While the past week has seen much hand-wringing and face-slapping over the embarrassing incident which saw Canada’s parliament applaud a vet who fought for the Nazis, many people may not have realized that the incident had an even deeper resonance because of the timing.
This week marks the 82nd anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre — one of the worst shooting massacres of the Holocaust. Over the course of Sept. 29-30 in 1941, nearly 34,000 men, women and children — mainly Jews — were shot to death in a ravine outside Kyiv.
The bloody incident was part of what some historians refer to as the “Holocaust by bullets” — the murder of countless Jews which took place through firing squads across much of Eastern Europe, often with help from local collaborators, after the Nazis invaded the USSR in 1941.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, as many as 2 million Jews were killed by bullets and associated massacres across former Soviet territory.
As it happens, Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts in West Queen West opened an exhibit in April to tell the story of the massacre, its sometimes forgotten history, and recent efforts to make sure that those who were murdered are not forgotten.
The exhibit, “The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmare of Evil into a Shared Dream of Good” has been such a success that it is set to go on a worldwide tour to multiple continents when its initial Toronto run ends in November.
“It's an extraordinary thing. It came together very quickly,” recalled Anthony Sargent, interim director of the Koffler Centre, in an interview with CP24.com.
To mark the 80th anniversary of the massacre in 2021, a synagogue was commissioned to be built just outside the ravine area, which today is home to a public park.
Swiss Architect Manuel Herz created an extraordinary wooden synagogue which is unfolded with a hand crank into the open air every morning and closed down every night in the fashion of a pop-up book. Prayers are painted on the walls and a constellation of flowers on the ceiling shows the stars as they were on the night of the massacre in 1941.
While there were many monuments to the horrors of World War II around Kyiv, somehow there was not a largescale monument to mark the destruction of the city’s Jews until the construction of the synagogue in 2021.
Just before Christmas last year, a mutual friend introduced Sargent to Robert Jan van Pelt, who's the historian and curator of the show, and to Herz.
“Initially they hadn’t thought that there was an exhibition in this project in there is a synagogue,” Sargent said. “And then as we talked, we very quickly thought there was a really remarkable exhibition that would tell the story of the massacre in 1941… and then go on to tell the story of the design of this extraordinary jewel-like pop-up wooden synagogue that opens at the beginning of the day, closes at the end of the day. And it is it's a completely unique and extraordinary piece of architecture.”
The Koffler exhibit was created with assistance from Canadian architect Douglas Birkenshaw and through architectural photography by Dutch photographer Iwan Baan. It features large-scale photographic murals directed by Ukrainian-Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky and taken by Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk.
Some of the large murals surrounding the exhibit space show the natural scenery and make one feel as if they are at the site in the forest. Somehow the photos of the area bear an eerie resemblance to many ravines and trails one can find around Toronto.
Poems and historical explanations around the exhibit tell the story of the Jews of Kyiv who were wiped out and what happened to the site of the grizzly events as time passed.
There are also large-scale photographic murals and photos of the intricately designed synagogue which now stands near the site.
According to the Koffler, the exhibit also links “three moments in time of exceptional global resonance – the original 1941 massacre, the creation and dedication of this extraordinary, jewel-like, wooden synagogue and the current Russian war against Ukraine.”
While many people are familiar with the “industrial” type murder of Europe’s Jews in gas chambers and crematoria, “that’s not how it started,” Sargent says.
“It started with these appalling, high concentrated massacres of people who would just take the machine guns and that’s not such a well-known story as Auschwitz-Birkenau and the gas chambers,” he says. “I think, also people forget that Ukraine was caught up in the same complicated political geometry of Russia, the Soviet Union of course, and Ukraine and Germany. It was as complicated a situation in 1941 as it is today, actually.
“I think for a lot of people it's very moving to be telling this story of this appalling atrocity in 1941 while we're also on our television screens night after night, seeing another atrocity happening in Ukraine, the atrocity of the Russian invasion.”
He said visitors to the exhibit have come away with admiration for the architecture of the synagogue, but also shock and “visceral horror” at the nature of the massacre itself “which is not very well known.”
However he said the exhibit is also designed in a way where people ultimately exit with a sense of hope, as signified through the synagogue.
“If there is one thing I hope people will take away from this is a sense of however appalling are the things that happened in war, however horrific, where there is a human spirit, there is always a hope,” Sargent says. “It may not be an ordinary kind of redemption. But there is something in the human spirit that can survive and even somehow find beauty and hope and inspiration in the way that one remembers these terrible events.”
Through an “extraordinary accident of historical timing,” Sargent says, the anniversary also falls on the same day that Canada is observing the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to grapple with its own painful history of residential schools.
“What you have to try and find in both is a sense of hope. And I think if there's one message that the conjunction of the two things gives, it's that.”
“The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmare of Evil into a Shared Dream of Good” runs through Nov. 12 at the Koffler Centre of the Arts on Shaw Street.