Witness: Yevgeni Yevtushenko

 

  Yevgeni Yevtushenko

Today a memorial exists at Babi Yar commemorating the lives of the Jews, Gypsies, Polish government officials and the Soviets who died there under the hands of the Germans. It took many years and a great deal of controversy for the memorial to be built. In 1961, twenty years after the massacre, the Ukrainian poet, Yevgeni Aleksandrovich Yevtushenko, wrote of Babi Yar in one of his most famous poems. Though the poem was circulated and read extensively, the Soviet controlled press did not allow it to be printed until 1984. Yevtushenko’s intent in writing “Babi Yar” was to bring attention to the anti-Semitic feelings that continued to increase in the Soviet Union after the war.
 
Babi Yar
 
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 Dreyfus1 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 Belostok2
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 anti-Semites 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 judgment.
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"3 thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of anti-Semites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by anti-Semites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

 Translated by Benjamin Okopnik

Notes:
1Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer, unfairly dismissed from service in 1894 due to trumped-up charges prompted by anti- Semitism.
2Belostok: the site of the first and most violent pogroms, the Russian version of KristallNacht.
3"Internationale": The Soviet national anthem.