“It is not I who wrote this book about Babyn Yar. It wrote itself through me.”
In March 2020, the Ukrainian poet, prose writer, essayist, translator, and member of the Ukrainian PEN Club Marianna Kiyanovska was awarded the Shevchenko National Prize for her collection of poetry entitled Babyn Yar. Through Voices. The prize is Ukraine’s highest state award recognizing outstanding works of literature, non-fiction and art.
She was born in the city of Nesteriv, known today as Zhovkva, in Lviv oblast. In 1997 she completed her studies at the Faculty of Philology of Lviv University.
Marianna Kiyanovska came late to the topic of the Holocaust—and by unexpected paths. In 2014–2016 she made ten visits to the frontline in the Donetsk region, helping Ukrainian soldiers. Together with a group of friends-volunteers, she raised money and sent NATO-type radio communication equipment to the front. The poet witnessed death at the front, and to this day she has kept a sniper’s bullet that lodged in a tree right next to her.
Kiyanovska was very affected by the accounts of residents living in districts adjacent to the front, who recounted how during the initial phase of the war, the separatists were shooting Ukrainian activists. She was grief-stricken by the death of her father in December 2016. Kiyanovska poured out her accumulated, painful feelings about the loss of someone close to her and the combat actions in eastern Ukraine into several poems. “I was caught up in our war, and I decided to let this pain out,” the poet told UJE.
One of her poems, dated summer 2017, has a line about a shooting “above a ravine.” Kiyanovska’s friends thought she was writing about those [Jews] who were killed in Babyn Yar. The poet was invited to appear in late September at a commemorative event dedicated to the anniversary of Babyn Yar. Kiyanovska arrived two hours before it started and began wandering by herself along the lanes and thickets of this terrible place.
“And at that very moment, things ‘clicked.’ I began hearing and imagining what had taken place here in late September 1941. How columns of various people came here, how they looked, who they were,” Kiyanovska continued her account.
Afterwards, Kiyanovska practically never left her house from October until late December 2017; she was writing poems non-stop, almost as though they were coming to her by themselves through the voices of those who were killed in Babyn Yar.
“I was so caught up in this that I was writing some six to eight poems a day. I lived it with my body; this was the physical experience of feelings. It was not my mind that experienced this but my heart and body. I had no obvious reason to write about Babyn Yar. But in 90 days, I wrote 302 poems. I would sit down like a zombie, write, lie down, and stare at the wall. I felt sort of like a medium. This book chose me. It was not I who wrote this book; it wrote itself through me.”
A month after finishing the book, she was diagnosed with an illness that she managed to overcome. Overall, she has been clinically dead two times in her life. As a matter of principle, Kiyanovska decided not to accept any honorarium for her book. She donated all the proceeds from the sale of her book and the translation to charity.
During her interview with UJE, the poet said she is categorically against renaming the Dorohozhychi metro station in Kyiv to ‘Babyn Yar’. “These words should not circulate daily; otherwise, they will be rubbed away. Babyn Yar will then simply become a metro station, not Babyn Yar. The semantics of this place of memory will dissolve. I am eternally grateful to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center for the opportunities that it provided for my appearances, but I cannot stay silent on this question.”
Starting in 1995, Kiyanovska began collecting books on Judaica and the Holocaust. “That is why this has been my pain for a long time,” she says.
In her life, she has experienced quite a few mystical correspondences linking her to the Jewish topic. When a fire broke out in her father’s house in Zhovkva, they were given different housing. It was only much later that Kiyanovska realized this house was some 30 meters from the home of Hersch Lauterpacht, who introduced the concept of “crime against humanity.”
“I am Ukrainian, and in my family history, there were no Jews. My grandfather was a university professor; he wrote a book on the history of Zhovkva. In our city, there was a little bazaar across the river in Zhovkva that I visited constantly. Where we played and dug up stones with strange inscriptions. I didn’t know that they were matzevahs. I only realized at the age of 18 that I had been playing on the grounds of a cemetery with Jewish gravestones,” says Kiyanovska.
“I didn’t think, hear, and talk about Jews until I finished school. And this meant that all around me, no one spoke badly about Jews. There was talk, but on the level of jokes, but we had jokes about people from Volyn too,” she recalls.
Kiyanovska learned about the Jews of Zhovkva by herself and only when she reached adulthood. Her knowledge of the Holocaust is derived mostly from Polish-language books.
It is interesting to note that the poet read Anatoly Kuznetsov’s book Babi Yar only after she finished writing her collection of poems about Babyn Yar.
After the fact, she read llya Ehrenburg’s poem “Babi Yar” (1944). I thought that Marianna’s line “we will all be shot; blushes burn on the cheeks” is somewhat reminiscent of these lines by Ehrenburg:
“My child! My rosy child!
My innumerable relatives!
I hear you from every pit,
Calling out to me.”
One of the harshest poems in the collection, “Here Is the Pit Where Hans Is Shooting,” was written in rhythm and based on the popular British nursery rhyme “This Is the House That Jack Built,” translated by Samuil Marshak.
As a native of western Ukraine, Marianna Kiyanovska bows her head to the great person, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, who headed the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from 1901 until his death in 1944.
During World War II, he helped save more than 150 Jewish lives.
“For me, he is absolutely an exemplary figure. Besides saving several hundred Jews, he was able to create an atmosphere of ecumenical tolerance in the prewar decades in western Ukraine, thanks to which the very rescuing of Jews during the years of the Holocaust became a possibility. The fact that monasteries saved not neighbors or close friends, but completely unknown Jews, is also a personal achievement of Metropolitan Sheptytsky,” the poet underlined in her interview with UJE.
Text: Shimon Briman (Israel)
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk