Public Papers - 1991
Remarks at the Babi Yar Memorial in Kiev, Soviet Union
Thank you, Chairman Kravchuk. And to our special guests today, the survivors of the Babi Yar massacres and the Ukrainians who helped rescue them, it is my great honor to be here today.
We come to Babi Yar to remember. We remember violence and valor; we remember prejudice and selflessness. At Babi Yar, in the vast quiet here, something larger than life assails us: the shadows of past evil, the light of past virtue. The wind that shakes the leaves bears a special weight, as if whispering warnings and cautions, telling tales of victims and villains, cowards and heroes.
Babi Yar stands as a monument to many things. It reminds us that history gives our lives meaning and continuity and that any nation that tries to repudiate history, tries to ignore the actors and events that shape it, only repudiates itself.
For many years, the tragedy of Babi Yar went unacknowledged, but no more. You soon will place a plaque on this site that acknowledges the genocide against Jews, the slaughter of gypsies, the wanton murder of Communists, Christians -- of anyone who dared oppose the Nazi madman's fantasies.
Babi Yar reminds us of the sheer stupidity of prejudice. Here we think about people of great promise and talent, young men and women who would have become doctors or physicists, athletes or artists, mothers, fathers. All died because a maniac in Berlin wanted to exterminate their kind.
The statue here testifies to an important truth. Just as bricks and stones shape great monuments, families shape nations. The love of parents, the trust of children, the blessings of life and learning -- these things give life meaning; they give society its character; they give nations a sense of destiny and purpose.
Here, at Babi Yar, Nazis set out to destroy families and faiths, set out to destroy the soul of a nation. And here, on September 29, 1941, soldiers forced men, women, and children to undergo a ritual of humiliation and death. Victims stopped first to empty their pockets and place their valuables in heaps on the ground, and then moved forward to another place where they had to remove their clothing, which Nazis folded in neat piles -- booty for the Fuehrer.
And then shivering, they moved to the edge of the ravine where marksmen murdered their prey, letting the bodies tumble into long, deep pits. For 36 hours, rifle reports and shrill human cries shattered the calm. Nazis tried to drown out that horror by playing dance music over loudspeakers. And despite this macabre ritual, screams made their way into the hearts of townspeople -- and to the pages of history.
When the first round of shooting stopped, more than 33,000 bodies lay in the pit, and many more people had committed suicide rather than undergoing the humiliating execution rites. Within 18 months, nearly 100,000 people perished here.
Miraculously, a few managed to escape, several of whom have joined us today, along with several people who helped protect the victims of the massacred at Babi Yar. And I think it would be most appropriate to ask them to stand so we may honor them.
Abraham Lincoln once said: We cannot escape history. Mikhail Gorbachev has promoted truth in history. Here's the quote: Not to settle political scores, or cause suffering, but to render due tribute to everything that was heroic in the past and to learn lessons from mistakes and miscalculations.
Today we stand at Babi Yar and wrestle with awful truth. We marvel at the incredible extremes of human behavior. And we make solemn vows:
We vow this sort of murder will never happen again.
We vow never to let the forces of bigotry and hatred assert themselves without opposition.
And we vow to ensure a future dedicated to freedom and individual liberty rather then to mob violence and tyranny.
And we vow that whenever our devotion to principle wanes, we will think of this place. We will remember that evil flourishes when good men and women refuse to defend virtue.
Let me quote the poet Yevtushenko, whose poem about Babi Yar helped restore remembrance of this place and of its history. Here's what he wrote: On Babi Yar weeds rustle; the tall trees, like judges, loom and threaten. All screams in silence; I take off my cap and feel that I am slowly turning gray. And I, too, have become a soundless cry over the thousands that lie buried here. I am each old man slaughtered, each child shot. None of me will forget.
None of us will ever forget.
The Holocaust occurred because good men and women averted their eyes from unprecedented evil. And the Nazis fell when good men and women opened their eyes, summoned their courage and faith, and fought for democracy, liberty, and justice and decency. This memorial proves that eventually the forces of good and of truth will rise in triumph. No matter how bleak our lives may seem, this fact should comfort us. It should inspire us to spare future generations from horrors like the one that claimed nearly 100,000 souls at Babi Yar.
May God bless you all. May God bless Ukraine and its wonderful people, and may God bless the memories of Babi Yar.
Note: The President spoke at 5:25 p.m. in front of the memorial. In his remarks, he referred to Leonid M. Kravchuk, Chairman of the Republic of the Ukraine's Supreme Soviet.