A tech-savvy Holocaust memorial in Ukraine draws critics and crowds

Visitors listening to the audio portion of the Mirror Field memorial at the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Site in Ukraine on Oct 3, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

KIEV (NYTIMES) - An advertisement on the Ukrainian-language version of Tinder, the online dating platform, offered a not-so-romantic experience.

"Touch the tragedy of Babyn Yar," the ad suggested, urging users to learn more about one of the largest mass shootings of Jews in World War II, at a site in Kyiv.

The pitch was hardly an outlier. As Ukraine this week marks the 80th anniversary of the massacre at Babyn Yar, web-savvy advertising, modern art installations and audience-grabbing techniques like online gaming have become an integral part of a well-funded effort to update Holocaust commemoration.

The tech-heavy approach has drawn criticism from traditionalists, who say it dishonours the solemnity of the topic. The Nazis shot tens of thousands of Jews, Roma, Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war at Babyn Yar, as wells as patients from psychiatric hospitals and others.

But organisers concluded that a more modern presentation would draw bigger crowds, and they appear to have succeeded where numerous earlier efforts failed.

What had been a largely deserted site except for official delegations, sometimes used inappropriately for barbecue parties or dirt-bike riding, has recently been filled with visitors bearing flowers and candles.

The anniversary ceremonies culminate on Wednesday (Oct 6) with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, visiting the site and unveiling a modern art installation, the Crystal Wall of Crying. The full museum complex is expected to cost more than US$100 million, about half donated by Russian oligarchs, and it is scheduled for completion in 2025.

The massacre at Babyn Yar, also known as Babi Yar, was one of the most notorious of World War II. In late September 1941, soon after German army entered Kiev, the city's Jews were told to gather near a train station in order to be resettled. Crowds of people, including many women and children, followed the order but when they arrived with their belongings, they were forced to undress and gather in a ravine.

People were shot in small groups, more than 33,000 in a two-day period according to historians, and further mass shootings took place at the site throughout the war.

"I grew up with war stories from my grandparents' generation," said Andrej Umansky, a German historian with Ukrainian ancestry working for the private initiative, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre.

"But students today don't have the same connection to the Holocaust. For them, it's totally abstract. To talk about the Holocaust is the same as talking about ancient Rome."

The challenge, he said, was to find tools to reach younger people.

"We have to find ways to talk to them so they will understand," he said. Most staff members, he said, were under 40, bringing a youthful energy to the project.

Ruslan Kavatsiuk, the memorial group's deputy director, said the more modern approach would help reorient the way people viewed the site, restoring Babyn Yar as an appropriate place for honouring the victims.

"If you went there a year ago, nothing would say it was a place of mass murder," he said. "People were having barbecues, drinking beer. A lot of them didn't know what the place was."

A march to commemorate the Babyn Yar massacre, in Kyiv, on Oct 3, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The use of modern technology and high-concept exhibits is not unusual at many museums and memorials, including the one honoring 9/11 victims. But Babyn Yar's strategy of memorialising mass murder with these techniques, as well as the Russian financing, has drawn a steady din of criticism all the same.

Many of the original advisory team resigned in 2019 to protest the high-tech sensibility of the art director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky. A Moscow filmmaker known for his embrace of immersive theatre and role-playing, Khrzhanovsky was appointed by one of the Russian donors.

It didn't help that an early plan included, among other things, the idea of adopting deep-fake video technologies, which the proposal noted were sometimes used to create fake celebrity pornography but could be repurposed for commemorative exhibits. Kavatsiuk said the idea had been discarded.

The exhibits that made it into the memorial are ones the organisers felt would engage a generation that, for the most part, has not heard firsthand accounts from older people.

An art installation, Mirror Field, for instance, displays mirrored columns shot with bullets of the same calibre as those used in the World War II massacre. Visitors see their reflections pierced with bullet holes.

The Mirror Field monument at the Babyn Yar massacre site in Kyiv on Oct 3, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Another exhibit features a small synagogue inspired by the design of a child's pop-up book. The structure opens and closes like a book, revealing the interior.

The centre has also been criticised from accepting financial support from two Russian oil billionaires, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, who have pledged about half the funding.

Since its 2014 revolution, Ukraine has been a testing ground for so-called hybrid war tactics by Russia. These blend disinformation, social media manipulation, election hacking and assassinations. The disinformation is often directed at smearing the post-revolutionary government as "neofascist", justifying Russia's military intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

"The narrative that is being promoted is anti-Ukrainian in nature," Mykhailo Basarab, an historian, said of the plans for Babyn Yar. "There are great fears the memorial complex is being built with Russian money to expose Ukrainians in the world as anti-Semites and xenophobes. And this is beneficial to Putin."

Babyn Yar organizers say they will raise 50 per cent of the funding inside Ukraine and point out that Fridman and Khan are dual Russian and Israeli citizens.

Visitors lay flowers at the Babyn Yar site in Kyiv on Oct 3, 2021. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Umansky said it would aid Russian propaganda more were the site to remain neglected, allowing the Kremlin to portray Ukrainians as uncaring about Nazi crimes. In the post-Soviet era, a dozen or so earlier plans for memorials fell through.

Many who visited the memorial in recent days expressed appreciation.

"I want them to build more so that it is easier to explain to my grandson what happened here," said Ala Kondratovych, who was helping the four-year-old boy look through a tiny hole in one of the new installations. Visible inside was an historical photograph of Babyn Yar, a harrowing scene of discarded clothes of the dead.

The historical photographs that Kondratovych's grandson viewed were mounted at the precise locations, using 3D mapping technology, where a German photographer took them in 1941, giving a sense of peering back on a terrible past.

Tetyana Lysak, who has worked as a tour guide in Kiev for many years, said she was pleased with the changes.

"It is not embarrassing to bring people here now," she said.

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