He was tall, with broad shoulders, olive skin and a full head of black hair. He joined the Soviet army in the first days of the war with Nazi Germany, was seriously wounded twice, and finished the war by signing his name on the Reichstag wall in Berlin in May 1945.
However, when he returned home to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, there was no one there to greet him. His entire family — including his young wife and two young daughters — had been killed at the ravine of Babi Yar. They were among the nearly 34,000 Jews — mostly women, children and the elderly — shot by the Nazis over the course of three days in late September 1941. All of the Jews who remained in the recently occupied city of Kyiv were ordered by the Germans to gather with their belongings, and were escorted to their tragic fate at Babi Yar. It is considered one of the largest massacres of the Holocaust; estimates indicate that more than 100,000 people were killed in this ravine (Yar means ravine in Ukrainian) during the occupation.
Grandpa Yaakov was my dad’s stepfather. He married my grandmother a few years after the war, when my dad was already a teenager. Grandpa Yaakov had no more children after the war, so from the moment I was born, I became the apple of his eye, and we always had a very special bond. I knew that he would do anything I asked, with two exceptions. He would never wear his war medals, and he would never go to the annual Victory Day parade with me.
We didn’t speak about Babi Yar in my grandfather’s presence. Every September he would go to Babi Yar with a group of Jewish men to read Kaddish. He risked being arrested, but nothing we said would stop him.
As a child, I tried to comprehend the dark facts of this tragedy. I convinced myself that at least his children, cute little girls who were only 3 and 5 years old, could not have been shot. I dreamed many times that they must have been hidden somewhere. We just needed to find them.
Growing up in Kyiv I was haunted by the past, and I wanted answers. Why were the Soviets so afraid of this place, of any memory of this tragedy? After all, it wasn’t the communists who committed these crimes. Weren’t they the ones fighting the Nazis?
I didn’t receive adequate answers to these questions during my Soviet upbringing. It was never discussed at school or in the media. My grandfather passed away in Kyiv, in 1986. After years of obstruction and uncertainty by the Soviet bureaucracy, my family immigrated to the United States in 1989 and focused on building new lives.
I visited Kyiv several times after Ukraine got its independence in 1991. Several monuments were finally placed at Babi Yar, but there were no information signs, and the place was littered with garbage. The young people I met there were casually sipping beer, oblivious to the immense mass grave beneath their feet. I always left that place with a heavy heart.
This year marks the 75th anniversary of the tragic events of September 1941. I was invited to attend a series of Babi Yar commemorative events that took place in Kyiv on September 23-29, 2016. This was my first since the tumultuous events in of recent years in Ukraine.
The week culminated with the official memorial ceremony at the Babi Yar site, attended by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, along with dignitaries from Israel, the U.S., the European Union and the World Jewish Congress, as well as diplomats and many other guests. Poroshenko spoke about Babi Yar as first and foremost a Jewish tragedy, but also a Ukrainian tragedy. His worlds strongly resonated with me when I saw many young residents of Kyiv come to the site with flowers.
The most touching event was a presentation of school projects dedicated to educating children about the Holocaust. The large auditorium at the Ministry of Education was packed with teachers who traveled to Kyiv from towns and small villages all over Ukraine, some from places right near the war zone in eastern Ukraine. One teacher slipped out secretly from Russian-occupied Crimea.
One after another the teachers spoke about the importance of educating a new generation of Ukrainian children about the lessons of the Holocaust and promoting an atmosphere of tolerance. Every project demonstrated how these teachers create meaningful experiences for their students in order to make them feel and understand the consequences of intolerance, hate and indifference.
As I walked along the same cobblestone streets of old Kyiv that I once took to ballet lessons with my grandfather Yaakov many years ago, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I would have wanted him to know about these changes. I believe that the changes that I witnessed are a direct consequence of the Ukrainian people choosing a free and democratic society, and reflect a new set of post-soviet values.
But I also understand that these changes are not happening all by themselves. I feel very grateful to the educators, activists, and organizations that have worked so hard and continue working in Ukraine to advance this noble cause. Many of us who immigrated to the U.S. because of the horrible experiences of anti-Semitism are often quick to stereotype and focus on the past. But the long road to reconciliation and mutual understanding starts today. Let’s not miss it.
Yana Rathman is a local community activist and a member of the JCF Board of Governors, a member of the Limmud FSU West Coast Organization Committee, and volunteers her time to support education reforms in Ukraine. She has lived in San Francisco since 1989.