The Western picture of the persecution of Jews is still determined by the fate of the Jewish population during the German occupation of Western Europe. Jews were socially excluded, deported to Poland and killed in the gas chambers of extermination camps such as Auschwitz.
The Holocaust in Eastern Europe was different. The mass killing of the Jewish population there began earlier, took place in places where Jews themselves lived, and was more widespread – the vast majority of European Jews lived in the East. Genocide in the vast majority of cases occurred by mass shootings during the so-called ‘Holocaust bullets’. The perpetrators were special SS units, with key logistical assistance from the Wehrmacht, local police units and associates.
At the end of September 1941, not the first, but the largest mass execution of Jews took place in the Babi Yar gorge not far from the Ukrainian capital Kiev. After a series of bombings by the Red Army, which had recently withdrawn from the city, German authorities decided to immediately and completely kill the city’s Jewish population.
In a few days, 33,771 Jews were shot or buried alive in the ditch of Babi Yar – men, women and children. The event was not an isolated incident: 2.2 million Holocaust victims were killed in such mass shootings; 2.6 million people died in extermination camps; one million Jews died during transport, in ghettos and prisons.
In his new documentary Chapter Yar. Context let the Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznica shed light on the events. As a director, Loznitsa specializes in films about dark episodes in the history of Eastern Europe. Lower historical recordings – cleverly restored and in some cases equipped with new sound. The title of his film Chapter Yar. Context however, it is misleading: the context is simply lacking. Loznitsa gives almost no explanation, explanation or interpretation in his films.
The official death toll of Babi Yar was 100,000 in Soviet times. “That number is undoubtedly too high,” said NIOD Holocaust researcher Karel Berkhoff, who specializes in Ukraine. Not only Jews, but also Roma, partisans, prisoners of war and Ukrainian nationalists were allegedly killed in large numbers in Baba Yar, and the number of Jewish victims is suddenly higher. Berkhoff: “That is not true. The vast majority of the victims were Jews. Babi Yar is a place of Jewish suffering. ”
In Ukraine, the mass murder of Jews is still a difficult topic to discuss today. Ukrainians were victims not only of Hitler, but also of Stalin. According to the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939, Stalin took control of Western Ukraine, which until then had been part of Poland. Mass deportations and executions followed the annexation of Western Ukraine by the Soviet Union. Some of the Ukrainians therefore welcomed the Germans as liberators when Hitler started the war against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
It is a chapter in history that many Ukrainians do not like to be reminded of. Russia’s current war against Ukraine, including Russia’s propaganda war in which Ukrainians are systematically labeled as ‘neon-azi’, makes an open and honest confrontation with the past almost impossible.
Previously, the murder of Jews could hardly be discussed in the Soviet Union. Anti-Semitism did not die after the war, it even experienced a revival in the twilight of Stalin. The official state ideology dictated that all Nazi victims were equal to each other as “peaceful Soviet citizens.”
This changed somewhat during the period of de-Stalinization and ‘thawing’ of the 1960s. Remember the famous song Jar for pigs Yevgeny Yevtushenko, around whom Dmitry Shostakovich wrote a symphony and a masterful ‘documentary novel’ Jar for pigs by Anatoly Kuznetsov. But the thawing did not stop completely.
Loznitsa performed with Chapter Yar. Context such an important job, but even for an expert like Berkhoff the film is sometimes hard to fathom. “I don’t know if the film should be called a documentary,” he says. “I doubt the author mostly wanted to create a work of art that should primarily ask questions of the viewer.”
From a historical point of view, Berkhoff has a few things to say about the film. Chapter Yar. Context begins with pictures of the pogrom that took place in June 1941 after the arrival of German troops in Lviv. But the story really should have started in September 1939, when Stalin took away western Ukraine from Poland.
Berhhoff: “The events of June 1941 cannot be understood without knowledge of the history of 1939. But for a long time all Ukrainian school textbooks state that World War II began in June 1941.”
The vast majority of images in Chapter Yar. Context created for propaganda. “The pictures show prisoners of war marching in a column through the streets of Kiev. But you don’t see a prisoner who can’t keep up with the pace shoot himself right away. The reality was many times worse than the pictures. ”
Images of Russian prisoners of war being released by German soldiers and reunited with their loved ones only tell part of the story; three million prisoners of war died of starvation in German camps. There is also an incorrect suggestion in the film that Ukrainians accepted the murder of Jews without resistance. “There were indeed people who helped and protected the Jews.”
According to Berkhoff, the attention to the mass murders of the Jews themselves in the film is also too short. Why are the perpetrators not seen? War portraits and some film footage from Nuremberg are available to them. He didn’t use it. ”
Other images, on the other hand, reveal too much, Berkhoff believes. Chapter Yar. Context shows a close-up of SS men publicly executed by hanging in central Kiev in 1946. The images are also equipped with new, penetrating sound effects. “It simply came to our notice then. The perpetrators are still human. ”
Chapter Yar. Context can be seen in Dutch cinemas from 28 April.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on April 14, 2022
A version of this article also appeared in the NRC on the morning of April 14, 2022