Babi Yar
Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Commentary on the Poem

The Poem

 

Commentary [Source: http://www2.one.net.au/~davco1/Essays/English/173.htm]

Babi Yar, a poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, tells the story of the Nazi invasion into a small part of Russia, in which, throughout the duration of World War II, over one-hundred thousand Jews, Gypsies and Russian POW's were brutally murdered. However, what is unique about this particular perspective is that the narrator is not a Jew, but a mere observer who is aghast at the atrocities that took place during the Holocaust. It is through allusions, as well as other literary devices, that Yevtushenko elucidates caustically the absurdities of the hatred that caused the Holocaust, in addition to the narrator's identification with the Jews and their history of oppression.

Perhaps, the most effective literary device used in "Babi Yar" is the allusion. The first clear allusion seen in the poem is the oneconcerning Egypt(line 6). This reference harks back to the Jews' enslavement in Egypt before they become a nation. In line 7, the narrator makes reference to how so many Jews perished on the cross. The reason for these initial allusions in the first section is clear. Yevtushenko is establishing the history of the Jewish people, being one of oppression, prejudice, and innocent victims. The next illusion in the poem is a reference to the Dreyfus Affair, a more modern display of irrational and avid anti-Semitism. It is in the Dreyfus affair that an innocent man is accused of espionage and is sent to jail for more than ten years, notwithstanding an overwhelming amount of evidence pointing to his innocence, simply because he is a Jew.

Yevtushenko uses these allusions to lead up to his referral to a boy in Bielostok who is murdered by the Russian common-folk. Clearly, The narrator is teaching a lesson with a dual message. Firstly, he is informing the reader of the horrors that took place in Russia during the Holocaust. Perhaps even more of a travesty, however, is the fact that humankind has not learned from the past in light of the fact that this "episode" is merely one link in a long chain of terrors.

Yevtushenko goes on to allude to Anne Frank, a young Jewish teenager who left behind a diary of her thoughts and dreams,and how the Nazis strip her of any potential future she has when she is murdered in the death camps. Clearly, the allusion creates images in the mind of the reader that mere descriptions via the use of words could not.

Another effective literary device used in the poem is the first person narrative in which the narrator identifies with those victimswhich he describes. This is seen in the case where the narrator says "I am Dreyfus", or "Anne Frank, I am she." The narrator does not claim to understand what the feelings and thoughts of these people are, but rather, he is acknowledging the fact that they are feeling, "detested and denounced" and that unlike the rest of the world who turned its head, or the Russians who actually abetted such heinous crimes, this gentile narrator can not empathize, but does sympathize with his Jewish "brethren."

Another extremely powerful device used by Yevtushenko is the detail of description and imagery used to describe events and feelings that are in both those whom he identifies with, as well as himself. "I bear the red mark of nails"(line 8) seems to includemuch of the suffering that the Jews have to endure. The statement is almost one of a reverse crucifixion in which the Jews are crucified and now have to suffer with false accusations, blood libels, and Pogroms for the duration of time. The poet describes very clearly the contempt most people have for the Jewish people and how many of these people aided in the barbarity . In line 13, for example, the poet speaks of "shrieking ladies in fine ruffled gowns" who "brandish their umbrellas in my face." In addition, Yevtushenko also depicts explicitly how the "tavern masters celebrate" at the sight of "(a Jewish boy's)blood spurt and spread over the floor."

The contrast of age in "Babi Yar" is also quite effective. In the last three sections, the reader finds out that the narrator isremembering the past, mourning those who have perished. This gives the reader the perspective of one who speaks of the tragedy as though he is removed from it, as well as the view of one who is part of that history of horror in which all must remember, memorialize, learn from, and never forget.

Clearly, "Babi Yar" is a poem about the tragedy of the Holocaust and how its effects and teachings transcend race, religion, color, and sex, and involves the whole of the human race. Yevtushenko depicts powerfully the tragedy of the absurdity of the long based ill founded hatred that many people feel towards the Jewish people as a whole. In addition, the narrator speaks to each reader as if he is a Jew, not in the sense of having gone through the experience, but rather in the sense of being a part of the remembering process, part of the humane society which feels a moral obligation to recognize what took place and to learn from that experience, lest humanity be condemned to repeat the unthinkable. Perhaps, it is most appropriate that Yevtushenko concludes the poem with the ironic charge of saying that only when all of the anti-Semitic and hate based people are hated and"spit on", can the narrator truly be a "Russian", the standard for true humanity.

 

Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Translated by Ben Okopnik

No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.

I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o'er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.

It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself. *1*
The Philistines betrayed me - and now judge.
I'm in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I'm persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.

I see myself a boy in Belostok *2*
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.

I'm thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of "Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!"
My mother's being beaten by a clerk.

O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.

I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The "Union of the Russian People!"

It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I'm in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other's eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed - very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.

-"They come!"

-"No, fear not - those are sounds
Of spring itself. She's coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!"

-"They break the door!"

-"No, river ice is breaking..."

Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.

And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I'm every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.

No fiber of my body will forget this.
May "Internationale" thunder and ring *3*
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.

There is no Jewish blood that's blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that's corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian!

 


Notes

1 - Alfred Dreyfus was a French officer, unfairly dismissed from service in 1894 due to trumped-up charges prompted by anti- Semitism.

2 - Belostok: the site of the first and most violent pogroms, the Russian version of KristallNacht.

3 - "Internationale": The Soviet national anthem.

Document compiled by Dr S D Stein
Last update 23/10/98
Stuart.Stein@uwe.ac.uk
ęS D Stein
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