Holocaust by Bullets: Historical and Ethical Questions

Southampton Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Day 2023

This year, the main theme of Southampton’s Holocaust and Genocide Memorial Day (HMD) events is ‘Holocaust by Bullets’. Our commemorative events are twofold:

On Wednesday 25 January, we will hold our main event which will include a panel discussion on Babyn Yar with Professor Jeremy Hicks, Graham Cole and Dr Markian Prokopovych. On Thursday 26th January, we are also partnering with the Phoenix Film Society and Union Films to screen the film Babi Yar. Context (2021) by Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. Prior to the screening, the film will be introduced by Graham Cole and director of the Parkes Institute, Dr Claire Le Foll.

The so-called ‘Holocaust by Bullets’ has featured relatively little in UK Holocaust discourse, as well as at previous Southampton HMD events. Moreover, Holocaust scholarship and memorialisation in the UK (and the West, more generally), have focused on the implementation of the Final Solution, ghettoisation and camps, and the experience of Jewish refugees fleeing to Britain between 1938 and 1940, via the Kindertransport, for example. As such, we felt it necessary to highlight the particular massacre of Babyn Yar due to its relative obscurity, as well as its contemporary relevance vis-à-vis the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. Until recently Holocaust survivors have played a crucial role in HMD events, including at Southampton’s commemoration. However, with the unfortunate passing away of survivors, and many others being too frail to publicly discuss their Holocaust experiences, there is now a turn to finding new ways to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. This is why we have chosen to screen Loznitsa’s film, which combines testimony with archival material, raising important discussions which will inform Southampton’s HMD events and the national theme of ‘Ordinary People’. Looking at a range of material, including documentary footage, testimony and historical contexts, deepens our understanding of the Holocaust and provides greater nuance in our commemoration.

Babyn Yar (or Babi Yar in Russian) is a ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where 33,771 Jews were murdered on 29th and 30th September 1941 by Einsatzgruppe Sonderkommando, with the aid of SD officers, the Wehrmacht, and Ukrainian auxiliary police. The massacre was one of the largest (in terms of scale) Nazi mass-murders of Jews to be perpetrated on Soviet territory. The ravine continued to be used by the Nazis between 1942 and 1943 to shoot Soviet prisoners of war, Roma, communists, and Ukrainian nationalists (OUN). Despite the memory of Babyn Yar and that of the Holocaust more generally being distorted in the Soviet Union – under the narrative of heroification of the Soviet army and universalisation of victims – the massacre was officially commemorated in 2006, following the Orange Revolution, with a Memorial Centre later opening in 2016. The site recently came back into public prominence when on 1st March this year, it was inadvertently hit by Russian forces during an attack against the nearby television broadcast tower.

The panel discussion on Babyn Yar will also be informed by the recent film, Babi Yar. Context (2021) by Ukrainian filmmaker Sergei Loznitsa. Loznitsa is an internationally acclaimed director, whose previous films and documentaries have won industry awards. His work has, largely, been very positively received by critics. Babi Yar. Context premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in July 2021 where it won the Golden Eye award for best documentary film.

Beginning with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the film uses rare German and Soviet archival footage to document the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. The film ends with testimonies from a 1946 Soviet trial on the Second World War. Although the massacre itself was not filmed, Loznitsa includes some photographs from the aftermath of the event. Despite the film including no dialogue, Loznitsa adds ambient noise and music to accompany the footage. It is a powerful and important film that aims to shed light on the tragedy of Babyn Yar – confronting a memory Loznitsa deems “shameful and scary,” even if it makes the viewer uncomfortable. It demonstrates the change in regime in Ukraine, and the subsequent period of chaos beginning in June 1941. Loznitsa emphasises the importance of “connecting the tragedy of the extermination of the entire Jewish population of [Kyiv] with the realities of life under German occupation” (press kit). In this way, the film relates well to the theme of HMD 2023, namely, ‘ordinary people’. Like Loznitsa, we also recognise the importance of confronting and remembering the Babyn Yar massacre, as well as situating the event in its wider historical context.

The film, however, raises many difficult ethical questions which will be addressed during the panel discussion as part of the HMD commemorative event on 25th January. A prominent issue is Loznitsa’s use of graphic images. He includes many shots of dead bodies, including images of the Lviv pogrom of July 1941 and of the public hanging of Nazis in 1946. A question naturally arises from this: is it necessary to show such graphic images as part of Holocaust education? Relatedly: if so, what age group can these images be shown to, with what purpose, and in which settings?

Another issue relates more specifically to the Ukrainian context of the film. Loznitsa’s film includes footage of Ukrainian citizens greeting Nazi soldiers entering Lviv and suggests the active collaboration of Ukrainians with Nazi occupying forces. While Ukrainian collaboration during the war and the Holocaust is incontestable and historically documented, the film has been heavily criticised in Ukraine as, for many, it offers a distorted vision of the context of the war. By starting the film in June 1941, the film skips over an important historical period and element of background. Western Ukraine had been invaded by the Red Army in September 1939. It was subjected to a rapid and brutal Sovietisation, and many Ukrainians were deported or executed. The greeting of Germans by Ukrainians of the West needs therefore to be understood in the context of a war that started in 1939, for them.

In a contemporary context, Vladimir Putin has weaponised Ukrainian collaboration and the massacre at Babyn Yar to justify the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine. Given the sensitivity of these questions, how can we, as historians and educators, discuss this issue without serving the contemporary political agenda of the Russian state? The Parkes Institute believes that a discussion, even if uncomfortable, is necessary. We have, therefore, invited experts in Holocaust education and Eastern European history to actively engage in these questions: Professor Jeremy Hicks, a specialist in Soviet Cinema, who has worked on the representation and memorialisation of the Holocaust in the Soviet Union; Graham Cole, an educator for the Holocaust Education Trust and Parkes Honorary Fellow, who has many years of experience teaching the Holocaust to various age groups; and Dr Markian Prokopovych, a historian of modern East Central Europe, who will discuss the controversies surrounding the Ukrainian reception of Loznitsa’s film.

Click here to register for our Holocaust & Genocide Memorial Day commemorative event and the accompany roundtable discusson. To attend the separate screening of Babi Yar.Context, register here.