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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #393

This morning my friend and I visited Dobrytsky Yar, a depressing and sobering experience just on the outskirts of Kharkiv. It was the location where 16,000 men, women and children of the Kharkiv Jewish ghetto were murdered in a ravine in December 1941 and January 1942, after the Nazis had occupied the then capital of the Soviet Socialist Republic of Ukraine in about October 1941 and they decided to eliminate the entire population of the Jewish ghetto they had created in Kharkiv. The population of the ghetto were transferred by trucks to the ravine just outside the city limits, and the men and women were shot whereas the children were just thrown in there, it being assumed that they would simply freeze to death in the icy winters - in order to save on bullets. The German troops who conducted this horrendous massacre became addicted to alcohol and suffered the most atrocious mental health problems, and this led to the automation of the mass execution process of Jews and other persons that comprised the Holocaust. This was just one of the earlier incidents in the the Holocaust in which Jews were murdered at the hands and in front of their executors.

The directions we received from Google Maps to arrive at this location were hardly adequate; rather than take us along the main road, our mobile phone directed us along a series of back roads and then through a field, avoiding the major military checkpoint adjacent to the site which is officially closed. We found a soldier’s trench bed and tent on the site, testament to the fact that at one point this site marked a front line or no man’s land between the Ukrainian and Russian forces and the Russians shelled the memorial in the course of the early weeks of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, leaving the site in a state of disrepair. There seems to be some upkeep underway, but the small museum is closed and to reach the site now you need to drive some short distance along mud tracks and then hike through a field. Nevertheless we got there, to pay our respects to one of the Nazis’ earliest mass executions.

Then we drove back into town, our moods substantially darkened, to visit the Kharkiv Choral Synagogue where there is a mourners’ wall in respect of the tragedy at Dobrytsky Yar which comprises a couple of Old Testament murals, each piece in which represents one of the dead. The burly security guard was tasked with keeping strangers out of the synagogue, a large and imposing building in the centre of Kharkiv and a natural target, I suppose, for extremists and their crazy views. Particularly on the Jewish Sabbath, we were not welcome, the guard explained; but on saying we were journalists we were allowed to approach the Mourners’ Wall and take a couple of photographs of it and we respected the guard’s injunctions and the sanctity of the worshippers inside the synagogue. I do not know how many Jews remain in Kharkiv amidst the war, but I suspect it is a limited community.

The memorial at Dobrytsky Yar overlooks the ravine where the naked people, families, were thrown and then shot at random over the course of about six weeks, hundreds a day, in an act of the most extraordinary and callous barbarism. In multiple languages it is inscribed, “do not forget”. It seems that already we have forgotten: with over 80,000 Ukrainian soldiers dead since the beginning of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February 2022, and another 350,000 Russian soldiers also dead - not to mention all the civilian casualties - we are engaged in more mass murder on European soil and all to satisfy the maniacal political pretensions of a new generation of dictators and slaughterers who disregard all principles of decent political liberalism. I am horrified by what I saw at Dobrytsky Yar and just how much we seem not to have learned in the intervening two generations. Now nobody has even heard of the phrase Dobrytsky Yar; once it was a by-word for the worst horrors of the Second World War and the Nazis’s genocide against the Jews. It seems that each new generation must learn afresh the possibility of horrors being perpetuated by peoples each against the other without rhyme or reason.

A sign in Latin at the entrance to the site reads, “at this location the dead left lessons for the living”. I wonder what those lessons are, and whether anyone has learned them. Or whether this war will just continue interminably with a dozen or more further incidents in the nature of Dobrytsky Yar. Monuments are all very well, but not if nobody gives the slightest damn about them and fails to to take heed of them permanently into history. If we can forget even the Holocaust, then there is no hope for humankind in the future and we are perennially capable of limitless wickedness.


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