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.



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