The Message of Babi Yar There are very few people in the world who are willing to go against the popular trends and do what they feel in their hearts is
correct. But Yevgeny Yevtushenko is one of those people. In his poem
Babi Yar, he tells the story of the modern persecution of the Jews,
focusing on atrocities like those of the massacre at Babi Yar and the
pogroms at Beilostok, and also the general anti-Semitism that killed
men like Dreyfus and pervades the entire Russian people. The poem uses
many literary devices, such as graphic imagery and contrasts, while
painting a very clear picture of the scenes of pure horror.
Babi Yar is written in many different voices, all of which,
however, have the same message. The author starts off with his own
perspective, then goes on and describes certain people in modern
Jewish history whose lives will forever be remembered as symbols of
the time. At the end of the poem the author comes back and speaks in
his own voice, yet this time he delivers a message to his people about
how they have committed a large number of these crimes against the
Jews, yet think that such actions are pure and good for Russia. By
switching from the voices of those who were so afflicted by the
persecution to a voice of accusation, the author effectively points
out how foolish the arguments of the Russians are when they try to
point out any validity in killing millions of Jews.
The poem starts out with a description of the ravine at Babi Yar.
However, all it says is that there is nothing to describe. It calls
the steep ravine, which is the grave sight of one hundred thousand
people, the only memorial that is there. This frightens the author,
because the massiveness of the tragedy deserves at least some
recognition. Then Yevtushenko realizes that fear is a part of Judaism,
something that is as old as them, and therefore originating with them.
He says that he too must be a Jew for he is afraid of what his
people and his society have become. Many years ago, in the “ancient
days,” it would not be such a shock to see the Jews enslaved in Egypt
or crucified as a means of torture and death, but even in modern times
the same things are going on-he still has the marks from where the
nails pierced him. The author has used classical examples of Jewish
persecution which every one knows is gone in the physical sense, but
show how they still exist in the theoretical aspect, as the
persecution is still occurring.
In the next three stanzas, the poem takes the standpoint of three
figures whose stories are pertinent examples of what Yevtushenko is
trying to rely in this poem. First the voice of Dreyfus is used, and
the stanza describes how horribly and unfairly he was treated, and how
the country and its leaders turned their backs on him.
There are two important literary devices used in this section.
First the author puts the word “pettiness” on a line by itself. This
is used as a declaration of what the author feels anti-Semitism is
based on. It is because of pettiness that Dreyfus was accused
and further because of pettiness that he was not pardoned when it was
proven that he had not committed any crime. The next important device
is the description of ladies with their umbrellas. This is an image to
the wealthy aristocracy of France, who not only turned their backs on
Dreyfus and did not help him, but also increased the effort to have
him punished unnecessarily.
The next Jewish figure whom the author singles out is a boy from
the town of Bielostok, where one of the most horrible pogroms ever
took place. The entire stanza focuses on the image of how bad the
people were who participated in the pogrom. Using graphic images of
blood spurting all around and of victims pointlessly begging for
mercy, the author clearly shows how wrong the pogroms were and wrong
his countrymen were for allowing them to occur. A device the author
uses in this stanza is contrast, as in one line he writes how the
participants were crying that the pogrom was to “Save Russia,” and on
the next line says that these same participants were beating up his
mother, whose existence obviously was not harming the country.
Anne Frank is the next figure whom the poem highlights. The poet
calls her “a translucent twig of April.” He is using the image
of something small and fragile which can so easily be broken. By this
he is showing how weak and frail she was. She was definitely
undeserving of the events that she had to live through, but in
addition to that she was only a small weak child, as weak as a twig.
Even more so he shows how good of a person she was that she was so
full of love, yet could not even experience the sky or trees, only sit
in a dark room.
After these narratives the poet starts the next section of the
poem. In his own voice, he asks his people not to fear love. If
everyone just got along, then everything would be nice and happy. He
says it will be like spring, which is the usual metaphor for new and
better times. This stanza is a general plea to non-Jews that everyone
should just be friends and then the process of world harmony will be
This is contrasted to the following stanza where the author again
remembers the tragedy of Babi Yar and the Holocaust. Using imagery of
bare trees and howling winds, the poem makes a description of winter,
which is a metaphor for bad times. So the author contrast the two
seasons of winter and spring showing how right now hatred is keeping
everyone in winter, but once there is peace then spring can start and
life will get better.
The rest of the poem focuses on what the Russian people must do to
change their attitude about Jews. First the author criticizes them for
acting so shamelessly, and then he says that Jews must be accepted by
all Russians who can honestly call themselves that. This is compounded
when it says that one can truly be a Russian only when he undergoes
the same treatment that the Jews go through, only when they experience
the same type of hatred. This final statement is a reversal of the
general view of the Russian people, and it reaffirms how Yevgeny
Yevtushenko is a person who is not afraid to go against the popular
opinion in order to make life better.