Revisiting Kyiv’s Babyn Yar

I stood atop the Babyn Yar monument, alone.

I remember I had arrived at the Kyiv train station from Moscow during the spring of 1985. The early morning hours are never my favorite. My sleepless ride made my muscles feel like a bunch of listless pillows fading left and right.

I was there to make portraits of Ukrainian cultural elites. My handlers, a communist Russian and two Ukrainian associates met me at the station. Upon greeting me, they immediately said that they wanted to share a special moment with me before my portrait schedule began. Because I am Jewish they thought I might find this particular slight detour to be a treat. They wanted me to see Babyn Yar.

I was curious. My mother’s father had told me about Babyn Yar. He was born in the designated gray area “Beyond the Pale” (Pale of Settlement). He wanted me to visit to search for long lost relatives. He knew the geography and the time would not permit. But he yearned for the notion of his past if only to dream in the moment.

But in the moment at hand it was as if one saw Yo-Yo Ma naked on the stage with his cello. I would want to know why he was naked merely to get to the crux of the matter. I could always listen to his performances another time. I needed to see Babyn Yar. I could then think about its significance in the  aftermaths… It is not a perfect analogy, but the spectacle of the moment jolted me out of my morning slumber.

Our car arrived. The three suggested that I take the walk alone. I appeared from behind the trees tiptoeing above the blades of grass. I stepped up to the monument wondering if I might be trespassing. I was the only person within view. I began to realize that in that marriage of seconds the universe was revolving around me and then stilled.

The writer/poet  Marianne Moore had once said that it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing, but you cannot stand in the middle of this. She was referring to the seas. I was clearly in the middle of something, maybe middle earth for all I knew. Before and after that very real moment, life and death’s “Two-Step Dance”has never haunted like it had atop the Babyn Yar monument.

For too many seconds I felt as if my mind was locked inside one of the exhibition displays at the  Musée Dupuytren Paris. I stood in place and felt the earth tremble under my feet. My immediate nightmare was to wonder how many souls were still alive. Am I traumatized today? Maybe. I don’t live inside a nightmare, a nightmare does not live inside of me.  But a certain triggering brings me front and center. Even two to three shots of something strong does nothing but intensifies the waves of anxiety that are cornered somewhere in my cranial nerve networks.

In all of the years since 1985, it has been something like a nervous tick that comes and goes. When I read about the bombing at Babyn Yar just the other day, I saw everything I never wanted to remember, and so it goes.

In the past when I recalled the stories of the Germans taking aim at their Jews and prisoners, I have tried to imagine the space between the rifles clicking before the silence. I thought their might be a horror, a frozen moment. How do you hear silence.

Just maybe an analogous image might be the 1820 attack on the 87-foot whaling ship, the Essex. When the 85 foot sperm whale breached at the hull of the ship, the survivors recalled the screams when the whales’ nearly 6 foot wide eye peered over the hull and then the silence. Nobody heard the whale come crashing down nor the mayhem that followed.

Detail Babyn Yar Memorial.

Days later I visited the Russian Orthodox Church in Kyiv to photograph the Easter services. The Patriarch greeted me before services began. He made me promise I would make very good pictures.

He was told I had quite an experience at Babyn Yar. “Maybe because you are unshaven, but it seems you have regained your color. I am glad you have had success here. We will drink some wine following the services and I would like to hear about all of your experiences in Kyiv”.

This first appeared on Richard Schulman’s blog.

Richard Schulman is a photographer and writer. His books include Portraits of the New Architecture and Oxymoron & Pleonasmus. He lives in New York City.