He was Disabled. He walked with crutches. He was older but not old. He was balding but not yet bald. He was not tall, but he was not short. He had the softening of middle age, just barely overweight. He was sad, soul deep sad, whole lifetimes of sad compressing to make room for more sad. He was angry, rageful really. His rage countered the bone cracking cold. The words of a poem tolled in his mind.
“…I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails…”
The ghosts of the deaths eighty-one years ago still crushed him, just as much as when he stood before the bloodied sidewalk where his neighbor’s daughter had been killed by the blast of a cruise missile while shopping with her mother; just as much as the dead remains of a young abandoned Russian soldier, not warm, still cooling, no more than a boy, lying dead on the side of the road, abandoned as columns of Russian trucks and tanks were turned around by Ukrainian resistance.
“…I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded…”
When Ukrainian military forces stopped a Russian tank, he climbed aboard. As Russian soldiers’ faces and then bodies emerged from the top of the tank he clamored down. He knelt down in front of the tank. His neighbors tried to pull him away. He refused to move. As he knelt, he recited out loud the poem ringing within him, memorized from his boyhood:
“No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself….”
His neighbors finally moved him from in front of the tanks. They shepherded him away and sat him on a street curb safely away from the tanks. He continued reciting silently. They believed he had been and was still praying. He could not stop. He kept reciting the poem to himself over and over again until his neighbors took him home and laid him down on his bed.
“…And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here….”
- Embedded poem stanzas from: Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Yevtushenko was a Russian poet born in 1933. He wrote this poem in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babi Yar, a ravine in the suburbs of Kiev, as a site of the mass murder of 33,000 Jews on September 29–30, 1941. Dmitri Shostakovich’s “Thirteenth Symphony” is based, in part, on this poem. From: The Collected Poems 1952–1990 by Yevgeny Yectushenko. Edited by Albert C. Todd with the author and James Ragan (Henry Holt and Company, 1991), pp. 102-104.
A view of the ravine at Babi Yar circa 1944. On September 29-30,
1941, more than 33,000 Jewish residents of Kiev were marched
to this site and systematically gunned down over the edge of the
ravine by members of the Sonderkommando 4a of Einstazgruppen C.
Tens of thousands of Gypsies and Soviet POWs were also executed at this site between 1941 and 1943.