Svetlana K-Lié was born in Moscow where she graduated with a MA from the faculty of applied arts completed by additional studies at the famous I.I. Nivinsky Etching Art Studio and Babushkinski Ceramic Studio.
On September the 29th and 30th 2016, the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre. It’s a date that resonates powerfully in my life.
As a child I spent many summers with my great grandmother, who lived at Petrushki village on the Zhitomir highway on the outskirts of Kiev. Going there I always passed Babi Yar. I was familiar with the name, but not the history – all I knew was that during World War 2 people had been murdered there by the Nazis.
Only many years later, when I was preparing to become a mother in 2000, did I discover an article in a journal that revealed to me the true scale of the horror that had occurred at Babi Yar in 1941. At the time I found it so disturbing that I immediately attempted to erase the dreadful images from my mind.
Time passed. I gave birth to a son; a year later to a daughter. In the same year my great grandmother died. It had been two years since I had produced any significant work. It was only in the summer of 2002 that I found the time to begin on a series of drawings, etchings and sculpture pieces.
One day, and with no apparent reason that I am able to recall, I began molding a new work. It grew, as if entirely by itself, out of the wooden support in my studio: a man's head and hands, reaching out, full of pain and astonishment – awful, incomprehensible. It was only when the sculpture was completed that the recollection of Babi Yar flooded back into my consciousness. I thought I had managed to forget. It wasn’t to be.
I was now a woman on a mission…
I unearthed everything I could find about Babi Yar on the internet; I read Yevtushenko's moving verses about the tragedy. Later, working in Paris at Cite Internacionale des Artes, I visited the Shoah museum. Slowly, painfully, I pieced together the gruesome sequence of events that had taken place at Babi Yar - a place that, for me as a child, had seemed so peaceful. In just two days, more than 34,000 Jewish people were brutally murdered by the Nazis. The Nazis had captured the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on the 19th of September 1941, as part of “Operation Barbarossa”, and immediately began to implement the so-called “final solution”, their sinister euphemism for the systematic genocide of the Jews.
On the morning of the 28th of September 1941, the entire Jewish population was summoned to assemble and loaded onto trucks to be transported to Babi Yar, a remote ravine located northwest of Kiev. Stripped of their clothes and belongings, they were then shot en masse - men, women and children - by the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators. Their corpses were allowed to roll down the side of the ravine before being buried. In July 1943, the Nazis, forecasting their defeat, returned to the location in order to destroy the evidence of their crime.
It was only in 1974 that a monument to the victims of Babi Yar was erected on the site of the massacre. However, the Jewish community was not mentioned in any monument until 1991 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. A second commemorative monument was erected and finally dedicated to the Jews, thus acknowledging the monstrous event as part of the Holocaust.It began to dawn on me that my anguished male figure did not represent an individual person; it embodied the soul of the Jewish community. In 2005, I had the piece cast in bronze for its first exhibition in Moscow, where it was shown under the title “Jew”. The initial version of the sculpture was fixed on wood, but later I decide to do a second cast and fix it on a plain black plinth. I felt that the black base emphasized the ‘darkness’ of the inhuman act that the work was destined to symbolize.
It is very important for me that this piece represents a human face and hands. Indeed, I believe that, despite the impossibility of ever being able to represent the Holocaust figuratively, the depiction of an emerging face and hands forces proximity and empathy from the viewer which, for me, is essential in any commemorative work.
Now, eight years on, my only desire is to exhibit the sculpture as a gesture of remembrance and compassion. It would therefore be a great honor for me to donate “Jew” to one of the world’s Holocaust memorials.
Technical description of the work:Jew 2008, 2/7. Bronze, granite: 350 x 660 x 350 mm.
Weight: The work should be displayed in a quiet space to allow the visitor to reflect.
No monument stands over Babi Yar.A drop sheer as a crude gravestone. I am afraid.Today I am as old in years as all the Jewish people.Now I seem to be a Jew. […]
The wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar.The trees look ominous, like judges.Here all things scream silently, and, baring my head,Slowly I feel myself turning grey. And I myself am one massive, soundless screamAbove the thousands of thousand buried here. […]
Extracts from Babi Yar by the Russian poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko (1961)
“…out from under the cover of earth”
A Survivor's Eyewitness Account
by Dina Pronicheva
"It was dark already...They lined us up on a ledge which was so small that we couldn't get much of a footing on it. They began shooting us. I shut my eyes, clenched my fists, tensed all my muscles and took a plunge down before the bullets hit me. It seemed I was flying forever. But I landed safely on the bodies. After a while, when the shooting stopped, I heard the Germans climbing into the ravine. They started finishing off all those who were not dead yet, those who were moaning, hiccuping, tossing, writhing in agony. They ran their flashlights over the bodies and finished off all who moved. I was lying so still without stirring, terrified of giving myself away. I felt I was done for. I decided to keep quiet. They started covering the corpses over with earth. They must have put quite a lot over me because I felt I was beginning to suffocate. But I was afraid to move. I was gasping for breath. I knew I would suffocate. Then I decided it was better to be shot than buried alive. I stirred but I didn't know that it was quite dark already. Using my left arm I managed to move a little way up. Then I took a deep breath, summoned up my waning strength and crawled out from under the cover of earth. It was dark. But all the same it was dangerous to crawl because of the searching beams of flashlight and they continued shooting at those who moaned. They might hit me. So I had to be careful. I was lucky enough to crawl up one of the high walls of the ravine, and straining every nerve and muscle, got out of it."