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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #47

Today I visited Drobytsky Yar, the Holocaust Memorial outside Kharkiv. In December 1941, having occupied Kharkiv in the course of their invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis murdered up to 30,000 people at Drobytsky Yar, all of them Jewish, representing the city’s remaining Jewish population that at one point earlier in the twentieth century had been substantial as Kharkiv had for a period remained a haven of peace for Jews from the Russian and then Soviet pogroms. It was a sobering and somber moment. However the current war has affected the site. Although one might have hoped that both sides would have had the respect and decency to leave this quiet, calm and peaceful memorial to the Holocaust untouched, in fact the Russians shelled and damaged the site as part of their wanton and arbitrary aggression against the Kharkiv suburbs. Presumably this was unintentional.

To reach the site is no straightforward task. It lies to the southeast of Kharkiv, and it is adjacent to an enormous complex of military checkpoints that you must pass and repass on foot in order to obtain access to the memorial. The artery road around the outskirts of Kharkiv that my guide and I traversed in order to reach Drobytsky Yar was in the early part of the Russian invasion of Ukraine a front line between the Ukrainian and Russian Armed Forces, and all the paraphernalia of the front line are visible and must be navigated around, including road blocks, checkpoints, tank traps and minefields. Nevertheless the Russians retreated from the Kharkiv front line relatively early during their so-called “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine, because they had neither the resources nor the nerve to attempt to seize the city in the face of potentially fierce resistance. Hence these former front line positions are now navigated straightforwardly if with care in a taxi.

I had advised my guide of our destination in advance, and she had taken great care to research travel to the site which she knew well. She first took us to another memorial, which I had not asked her to do, perhaps having become confused. Granted, that was also an impressive memorial to the Red Army personnel who died in the liberation of Kharkiv in World War II, and I was grateful to view that site, that had not been damaged by the invading Russian forces in the course of their Special Operation in Ukraine. My guide, who spoke fluent Russian, was extremely knowledgeable about this site, and I was grateful for her insights.

I was also pleased that she dressed in appropriate and decent attire conventional for a Holocaust Memorial, as she guided me round the site with detailed commentary. While I reflected silently upon the line of trees that had been planted in a ditch to mark the precise location where the Nazi soldiers committed genocide on the outskirts of Kharkiv, she took smiling selfies with her iPhone. A plaque by the memorial reads, in both Russian and English, “In this place the lane of trees will be planted in memory of the Kharkov Jews, the victims of the Holocaust, which were innocently lost from the hands of nazis in December, 1941. We incline the head before their memory. Don’t forget. Don’t allow next generations to forget.

It seems we have forgotten already.

We re-passed on foot over the military checkpoint, my guide apparently having no regard to the formalities the Ukrainian Armed Forces insist upon in checking documents and identities in so sensitive an area. The armed soldier who inspected my passport welcomed me to Ukraine and thanked me for my country’s support. I salute him and his bravery and that of his colleagues.

Then we took a taxi back into Kharkiv, that I ordered because my Russian language skills are so much better than that of my fluent Russian guide. She was still taking selfies by the checkpoint and the traffic light. The directions she gave to the taxi driver resulted in our being driven to a deserted strip club. In the middle of the day. When I protested, instead we were driven to a deserted nightclub for lunch. This place would once have been packed all day on a Saturday. Now we were the only customers.

I was delighted to buy my exceptional guide with her distinctive wardrobe the finest lunch that money could buy. It is no straightforward task, after all, to find any sort of tourist guide in the city of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border and serving as a military garrison for the front line just to the southeast. I discussed with her what she had thought of the experience of visiting a Holocaust Memorial site, and whether she found it moving. She invited me to invest in her new fashion brand of Ukrainian clothing, and she showed me some videos of catwalks and models the contents of which I found absolutely fascinating. I am quite sure that investment in fashion brands in the midst of war and carnage is the appropriate direction for the Ukrainian economy. She wants to see me tomorrow, for Karaoke. Most unfortunately I have another prior commitment.

I slowly returned to my hotel, somewhat demoralised but also humbled by the opportunity to visit so important a Holocaust Memorial site and thinking of the death and suffering that had taken place upon the very soil where I had walked. I was disappointed that the Russians in their indiscriminate shelling could not have spared this holy and serene place, that was entirely quiet and calm despite being a mere five minutes’ walk from a busy military checkpoint. Is nothing sacrosanct anymore? As Alexandre de Tocqueville, the famous French political scientist, observed, those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to relive them. His epithet appears particularly apposite, sitting in Kharkiv at the current time. I studied the wares on offer at my hotel shop. They are limited: assault rifle magazines; belt holders for the same; and military socks. We are immersed here in Ukraine in a culture of war and we do not know how to escape it.

Over lunch, I had tried to change the subject. I asked my guide whether she had any hobbies. She answered, “money”.


Any views expressed herein are purely the private opinions of the author and should not be attributed to the Paladins Organisation or otherwise.


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