Babyn Yar is a park-like area of Kiev, Ukraine, that used to mark the edge of the city. It is the site of one of the worst massacres of the Nazi regime, when on September 29th and 30th, 1941 almost 35’000 Jews were shot and killed by German troops. Over the following weeks an additional 100’000 people were murdered. A ‘holocaust by bullets’, it represents one of the most terrible atrocities of our modern era.
Originally a deep ravine, Babyn Yar is marked by gorges and a strong topography. It was precisely this topography that the Nazis utilised, by killing thousands of people without having to excavate mass graves. Through the mass killing, a new ground of death was created. The very soil of Babyn Yar can therefore be considered as sacred.
Today, only few memorials within Babyn Yar speak of the unimaginable horror. The Babyn Yar Foundation has started a process of implementing a series of interventions to commemorate the history of the site. Our Synagogue represents the first building within this initiative and is meant to commemorate, but also to reestablish a living Jewish presence on the site.
One might think that tragedy should be mourned through somber and monumental architecture. Architectural history is full of such memorials, but we decided for a different approach. We will never match the monumental suffering of the massacre, through monumental architecture. The definitive message that a monumental building would suggest, stands at odds with the thousands of distinctive voices that perished in Babyn Yar. We thought instead
of a performative and transforming structure that could establish a new ritual on the site. A building that commemorates, just as also creating a feeling of wonder. A building that barely touches the ground.
The Jewish people have been called “People of the Book”. We were then thinking of pop-up books. From being flat, two dimensional objects they unfold into three-dimensional volumes. Impossible to resist the temptation to open them and wonder. Something similar happens, when we come together in a synagogue: we open the Bible and by reading the book in congregation, a new world of histories, morals and love is revealed. This concept seemed to be the perfect start for design.
In the interior we reference the historic wooden synagogues from western Ukraine. Using their ornament, the ceiling recreates with flowers the star constellation that was visible the night of September 1941 when the massacre started. One historic photograph of the Synagogue of Gwozdziec was showing a Hebrew text on the wall. The text was in fact a blessing to transform nightmares into good dreams. We thought that there can be no better leitmotiv for Babyn Yar Synagogue. This blessing now occupies the main wall of the synagogue. The Babyn Yar Synagogue cannot only be about commemorating the past, but must also open up a new future. It needs to be a project that turns a nightmare into a good dream. A project that celebrates the beauty of life.