Tuesday, April 13, 2010

History and Hope

Holocaust Memorial, Kiev.

I was in Kiev over the weekend for a meeting of over-50 year old PCVs. It was great to be with close friends. We had our SNAC (Senior Network Action Committee) meeting at Peace Corps headquarters. We learned that the newest PCT Group 38, now in training in Chernigov, has many more seniors, many more over-70, than our group and previous groups did. Lillian Carter would be pleased! So are we.

After the meeting we had a grand tour of Kiev given by Dr. Valeriy Gontarenko (Dr. V), who grew up in Kiev and shared the glories and stories of his historic Podil neighborhood, one of the oldest in Kiev. We went to other sites, through a craftsmen and artisans neighborhood, to Parliament, the President's House, and majestic government buildings near bustling Chrishatik Street, the heart of the city, and to see St. Cyril's Church Museum, adorned with beautiful paintings.

We also went to the Holocaust memorial (above right) in Babi Yar, the large ravine outside of Kiev where over 33,000 Jews were rounded up and killed in cold blood on September 29-30, 1933, perhaps the largest two-day massacre of the Holocaust. Dr. Sasha Gonta met us there to share more information about this tragic event, one which the Soviet government didn't acknowledge and is only relatively recently being uncovered and discussed publicly. The Holocaust tragedy is also told in the documentary Babi Yar, by Anatoly Kuznetsov, based on the chilling and horrific experience of a survivor who played dead on top of thousands of corpses of loved ones and friends, artist Dina Pronicheva.

I cannot imagine the horror. I cannot imagine surviving. We walked the grounds aware that we were treading on a huge cemetary with thousands and thousands of unmarked graves, the voices of the massacred silenced, but not forgotten.

We also remembered another atrocity, the Holodomor, the starvation of 8-10 million Ukrainians in 1932-33 who, by order of Stalin, were forced at gun point, torture and threat of death or exile to Siberia, to give up their grain, all of it, their grinding wheels, their food. Controversy surrounds the details of this tragedy, and some deny it, but modern scholars have placed it in the context of Ukrainian resistance to Stalin's forced collectivization of their farms.

Our PCV friend Ilse, whose mother was born in Ukraine and fled with her husband to America in the1940s (Ilse's not sure how but with the help of friends), says her mother told many stories about this famine and her own tragic loss of several family members. It was good to have Ilse and her husband Carl with Jud and me on this visit.

It was president Yushchenko who had the Holodomor Park Memorial built to the victims in 2007-8 (photos right, the former president with his daughter). It includes a modern obelisk, along with the bronze statue of a starving young girl and a circle of grinding wheels. Very moving. It is set in a beautiful park near the Kiev Pediersk Lavra, the Monastery of the Caves, the oldest orthodox Christian monastery, started in 1015. The old and the new. Good and evil. Sacred history and holocaust history.

The Holodomor is one of the newest memorials in the capital city of Kiev, and it is filling the need to remember. Thousands of daily visitors and hundreds of flowers and lighted candles placed at the site attest to its power to move us. Yushchenko, I think, was right about this.
But president Yushchenko's obsession with historical truth and remembrance became unpopular, and he was accused, for example, of favoring history over solving present-day problems. Still, Ilse thinks he will go down in history as a good president. I agree. Not soon, not now, but in time.

He will be, perhaps, the Ukrainian equivalent of Turkey's Ataturk, who instituted a republic on the foundation of preserving the past. Istanbul is now a tourist attraction for millions of visitors from all over the world because of it. It can happen here.

The generation that witnessed the Holocaust and Holodomor is fast disappearing, so first-hand accounts of these tragic stories will be lost if they are not told, collected and preserved now, and if we do not have ways to remember them. We need to be the voices of the dead, a community of memory.

We need our memorials not only to celebrate our heroes and heroines, but also to remember the dark moments in our history, to remember the losses, the killing of the spirit. Scholars remind us time and again that if we don't remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it.

Uncovering the secrets and lies of the past is difficult, but it can be a positive first step toward the future. It can be part and parcel of plans for social action, economic development, and social change, in Ukraine as elsewhere. In time, all these goals will converge.

Istanbul is a great contemporary example of such convergence. Ukraine will one day use its history to illuminate a vibrant present. It will become, like Istanbul, a destination for honoring the past and looking with hope toward the future. History and hope. In time, Ukraine, in time.

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