by Alex Ryvchin
The following is the text of the opening address delivered today by Alex Ryvchin, public affairs director at the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, at the memorial and monument unveiling commemorating the victims of Babi Yar near Kiev, Ukraine.
Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the co-hosts of this event, Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe, the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, the Sydney Jewish Museum and the Australian Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Descendants, I want to welcome you here today and to thank you for giving up your time to honour the victims of the Babi Yar Massacre.
“Today in the very places where these massacres took place, there are attempts to revise or deny the history of the Holocaust. War criminals are being rehabilitated into great patriots.”
I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land on which meet, the Gadigal people and to pay respect to their elders past and present.I extend a warm welcome to our esteemed guests of honour: the Member for Wentworth the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull; the Member for Sydney and Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party the Hon Tanya Plibersek; the Member for Kingsford Smith, the Hon Matt Thistlethwaite; Senator for New South Wales Sam Dastyari; the Member for Vaucluse the Honourable Gabrielle Upton; the Member for Coogee Bruce Notley-Smith who is also representing the Premier of New South Wales; the Honourable Walt Secord MLC who is also representing the leader of the NSW Opposition; The Mayor of Waverley Sally Betts and Councillors Kay, Clayton, Goltsman, Guttman-Jones and Mouroukas; City of Sydney Councillor Visoukas representing the Lord Mayor Clover Moore.
I would also like to welcome the Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutpommasane. Your presence here today is most fitting and is warmly appreciated. I also welcome our communal leaders, our Rabbis, war veterans and Holocaust survivors and their descendants.
I am deeply privileged to speak to you on such an important occasion and I do so as the Public Affairs Director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, as a member of the Russian-Jewish community and foremost as an Australian Jew born in the city of Kiev, the scene of the Babi Yar Massacre, one of the darkest chapters in the history of our people.
The two words “Babi” and “Yar” simply mean “old woman’s” and “ravine” and was the name given to a great, sprawling area of land on the edge of the city of Kiev. But after September 29, 1941 the words Babi Yar took on new meaning. There, over two days, the Jews of the city of Kiev were ordered to gather for what they thought would be their deportation. Then, 33,771 Jews were dispossessed of their valuables, forced to strip naked, were led into the ravine and methodically massacred by machine gun fire. Murdered by the Nazis and their local collaborators.
By the end of the war, some 150,000 Jews would lie in that ravine. The victims were simply covered in a layer of soil, in preparation for the next massacre. Bodies upon bodies, some not yet dead, merely wounded, slowly suffocating to death. Witnesses reported that for days after the earth shifted and heaved. That cursed, sacred place, those two words that still chill and terrify, “babi yar”.
Those words would come to represent the slaughter of the Jewish people on an industrial scale for no comprehensible reason. They would come to represent the cheapness of Jewish life and the world’s indifference to its loss. They would come to represent every mass grave in every forest and the ravines dotted across Soviet Russia now levelled out by Jewish bones. The millions obliterated. Lives lost and shattered. The generations waiting to follow, blotted out.
Babi Yar would come to represent the bloody pogroms and the daily humiliation and torment inflicted on the Jews of Russia simply because they happened to be Jewish. It would come to represent “Bey Zhidov, spasi Rossiyu” “kill the Jews and save our Russia,” a national ideology to truly unite the masses. One that ensured that when the moment came, across the Soviet Union, the Nazis could call upon legions of ready, eager collaborators to dispossess and gleefully murder their Jewish neighbours.
That is what Babi Yar is and that is what we remember here today.
And as the years pass, and with the passing of those who witnessed and experienced things the scale and horror of which we simply cannot comprehend, we each have a duty to honour the memories of the dead and to preserve their stories. Today, in the very places where these massacres took place, there are attempts to revise or deny the history of the Holocaust. War criminals are being rehabilitated into great patriots. Inscriptions on war memorials are being reworded to remove any reference to the Jewish victims. Even in our country, there are those who seek to trivialise the Holocaust and debase the systematic annihilation of a people, an event without precedent or comparison in its scale and barbarity.
But we can feel some measure of pride and comfort in the knowledge that in our country, we have leaders who, by being here today, demonstrate their commitment to understanding the history of the Jewish people and to honouring the memories of the Jewish dead.
So let us now turn to the unveiling of a monument dedicated to the victims of the Babi Yar Massacre that will serve as a permanent reminder of the great tragedy that befell our people and the unique suffering of Soviet Jewry.
But first, I would like to invite two of our honoured guests to say a few words. The Federal Member for Wentworth and the Minister for Communication, the Honourable Malcolm Turnbull MP, followed by the Federal Member for Sydney, the Deputy Leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Development, the Honourable Tanya Plibersek.