarded coats and a pile of boots and shoes, and a prosthetic leg left behind while an extensive passage of Vasily Grossman’s eloquent memorium Ukraine without Jews is read, (PDF) Vasily Grossman - Ukraine without Jews.  While there may have been some who risked their lives by helping the Jews, thousands of others remained indifferent to their fate, becoming preoccupied with dividing the remaining Jewish property amongst themselves.  What’s truly appalling is the widespread infestation of anti-Semitism, as neighbors reported on their neighbors, acted as informants, and provided lists of residents to the Nazis.  Even after the massacre, a few remaining invalids and elderly Jews who were too frail to walk to Babi Yar were hunted down by the local residents, dragged out of their homes and stoned to death.  Incredibly the locals did this on their own initiative, without any German involvement.  Afterwards local newspapers celebrated, printing the bold headline “Kiev is liberated from oriental barbarians, finally a new life begins,” while the following month they held a big parade, a chillingly indifferent response to the extermination of tens of thousands of people, as life, for all practical purposes, went on as normal.  Despite centuries of Ukrainians and Jews living peacefully together, the extermination of Jews in Lubny, Poltava, Kharkov, Kremchug, Borispol and Lugotin among others, continued shortly afterwards with no public interference.  There is some question about Ukrainian complicity, as Ukrainian nationalists at the time were looking for an independent state protected by the German army, unaware that the Germans planned to kill them as well, but the Nazi priority was to exterminate all the Jews first, Poles and Ukrainians would come afterwards.

The war on the Eastern Front began to take a turn in 1943 when Soviet troops reclaimed Kiev, with Hitler posters once again replaced by Stalin, though by this time the war-weary citizens were too overwhelmed by the exhaustion of war to present flowers to the returning Red Army soldiers, instead they were met with a tired resignation, yet a massive public celebration was held in the town square to promote a united Poland, Ukraine, and Russia behind the Soviet banner.  International journalists, including Americans, traveled to the site of the Babi Yar massacre where details of the atrocity were presented, including an attempted cover-up, as Nazis forced Russian war prisoners to dig up the bodies and burn them in an attempt to conceal the evidence, building two-storied funeral pyres, cremating 1500 bodies with each operation, taking nearly 3 days to burn completely, a process that went on for 40 days.  Afterwards the Nazis turned on those prisoners, spraying them with machine gunfire, yet a dozen out of more than 200 managed to escape.  Actual court testimony is presented in the war crimes tribunals that followed the war, including one woman witness Osmachko who escaped execution in Kharkov by lying in a pile of corpses for eight long hours without moving while the massacre continued all around her, even as soldiers walked around the pit with machine guns searching to shoot anyone showing signs of life, yet none was more riveting than Dina Pronicheva, Testimony of Dina Pronicheva about the Annihilation of the Jews in Babi Yar on September 29-30, 1941, a Soviet Jewish actress from the Kiev Puppet Theatre, who tore up her identity card and claimed she was not Jewish, that she was only there to accompany someone else to the site, but Nazis ordered her death anyway, wanting to eliminate all witnesses, marching her to the ravine, stripping her naked, then as she was about to be shot she jumped onto the pile of corpses and played dead, remaining completely still as the shooting continued all day, with bodies falling all around her, finally covered by a layer of dirt, when she became more afraid of being buried alive than being shot, so she climbed her way out of the massive pit of corpses and a layer of earth, up the side of the ravine and crawled to safety under cover of darkness.  She is among 29 known survivors of Babi Yar, and related her story to Soviet author Anatoly Kuznetsov whose novel Babi Yar was published in 1966, where hardcover copies have been out of print for decades.  Additional court testimony was provided by one of the Nazi sharpshooters, SS Officer Hans Isenmann, whose testimony is brutal, exposing the methodical nonchalance in revealing just how mechanical the entire process is to organize a massacre, expressing no emotion, simply repeating established procedures, exhibiting no regard for human life.  After hearing various testimonies, the director provides rare and macabre footage of the public execution by hanging of 13 Nazi officers in Kiev’s Kalinin Square for “atrocities against the Soviet people,” among them Hans Isenmann.  The square is completely packed by a massive outpouring of 200,000 people completely filling the screen, with Jeeps pulling them into their designated spaces with nooses placed around their necks, and then the Jeeps move away, leaving them dangling in the breeze.  It’s a horrific sight any way you want to look at it, primitive and grotesque, as if that barbaric act can actually eradicate evil from our midst.  About 1.4 million Jews were murdered just in the Ukraine alone, so the execution of a handful of men hardly suffices, but wartime is an entirely different mindset, where this massive extermination of Jews is unprecedented in human history. 

