Friday, January 27, 2012

Rostov-on-Don: Keeping the Memory of Jewish Holocaust Victims Alive

Schoolgirl laying flowers at the Shoah memorial.
In what was once a deserted field on the outskirts of the city of Rostov-on-Don, Russia lies a monument to Shoah (Holocaust) victims called Zmievskaya Balka. Sprawling green lawns and attractive walking paths stitched together by a memorial site now lie where some 27,000 – mostly Jews – were slaughtered by the Nazis on a single day in August 1942.

The sheer number of Jews that perished in that field that day has underscored the importance of this memorial site to Russia’s surviving Jewish communities. Not only did entire families perish in the tragedy, but a full accounting of the identities of the victims has so far, never been compiled. Thus Zmievskaya Balka, Russia’s Babi Yar, as it is referred to, symbolizes more than one day’s atrocity under the Nazi regime. It represents generations of Jewish history in Rostov, Poland and other surrounding areas that may never be reclaimed.

Recently, the commemorative plate that marked the site was replaced by the government. Reference to its Jewish victims has been removed and substituted with a more generic description. The plaque now states only that the victims were “citizens of Rostov-on-Don, (and) Soviet prisoners of war.” The Russian Jewish Congress has launched a lawsuit in an effort to repeal the change, but the Ministry of Culture has said the change will remain, stating that “the plaque does not distort or change the subject of (the) cultural heritage site.”

There’s a benefit to ensuring that other groups are not overlooked in the historical reference. But the Nazi’s actions at Zmievskaya Balka had one end goal: to obliterate Jews and any others who sheltered or supported them. And while Holocaust memorials can never replace the unimaginable numbers of lives they symbolize, they serve as powerful reminders to the Jewish people that those who died has meaning and carry historical weight.

The Russian Jewish blog Lemberik suggested that with the loss of this crucial reminder to Jewish history “the memorial complex of Zmievskaya Balka can no longer officially (be) considered a Holocaust memorial and has no relation to the Jewish people.” While the recognition of the 15,000-20,000 Jews that perished at Rostov will go on, its historical reference to an ethnic cleansing of Jews that once took place has been lost. For future generations the memorial will cease to exist as a reminder of the true cause of those deaths.

Laying Wreaths at August day of memorial.

For the worldwide Jewish community, the switching of the plaques at the memorial site is a reminder of how tenuous our grasp can be on history.  Artifacts only serve as temporary reminders – and often inaccurate symbols - of who we are and who we once were. Our ability to ensure that history stays true to fact lies in what we teach our children, and what their descendants carry forth as well. 

August 11-12, 2012 will represent the 70th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka. The regional Jewish community is honoring this year in the way that Jews throughout time have honored victims: with an affirmation of life. They are attempting to put together an accurate listing of the victims from that date, and have sent out a global call for relatives, friends and witnesses to step forward and help identify the names of those who perished at Rostov-on-Don. In so doing, they hope to compile a list of those who survived them as well.

Interested individuals who may be able to assist with this endeavor are encouraged to visit the website

Zmievskaya Balka memorial site to the 27,000 victims.

Photos courtesy of

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