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Russian assault in Ukraine damages Babi Yar shrine to remember Jews slaughtered in Holocaust

A man prays during a commemoration ceremony for the victims of a massacre of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust at Babi Yar in Kyiv, Ukraine, in this Sept. 29, 2021, file photo. A March 1 Russian military strike damaged the Babi Yar site, prompting global condemnation. (CNS photo/Valentyn Ogirenko, Reuters)

PHILADELPHIA — A March 1 Russian military strike on the capital of Ukraine damaged the site of one of World War II’s largest massacres of Jews, prompting global condemnation and a call from scholars to preserve the memory of Holocaust victims.

The missile, which struck Kyiv’s iconic TV tower, killed “at least five” while hitting the site of Babi Yar, according to a tweet posted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Over two days in 1941, close to 34,000 Jews from Kyiv were shot by Nazi SS, German police and their auxiliaries at Babi Yar, a ravine that at the time was located just outside of the city. Prior to their execution, victims were forced to undress and lie on top of those who had already been machine-gunned.

Babi Yar remained a mass killing site for an additional two years, with an estimated 100,000 people, both Jews and non-Jews, ultimately murdered there. As Soviet troops approached in August 1943, German forces attempted to cover up the deaths by ordering prisoners to exhume and burn the bodies.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy makes a statement in Kyiv Feb. 25, 2022, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine. (CNS photo/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service handout via Reuters) NO ARCHIVES. MUST DISCARD 30 DAYS AFTER DOWNLOAD.

Yet even after the war, Babi Yar was unacknowledged for decades, and “later communist markers only spoke of the murder of citizens there,” said Philip Cunningham and Adam Gregerman, directors of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and faculty members of that school’s theology and religious studies department.

“When many eastern European countries were dominated by the Soviet Union during the Cold War, signs and brochures at the sites of mass murders of Jews during World War II barely mentioned that Jews were the primary targets of the Nazi extermination campaign. This was also true at Babi Yar,” Cunningham and Gregerman said in a joint statement March 1.

“After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian government approved the development of a shrine to remember the Jews and a Holocaust memorial center opened in 2016,” they noted.

Cunningham and Gregerman said, “This act of warfare should not be allowed to restore the suppression of the memory of the Shoah’s Jewish victims that marked Soviet policy throughout the postwar decades.”

Prior to the missile attack, the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center issued a statement condemning both the Russian aggression against Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “use of language related to the Holocaust,” which it described as “genocidal rhetoric.”