The Tragedies of History

 

Babi Yar, a poem written by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, tells the
story of the Nazi invasion into a small part of Russia, in
which, throughout the duration of World War II, over
one-hundred thousand Jews, Gypsies and Russian POW's were
brutally murdered. However, what is unique about this
particular perspective is that the narrator is not a Jew,
but a mere observer who is aghast at the atrocities that
took place during the Holocaust. It is through allusions,
as well as other literary devices, that Yevtushenko
elucidates caustically the absurdities of the hatred that
caused the Holocaust, in addition to the narrator's
identification with the Jews and their history of
oppression. 

Perhaps, the most effective literary device used in "Babi
Yar" is the allusion. The first clear allusion seen in the
poem is the one concerning Egypt (line 6). This reference
harks back to the Jews' enslavement in Egypt before they
become a nation. In line 7, the narrator makes reference to
how so many Jews perished on the cross. The reason for
these initial allusions in the first section is clear.
Yevtushenko is establishing the history of the Jewish
people, being one of oppression, prejudice, and innocent
victims. The next allusion in the poem is a reference to
the Dreyfus Affair, a more modern display of irrational and
avid anti-Semitism. It is in the Dreyfus affair that an
innocent man is accused of espionage and is sent to jail
for more than ten years, notwithstanding an overwhelming
amount of evidence pointing to his innocence, simply
because he is a Jew. 

Yevtushenko uses these allusions to lead up to his referral
to a boy in Bielostok who is murdered by the Russian
common-folk. Clearly, The narrator is teaching a lesson
with a dual message. Firstly, he is informing the reader of
the horrors that took place in Russia during the Holocaust.
Perhaps even more of a travesty, however, is the fact that
humankind has not learned from the past in light of the
fact that this "episode" is merely one link in a long chain
of terrors. 

Yevtushenko goes on to allude to Anne Frank, a young Jewish
teenager who left behind a diary of her thoughts and
dreams, and how the Nazis strip her of any potential future
she has when she is murdered in the death camps. Clearly,
the allusion creates images in the mind of the reader that
mere descriptions via the use of words could not. 

Another effective literary device used in the poem is the
first person narrative in which the narrator identifies
with those victims which he describes. This is seen in the
case where the narrator says "I am Dreyfus", or "Anne
Frank, I am she." The narrator does not claim to understand
what the feelings and thoughts of these people are, but
rather, he is acknowledging the fact that they are feeling,
"detested and denounced" and that unlike the rest of the
world who turned its head, or the Russians who actually
abetted such heinous crimes, this gentile narrator can not
empathize, but does sympathize with his Jewish "brethren." 

Another extremely powerful device used by Yevtushenko is
the detail of description and imagery used to describe
events and feelings that are in both those with whom he
identifies, as well as himself. "I bear the red mark of
nails"(line 8) seems to include much of the suffering that
the Jews have to endure. The statement is almost one of a
reverse crucifixion in which the Jews are crucified and now
have to suffer with false accusations, blood libels, and
Pogroms for the duration of time. The poet describes very
clearly the contempt most people have for the Jewish people
and how many of these people aided in the barbarity . In
line 13, for example, the poet speaks of "shrieking ladies
in fine ruffled gowns" who "brandish their umbrellas in my
face." In addition, Yevtushenko also depicts explicitly how
the "tavern masters celebrate" at the sight of "(a Jewish
boy's)blood spurt and spread over the floor." 

The contrast of age in "Babi Yar" is also quite effective.
In the last three sections, the reader finds out that the
narrator is remembering the past, mourning those who have
perished. This gives the reader the perspective of one who
speaks of the tragedy as though he is removed from it, as
well as the view of one who is part of that history of
horror in which all must remember, memorialize, learn from,
and never forget. 

Clearly, "Babi Yar" is a poem about the tragedy of the
Holocaust and how its effects and teachings transcend race,
religion, color, and sex, and involves the whole of the
human race. Yevtushenko depicts powerfully the tragedy of
the absurdity of the long based ill founded hatred that
many people feel towards the Jewish people as a whole. In
addition, the narrator speaks to each reader as if he is a
Jew, not in the sense of having gone through the
experience, but rather in the sense of being a part of the
remembering process, part of the humane society which feels
a moral obligation to recognize what took place and to
learn from that experience, lest humanity be condemned to
repeat the unthinkable. Perhaps, it is most appropriate
that Yevtushenko concludes the poem with the ironic charge
of saying that only when all of the anti-Semitic and hate
based people are hated and "spit on", can the narrator
truly be a "Russian", the standard for true humanity. 
 
 

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