Yevgeny Yevtushenko was a beloved Russian poet who courageously stood up to Stalin, and when I was reading the obituaries after he died at the age of 84, I found it a bit amazing that he moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to teach, and that is where he remained until his death. Worldly and erudite, he was about as much a polar opposite to the hard-core conservative cowboys at the University of Oklahoma. But he adored his students and they adored him back.
Yevtushenko is best-known in America for his heartbreaking poem, Babi Yar, commemorating the massacre over several horrifying days in September, 1941, when the Nazis and the collaborating Ukrainians murdered over 33,000 Jews from Kiev over the Babi Yar ravine. where gained notoriety in the former Soviet Union while in his 20s, with poetry denouncing Joseph Stalin. He wrote the poem in 1961 when he realized the Germans and the Ukrainians were trying to erase Babi Yar from memory–despite the fact that tens of thousands more victims were shot and thrown into the pit during the war. Read this now, and weep.
May his memory be a blessing.
Translated by Benjamin Okopnik, 10/96
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.
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
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.
-“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
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!