Babi Yar by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Yevtushenko speaks in first person throughout the poem.
This creates the tone of him being in the shoes of the
Jews. As he says in lines 63-64, "No Jewish blood is mixed
in mine, but let me be a Jew . . . " He writes the poem to
evoke compassion for the Jews and make others aware of
their hardships and injustices. "Only then can I call
myself Russian." (lines 66-67). The poet writes of a future
time when the Russian people realize that the Jews are
people as well accept them as such. If you hate the Jews,
he asks, why not hate me as well? True peace and unity will
only occur when they have accepted everyone, including the
Stanza I describes the forest of Babi Yar, a ravine on the
outskirts of Kiev. It was the site of the Nazi massacre of
more than thirty thousand Russian Jews on September 29-30,
1941. There is no memorial to the thirty thousand, but fear
pervades the area. Fear that such a thing could occur at
the hands of other humans. The poet feels the persecution
and pain and fear of the Jews who stood there in this place
of horror. Yevtushenko makes himself an Israelite slave of
Egypt and a martyr who died for the sake of his religion.
In lines 7-8, he claims that he still bars the marks of the
persecution of the past. There is still terrible
persecution of the Jews in present times because of their
religion. These lines serve as the transition from the
Biblical and ancient examples he gives to the allusions of
more recent acts of hatred. The lines also allude to the
fact that these Russian Jews who were murdered at Babi Yar
were martyrs as well.
The next stanza reminds us of another event in Jewish
history where a Jew was persecuted solely because of his
religious beliefs. The poet refers to the "pettiness" (line
11) of anti-Semitism as the cause of Dreyfus' imprisonment.
Anti-Semitism is his "betrayer" (line 12) when he is
framed, and anti-Semitism is his "judge" (line 12) when he
is wrongly found guilty. Lines 13-14 claim that even the
fine and supposedly civilized women of society shun Dreyfus
because he is a Jew and fear him like they would fear an
In stanza III, Yevtushenko brings himself to the midst of
the pogroms of Bielostok. He gives the readers the image of
a young boy on the floor being beaten and bleeding while he
witnesses others beat his mother. In line 24, he gives the
reader the rationale of the Russians who are inflicting
such atrocities on the Jews. "'Murder the Jews! Save
Russia!'" They view the Jews as the curse of Russia; a
Jewish plague that must end in order to save their country
from evil. In a way they think that they are acting in
The poet transports us to Anne Frank's attic in the fourth
stanza. He describes to the reader the innocent love that
has blossomed between Anne and Paul. Her love of the world
and life and spring has been denied her (line 30). Yet, she
manages to find comfort for her loss in the embrace of her
beloved. In line 33, Yevtushenko shows the reader Anne's
denial of what is going on around her. She tries to drown
out the noise of the Nazis coming to get her. When her
precious spring comes, so do the war and the Nazis to take
her to her death.
Stanza V brings us back to the ravine of Babi Yar. In line
40, the poet chooses to personify the trees. They "stare
down" on him in judgment as G-d would. Line 41 is
oxymoronic. There is a silent mourning for the martyred
Jews by the air; a force in nature. The air around Babi Yar
howls for the massacre it has witnessed. The poet himself
claims to be "an endless soundless howl/ over the buried"
(lines 43-44). He is a mourner for the thirty thousand, but
there is nothing that can be said. He writes that e is
every one of thirty thousand and feels their pain and
injustice. "In no limb of my body can I forget." (line 57).
His physical body feels their pain. "Limbs" depicts an
image of mangled bodies in the mass grave of Babi Yar.
Stanza VI begins with Yevtushenko reminding the Russian
people of their ability to be good hearted and moral. He
speaks of "men with dirty hands" (lines 52-53). Fascists,
Nazis whose hands are covered in the blood of the innocent,
come to Russia and cause the Russians to close their
magnanimous hearts. The tone of lines 52-54 is cruel and
harsh like the actions of the Nazis. These hateful people
claim to bring "the union of the Russian people" (line 59).
He makes a point of referring to these people as
"anti-Semites" (line 57) because the Jews are Russians,
too. The Nazis in effect have turned Russian against
Russian - hardly a "union."
In the last stanza, the poet calls for world unity which
will only occur when anti-Semitism has ended. He is not a
Jew, yet he equates himself to one. If all Russians are
people, then the Jews are no less Russian or less human
than he himself. If this is the way you treat these Russian
people, he is trying to express, then treat me, a "real"
Russian, as you have treated the Russian Jews. Only then
will all Russians truly be united and equal.
Yevtushenko is a supporter of the Jewish plight. He sees
the injustice that they have been subject to and feels
responsible for it in a way. He tries to rationalize why
his people, the Russians, have acted so immorally and
blames their actions on the influence of others. He calls
to his people to reform; simultaneously urging the Jews not
to blame them entirely for their actions and to show that
they do have natural goodness within them.
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