Updated: Jan 20, 2022
Leonard Spektor’s family which included his father Senya, his grandfather, his grandmother, and his uncle moved to Kiev, Ukraine in 1931. His great grandmother and grandmother later joined them. Senya worked on the construction of an airport near the border with Poland and on June 22, 1941at 4:30 AM, he was one of the first people in the USSR to hear the Nazi air bombing. At noon on the same day, a radio announcement informed them that the war with Nazi Germany had begun. On the way back from work, Senya witnessed the constant German attacks by artillery, tanks, and aircraft. During one of the Kiev bombings, Leonard’s father spent the night with his grandmother and aunt. It was the last time that he ever saw them. Since he was a student at the Kiev Institute of Civil Engineering, Sanya was evacuated with the other students and professors to the city of Kuybyyshev, Russia. His great grandmother was ill and could not be moved so his sister and her husband stayed with her in Kiev.
On the eve of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Jewish population of Kiev was an estimated one hundred seventy five thousand. The Nazi forces captured the city in mid-September within less than a fortnight. On the 29th and 30th of September 1941, a special unit of German SS troops, supported by local collaborators, murdered more than thirty-three thousand Jews after taking them to the suburban ravine called Babiy Yar. Men, women, and children were systematically machine-gunned in a two-day orgy of execution. In subsequent months most of the remaining Jewish population was exterminated. In 1944, Senya’s family learned about the fate of their relatives who had remained in Kiev under German occupation: neighbors told him that his grandmother was ill and could not even walk. The fascists threw her from the third-floor balcony. His uncle and aunt went to Babiy Yar together with other Kiev Jews. For many years after the war, the Soviet government kept the mass murder of thousands of Jews in Babiy Yar a secret. Because of the Soviet Union’s policy, commemoration efforts encountered serious difficulty.
Twenty-two years after Leonard’s father Sanya wrote his essay on Babiy Yar, Anatoly Kuznetsov published his documentary novel Babiy Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel. The novel was first published in 1966, and Kuznetsov would later describe it as a “censored form” of publication. The literary magazine’s copy editor cut the book a quarter of its original length and also added politically correct material. The Russian poet Evgeniy Evtushenko wrote his poem “Babiy Yar” in 1961 in part to protest the Soviet Union’s refusal to identify Babiy Yar. He wrote:
No monument stands over Babiy Yar. A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone. I am afraid. Today, I am as old As the entire Jewish race itself.
During the next twenty years the Soviet political anti-Semitic machine distorted the truth of Babiy Yar. On March 12, 1970, Pravda, the official Soviet newspaper, carried a statement signed by fifty-one Jews from Ukraine that included this passage:
“The tragedy of Babiy Yar will forever remain the embodiment not only of Hitler’s cannibalism but also of the indelible disgrace of their accomplices and followers: the Zionists.”
In 1976 a large bronze sculpture commemorating the citizens and POWs who were shot there between 1941 and 1943 finally appeared at Babiy Yar. It made no mention of Jews. Likewise, a 1981 Soviet television documentary about Babiy Yar conveyed a message of anti-Zionism. Finally in 1991, the Menorah was built in Babiy Yar to commemorate the memory of thousands of Jews who were massacred by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. Leonard’s family’s names, along with his father’s drawings of his grandmother and aunt and his essay “Babiy Yar” were donated to the Central Database of Shoah Victims’ Names in Yad Vashem, Israel. In addition, his father created a memorial for the Chicago Association of Veterans of World War II that is in a synagogue located at the corner of California Avenue and Rosemont Street in Chicago.
All information from the book Never Heard Never Forget and interviews with survivors.