Feeling Babi Yar: Yevtushenko & Shostakovich

Yevgeny Yevtushenko reciting his poem Babi Yar

An interesting and intense evening at Artist’s Laboratory!    Tonight we explored Echoes of Memory — Babi Yar — as remembered by the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko and then composed into Symphony #13 by Shostakovich.

Terri Hobbs facilitated this evening — on Holocaust:  Literature, Music, Memory and Representation.

She asked the question:  what does it mean to actually witness the Holocaust…by non-Jews?    On the 19th of September of 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko published his poem Babi Yar — written after an interview with a man who witnessed the event.   He was taken to the ravine by this non-Jewish man — this witness.    Seventy-five thousand Jews were murdered there over two days.

In this case — Art is Testimony.   Poem is below.



By Yevgeni Yevtushenko
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.

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.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.  
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok  
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-“They come!”

-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”

-“They break the door!”

-“No, river ice is breaking…”

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

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.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring  *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

Click HERE to hear the poet read Babi Yar, accompanied by Shostakovich symphony of the same name.

Dmitri Shostakovich read Yevtushenko’s poem and was greatly moved by it — and composed Symphony #13 in B Minor, Babi Yar.

[You can listen to it as well — but full disclosure — the subject matter is upsetting and authentic.  Many found the Shostakovich piece nationalistic — I found it intense and emotional.  Link: Symphony #13 in B Flat Minor: Babi Yar]   Decide for yourself!

The opening of the piece’s performance was on December 18, 1962.  It was not televised.  Indeed, it was not performed again in Russia for another twenty-three years.

People wanted to attend the concert in 1962 — but it was hushed up.  People stood in line for a long time to try to enter.   Afterwards, Ukrainians vowed to vandalize the Babi Yar monuments.

When we listen to Babi Yar — perhaps this piece (poem and symphony) evoke for us a collective memory of our people — perhaps this speaks to us at the level of our souls — in the same way that we all remember that we were slaves in Egypt — in the same way that we read from Deuteronomy:  My father was a wandering Aramean….

We are all from the same place.   We carry the same memory — the same pain — the same echoes of our collective histories.



Philip Roth’s “The Conversion of the Jews”and Isaiah

Tonight we delve into the magical world of Philip Roth’s stories….of one in particular:  “The Conversion of the Jews”  (You can read it HERE).IMG_1231

The Conversion of the Jews was published in The Paris Review in 1958 — was added to Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 — and was granted the National Book Award in 1960.

Philip was born in 1933 in Newark, New Jersey.   His father was an insurance salesman — in 1945 he wanted to sell frozen food and stared a business to do so — but the business failed.    Roth’s work was considered controversial…especially Portnoy’s Complaint (1962/3), which caused uproar in the Jewish community.

Steve Olson talking us through Philip Roth’s history.

So onto the story….have you read it yet? (if not, Here it is again!)  So this young man, Oscar.   He wants to know stuff.   He has a lot of questions.  He wants validation.   The whole business of the “Chosen People” makes him uncomfortable (like many).

Before he can realize it, his situation has become out of his control.  (No spoilers here.)   He asks himself “Who am I now?”IMG_1229

Like so many of us, scenes follow in our lives, one after another, and before we can even realize it a situation has gotten out of our control.  “Who are we now”?

Young Oscar has the sky above him and the star formation of his friends below him.  He is between heaven and the stars.  Between heaven and earth.    Is he as a prophet upon a mountain?

Is Oscar as Isaiah?    Because you know, a prophet is one who is chosen by God at a young age.   There was Abraham, of course…why was he chosen?   He smashed the ideas of his father’s time — that which came before…and brought the idea of God to the people.

Then of course there was Moses — he lived a lonely life in the Pharoah’s palace.  He organized sheep.   He was affected by Tzipporah and Yitro — his wife and father-in-law.

Both Abraham and Moses taught that God cares about human behavior.   They both also went up on mountains to talk to God.

Rabbi Andrea Steinberger leads us in discussion of the prophet Isaiah.

In the voice of Moses speaking about God….God redeems the oppressed.    God listens to prayer.   These two ideas are some that might particularly interest our young Oscar of The Conversion of the Jews.

But of Isaiah — there are sixty-six chapters in Isaiah.   Isaiah spoke of kings: “There is no earthly king — only king is God.”   The Jews at the time, you see, wanted a king as well.

Isaiah was political.  He named his children political names;   His son:  “Sh’ar Yeshuv” (A Remnant Will Return) and his other child: “Maher Shalal Hashbaz” (Spoil quickly, plunder speedily).

He also said — as a matter of course: “Eat, drink and be merry — for tomorrow we die”.


Might be interesting to note, from Isaiah, the following passages which pertain to this Roth story:

From Isaiah 45:20:

“Come, gather together,

Draw nigh, you remnants of the nations!

No foreknowledge had they who carry their wooden images

And pray to a god who cannot give success.

Speak up, compare testimony —

Let them even take counsel together!”

And from Isaiah 45:23:

“By Myself I have sworn,

From My mouth has issued truth,

A word that shall not turn back:

To Me every knee shall bend,

Every tongue swear loyalty.”

(God is the only strength and force we need worry about)

Chapter 53 — can speak of one who is singled out, mistreated and submissive — interesting that it can describe the character Oscar — but also interesting that it is sometimes used to describe Jesus:

“Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression[a] and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.[b]
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes[c] his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life[d] and be satisfied[e];
by his knowledge[f] my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,[g]
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,[h]
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.”