Stalin discouraged placing any emphasis on the Jewish aspect of the Babi Yar tragedy and instead presented these atrocities as crimes committed against the Soviet people, so under the Soviet occupation there was no mention of Jewish genocide at Babi Yar.  Even more astonishing, in 1952 the city council voted to turn the Babi Yar ravine into a reservoir for liquid industrial waste from a nearby brick factory, erecting box-like multistoried apartment buildings nearby, with workers seen wearing no protective covering, standing knee-deep in the industrial waste, and can be seen spreading the waters into the ravine.  The film ends without revealing that after years of filling the ravine with sewage and waste, it eventually ruptured and flooded the city, killing over a thousand people.  Also not mentioned, several attempts were made to erect a memorial commemorating the fate of the Jewish victims, but all attempts were overruled until after Stalin died and was finally denounced by the Party in 1961, when Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko wrote a poem after visiting the site, searching for a sign, a tombstone, some kind of historical marker, but found nothing, so his poem begins with the line, “No monument stands over Babi Yar,” Babi Yar By Yevgeni Yevtushenko - The Holocaust History, a line repeated in Shostakovich’s commemorative 13th Symphony entitled Babi Yar, Shostakovich - Symphony n°13 - Moscow PO / Kondrashin 1962 YouTube (56:35), which is structured around the narrative of the poem.  An official memorial to Soviet citizens shot at Babi Yar was erected in 1976, but it wasn’t until after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Ukrainian government finally allowed a separate memorial specifically identifying the Jewish victims.  It took until the 75th anniversary before a broad international coalition gathered to announce the 5-year plan to construct the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kiev, which proposes to build a $100 million complex of museums, research centers, works of art, and open-air audio and visual exhibits on more than 320 acres of land.  Yet for all the publicity surrounding the event, there is still ample evidence of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, as anti-Semitic literature is regularly sold on Independence Square in Kiev, the symbolic center of the Orange Revolution, while a pro-Nazi group handed out anti-Semitic fliers at the Babi Yar event, and even Swastika graffiti could be seen entering the walkway to the Jewish Babi Yar memorial, as the filled-in ravine is now a park surrounded by urban sprawl.  Loznitsa attended the Russian State Institute of Cinematography (VGIK, the celebrated Russian film school) at the same time as Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, the director of the epic and ever evolving DAU (2019) series of films and art installations about life in the Soviet Union.  Khrzhanovskiy is an associate producer of the film, also one of the people that urged Loznitsa to make this film, while also serving as the artistic director of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center.  While this is a unique understanding of history, it’s also difficult viewing, with the director relying upon intertitles much more than usual, which still leaves viewers on their own, swamped with historical content, often unaware of just what it is we’re seeing, as the mixed archival content often changes and confuses the narrative.  For instance, multiple early sequences show massive lines of soldiers, yet it’s hard to tell who they are, which side they are on, or whether they are advancing or retreating, a sequence of Ukrainian women digging a ditch is unclear if they are being forced to do this, or why, also in the trial testimony they edited war crimes at Babi Yar with atrocities occurring in other areas, which was not immediately apparent.  Overall this can feel a bit overwhelming.  It’s a bit ironic that the word context is in the title, as without any explanation, context is often precisely what’s missing, despite elaborate measures to assemble footage in a comprehensible fashion.  Much in the same vein as Romanian Radu Jude’s I Don't Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (Îmi este indiferent daca în istorie vom intra ca barbari) (2018), these filmmakers are holding their own countrymen accountable for what happened during the war, yet they’re viewed as elitists among the intelligentsia, as the majority of the modern era populace would prefer to overlook the incriminating details, opening the door for more far-right nationalists to push hate speech among their xenophobic rhetoric, as neo-Nazi organizations are now considered commonplace.  While this film is like an anguishing cry in the dark, one has to wonder whether anyone is listening.   

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