by Trudy Rubin
Ukrainians refer to Vladimir Putin as “Putler,” an amalgamation of Putin and Adolf Hitler.
The label is more than a jab at Putin’s obscene lie that Russia invaded Ukraine to fight Nazis — or a reaction to Russia’s relentless bombing of civilian targets. “Putler” describes a Russian killer who is mocking the “never again” pledge Western leaders made after Hitler’s genocide against Jews and slaughter of millions of other Europeans.
My visit to the jolting Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial in Kyiv, accompanied by its former deputy CEO, Ruslan Kavatsyuk, is a moving reminder of why the term “Putler” perfectly suits this soulless man.
Kavatsyuk, a 40-year-old former journalist and a Catholic, has immersed himself for the last three years in the largely forgotten history of Ukrainian Jews.
Under gray skies in drizzling rain, we walk along a path through what is now a peaceful forest. We pass sites where 34,000 Jews from Kyiv were shot in a (now filled in) ravine over two days in September 1941 — one of the largest such massacres in Eastern Europe. Another 64,000 or so Jews, Roma people, POWs and others were killed there later.
The history of this tragedy was buried with its victims.
No memorial to Babyn Yar was built when Ukraine was under Soviet rule. The Kremlin crushed any research into the subject, and made Babyn Yar into an industrial dump site. Subsequent Ukrainian governments never undertook the project.
Few Ukrainians had heard of the 1941 massacre of Jews, until the memorial park was established over the last two years. No list of the dead had ever been compiled.
The goal of the memorial project was to do the research and bring the past to life so that a new generation could understand and avoid the recurrence of such evil.
“People didn’t understand before,” says Kavatsyuk, “that it could happen again right here, right now.”
Along our route, we pass a long wall built of coal from Ukraine’s Donbas region, which the Russians have ravaged since 2014. Quartz shards protrude from the wall, large enough to rest one’s chin on and meditate, eyes closed. Called the “Crystal Wall of Crying” it memorializes the Babyn Yar dead. Yet it is equally relevant to the Ukrainians in the Donbas whom the Russians are still murdering as I write.
We walk down a stone path to the Mirror Field, another of the several installations along the marked route. On an elevated circular platform stand 10 mirrored columns, all shimmering in the sporadic sunlight; they are shot through with 100,000 bullet holes, representing each one of the Babyn Yar dead.
In the background, a recorded female voice softly recites the names of those who were lost against the low sound of a hidden acoustic organ. The effect is surprisingly soothing and cathartic.
Before the current war, young people would come at night, sitting silently on the platform and meditating. “We thought if we uncovered the truth and people came and had compassion for all victims, this would be a universal place that stood against evil,” Kavatsyuk told me. “Then evil returned.”
One week after the invasion a Russian missile hit a TV tower near the Holocaust memorial site and destroyed one of its buildings, killing several passing civilians.
A Russian agent was caught by security guards as he signaled coordinates for the missile strike — while standing on the circular platform of the Mirror Field. I wonder if he had any idea of the history under his feet.
“What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar? … History repeating,” tweeted Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy. The question was right on target.
For too many Europeans and many Americans, the “never again” mantra has lost its historical power.
For Kavatsyuk, the impact of the invasion was very personal. Just prior to the Russian attack, he had been visiting Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem in order to consult on the opening of the first museum on the Babyn Yar site. (The opening was canceled due to the war.)
He rushed home from Israel the day before the Russians crossed the border, in order to get his family to safety. His home in Hostomel near Kyiv was completely destroyed by Russian shelling; he believes he would have been killed if the Russians had caught him. He left his museum job in April so he could volunteer to help Ukrainian troops.
What haunts him is that, nearly 80 years after the defeat of Hitler, Putin is conducting another genocide in Ukraine.
Kavatsyuk is quick to stress that Ukrainians are “not in the same situation as Jews were. This is not the Holocaust where millions and millions were killed.”
But “it is a genocide,” he states firmly. “We are being killed specifically because we are Ukrainians. Putin insists there is no such thing as Ukrainians, only Russians who are being fooled by the West.”
Putin and his minions reject the very idea of a Ukrainian nationality or language. In territory the Russians have captured, they have forcibly deported at least 1.2 million Ukrainians to Russia. Those who refuse to concede that they are Russians, not Ukrainians, are being arrested, tortured or killed.
“They want to destroy all of us,” Kavatsyuk says, his voice rising. “When we free the occupied territories there will be a lot that is terrifying.” He is asking scholars who researched the fate of Ukrainian Jews to prepare to research the names of those who lie in mass graves in Mariupol and other Russian-occupied cities and towns.
“If we didn’t stop the Russians here,” he says, “Moldova would be occupied today, the Baltics in five years and Poland in 10 years. The Russians will keep going until they are stopped.”
As we walk on the stone path out of the memorial park — to the muted sound of cantorial prayers for the fallen — I wonder if Western leaders have fully grasped the essence of Putler, a man who calls for “denazification” of Ukraine while he himself imitates Nazi crimes.
I have a suggestion for those leaders who still can’t grasp why Ukraine must be helped to defeat Putler: sentence them to hours of listening to the names of the dead that drift endlessly over the Mirror Field platform near Babyn Yar.