KIEV – Ceremonies will be held today at Babi Yar, the ravine on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, where 33,000 of the city’s Jews were massacred 65 years ago. The events, hosted by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, will be attended by six presidents of European countries, President Moshe Katsav and more junior representatives from dozens of other countries.
Overshadowing the memorial commemorations is the current problem of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, which has steadily increased in recent years.
At the center of today’s events is the second conference of the World Holocaust Forum, which will be attended by state representatives, the heads of Yad Vashem and major Jewish organizations. The founder of the forum, Russian Jewish businessman Moshe (Viatcheslav) Kantor, said yesterday that the purpose of the conference is to formulate ways to counter anti-Semitism and xenophobia. “We are like microbiologists who want to understand what causes the disease and how it can be cured.”
Kantor amassed a fortune during the mass privatization that swept Russia in the early 1990s, and is one of the owners of the agrochemical giant Acron, which has plants in Russia and China. He is worth an estimated $900 million. Kantor, who now lives in Switzerland and Israel, formally retired from managing his businesses and devotes his time to public activity as president of the Russian Jewish Congress and chair of the Board of Governors of the European Jewish Congress.
The World Holocaust Forum held its first conference two years ago in Krakow, Poland, as part of events honoring the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. Russian President Vladimir Putin said at that conference that he “felt ashamed” at the current phenomenon of anti-Semitism in his country. But the first conference yielded little beyond statements. Kantor conceded yesterday that, “[film] directors such as Steven Spielberg have contributed to Holocaust commemoration much more than all the organizations, declarations and conferences on the subject put together.”
Perhaps in view of this, Kantor decided to employ a Hollywood gimmick at the second conference: pieces of soap wrapped in barbed wire and packaged in fancy wooden boxes, which he will distribute to participating heads of state. Kantor said he purchased the soap recently at a flea market from a vender who claimed the soap had served inmates at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
“My object is to give people chills,” Kantor explained. “This is also the way to reach the young generation.”
To make the events relevant for Ukrainians, organizers of the state ceremony will underscore the fact that many non-Jews were also murdered at Babi Yar, including Gypsies and Russian prisoners of war.
Anti-Semitism in Ukraine has ballooned to worrying proportions in recent years. “The situation in Ukraine is critical,” says Gert Weisskirchen, the official in charge of combating anti-Semitism for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Weisskirchen, who is con tsid1eredtthe most senior European professional in this area, told Haaretz yesterday that he hopes the Ukrainian authorities will take advantage of the Babi Yar ceremonies to make clear to the public that anti-Semitism will not be tolerated.
There were several incidents this year in which Jews were attacked by skinheads, with the most grievous assaults resulting in serious injury to two young men.
“Until five years ago such incidents did not happen in Ukraine,” says Vyacheslav Likhachev, a researcher of anti-Semitism at the European-Asian Jewish Congress. According to Likhachev, the main problem is not street violence, but the amount of anti-Semitic publications.