2021-10-05 17:01:48 A Tech-Savvy Holocaust Memorial in Ukraine Draws Critics and Crowds

A Tech-Savvy Holocaust Memorial in Ukraine Draws Critics and Crowds

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — A Tinder advertisement on the Ukrainian-language version of the online dating platform offered a less-than-romantic experience.

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

The pitch was far from unusual. As Ukraine commemorates the 80th anniversary of the massacre at Babyn Yar this week, web-savvy advertising, modern art installations, and audience-grabbing techniques such as online gaming have become an essential part of a well-funded effort to modernize Holocaust commemoration.

Traditionalists have criticized the tech-heavy approach, saying it disrespects the topic’s solemnity. At Babyn Yar, the Nazis murdered tens of thousands of Jews, Roma, Ukrainian, and Russian prisoners of war, as well as patients from psychiatric hospitals and others.

However, organizers concluded that a more modern presentation would draw larger crowds, and they appear to have succeeded where numerous previous attempts had failed. What had previously been a largely deserted site, except for official delegations, and was occasionally inappropriately used for barbecue parties or dirt-bike riding, has recently been filled with visitors bearing flowers and candles.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, will visit the site and unveil a modern art installation called the Crystal Wall of Crying. The entire museum complex is expected to cost more than $100 million, with roughly half of the funds coming from Russian oligarchs, and it is set to open in 2025.

The Babyn Yar massacre, also known as Babi Yar, was one of the most infamous of World War II. Soon after the German army entered Kyiv in late September 1941, the city’s Jews were told to gather near a train station in order to be resettled. Crowds of people, many of whom were women and children, obeyed the order, but when they arrived with their belongings, they were forced to undress and congregate in a ravine. According to historians, more than 33,000 people were shot in small groups over a two-day period, and further mass shootings occurred at the site throughout the war.

“I grew up hearing war stories from my grandparents’ generation,” said Andrej Umansky, a German historian of Ukrainian ancestry who works for the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, a private initiative. “However, today’s students do not have the same connection to the Holocaust. It’s completely abstract to them. Talking about the Holocaust is analogous to talking about ancient Rome.”

He described the challenge as finding tools to reach out to younger people. “We have to find ways to communicate with them so they understand,” he said. He claimed that the majority of staff members were under the age of 40, bringing a youthful energy to the project.

The memorial group’s deputy director, Ruslan Kavatsiuk, said the more modern approach would help reorient people’s perceptions of the site, restoring Babyn Yar as an appropriate place to honor the victims. “If you went there a year ago, nothing would indicate it was a mass murder site,” he said. “People were grilling and drinking beer. Many of them had no idea where they were.”

Many museums and memorials, including the one honoring 9/11 victims, make use of cutting-edge technology and high-concept exhibits. Nonetheless, Babyn Yar’s strategy of memorializing mass murder with these techniques, as well as the Russian funding, has drawn a steady stream of criticism.

Many of the original advisory team members resigned in 2019 to protest the art director, Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s, high-tech sensibility. Mr. Khrzhanovsky, a Moscow filmmaker known for his embrace of immersive theater and role-playing, 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 were sometimes used to create fake celebrity pornography but could be repurposed for commemorative exhibits, according to the proposal. Mr. Kavatsiuk stated that the idea had been abandoned.

Another early concept, to develop a computer algorithm that would classify visitors as victims, executioners, or collaborators and tailor their museum experience accordingly, has quietly faded.

Tinder has also been discontinued. Mr. Kavatsiuk, the deputy director, stated that the ads on Tinder were placed by an outside agency and would not be repeated. “We do not believe it is the appropriate platform,” he stated. The center continues to promote itself on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

In an interview, Anton Drobovych, the head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance, said of the memorial center, “It became a space for artists’ self-realization that attracts attention without reporting to either the Jewish or Ukrainian communities.” “They don’t feel the line, and they will cross it at some point.”

The exhibits included in the memorial were chosen by the organizers because they believed they would engage a generation that, for the most part, has not heard firsthand accounts from older people. Mirror Field, an art installation, for example, features mirrored columns shot with bullets of the same caliber as those used in the World War II massacre. Visitors notice that their reflections are pierced with bullet holes.

A small synagogue inspired by the design of a children’s pop-up book is featured in another exhibit. The structure, like a book, opens and closes to reveal the interior.

The center has also been chastised for accepting funding from two Russian oil billionaires, Mikhail Fridman and German Khan, who have pledged roughly half of the funding.

Ukraine has been a testing ground for Russia’s so-called hybrid war tactics since its revolution in 2014. These involve the use of disinformation, social media manipulation, election hacking, and assassinations. Disinformation is frequently aimed at portraying the post-revolutionary government as “neofascist,” in order to justify Russia’s military intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

“The narrative that is being promoted is anti-Ukrainian in nature,” historian Mykhailo Basarab said of the Babyn Yar plans. “There are grave concerns that the memorial complex is being built with Russian funds in order to portray Ukrainians around the world as anti-Semites and xenophobes. And this is advantageous to Putin.”

Babyn Yar organizers claim that they will raise half of the funds from within Ukraine, and they point out that Mr. Fridman and Mr. Khan are dual Russian and Israeli citizens.

Mr. Umansky, the center’s historian, believes that if the site is ignored, it will aid Russian propaganda by allowing the Kremlin to portray Ukrainians as unconcerned about Nazi crimes. A dozen or so earlier memorial plans fell through in the post-Soviet era.

Many visitors to the memorial in recent days have expressed their gratitude.

“I want them to build more so I can explain to my grandson what happened here,” said Ala Kondratovych, who was assisting the 4-year-old boy in peering through a tiny hole in one of the new installations. An historical photograph of Babyn Yar, a harrowing scene of discarded dead clothes, was visible inside.

The historical photographs viewed by Ms. Kondratovych’s grandson were mounted in the exact locations where a German photographer took them in 1941, using three-dimensional mapping technology, creating a sense of peering back into a terrible past.

Tetyana Lysak, a tour guide in Kyiv for many years, expressed satisfaction with the changes. “It is not embarrassing to bring people here right now,” she explained.

The new art installations were walked between by tour groups. Bouquets were left in honor of the victims among the falling leaves. The largest flower mound grew next to a memorial to the children killed at Babyn Yar.

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A Tech-Savvy Holocaust Memorial in Ukraine Draws Critics and Crowds