Ukraine unveils synagogue at site of Babi Yar Jewish massacre

Ukraine on Friday inaugurated a symbolic wooden synagogue — built in the shape of a book — at Babi Yar,  site of one of the largest massacres of Jews during World War II.

On September 29-30, 1941, more than 33,000 men, women and children were murdered at the Babi Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kiev, one of the biggest single mass killings of the Holocaust. The ravine is also called Babyn Yar.

“The symbolic synagogue is a big step towards restoring the memory of all those who died in this place,” Prime Minister Denys Shmygal said at the ceremony. 

The synagogue was built by the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center which also plans to build a major memorial at the site.

The place of worship has been designed to open like a pop-up book and is decorated with prayers.

“The synagogue book is decorated with patterns and texts of prayers that recreate the traditional interior of ancient synagogues in western Ukraine, destroyed during World War II and the Holocaust,” its creators said.

“The ceiling of the synagogue is decorated with patterns in the form of a map of the starry sky, reproducing the position of the stars on September 29, 1941 –- the first day of the mass shootings in Babyn Yar.”

The synagogue was built of old oak wood collected from abandoned buildings across Ukraine.

Currently the site features a monument built by the Soviet authorities in 1976. It is dedicated to “Soviet citizens and prisoners of war” and does not mention any Jewish victims.

In 1991, a month after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Jewish community erected a sculpture in the shape of a menorah nearby.

– ‘Humanity and self-sacrifice’ – 

The synagogue inauguration came as Ukraine marked for the first time the Day of Remembrance of Ukrainians who saved Jews during World War II.

“Their feat is an example of humanity & self-sacrifice,” tweeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is of Jewish descent.

More than 2,600 Ukrainians have been recognised as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem in Jerusalem for putting their lives in danger by saving Jews.

Babi Yar was the scene of mass executions until 1943: up to 100,000 people were killed there, including Jews, gypsies, and Soviet prisoners of war.

The carnage by Nazi forces at Babi Yar has caused years of soul-searching and debate in Ukraine over the participation of local collaborators in the killings and atrocities that followed.

The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center has provoked controversy in Ukraine and been accused of pushing a Moscow view of the tragedy.

Russian filmmaker Ilya Khrzhanovsky, artistic director of the center, has been criticised for plans to turn the future complex into a “Holocaust Disneyland” offering visitors a chance to experience the massacre in the role of either victim or executioner.