Babi Yar – Analysis of the Poem 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 Jews.
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 animal.
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 patriotism.
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
judgement 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.