Three syllables strike the most chilling chord imaginable, and yet, “Babi”, in Russian, is the gentle, affectionate murmur of sound for ‘grandma’. In September, 1941, the ravine in a suburb of Kiev, Babi Yar, becomes the scene of one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.
My mother was a Soviet prisoner of war. The Nazis swept into Ukraine with three million soldiers. By September, she would have been force marched or transported by cattle car from Poltava to the suburbs of Kiev. (These are the kind of research details I must discover in the next development phase of the film, the Traitor’s Daughter.) She did not witness the two-day orgy of mass murder of 33,000 Jews, Soviet POW’s, and Ukrainian civilians.
But she was there.
At a dinner party at my home in Toronto, my mother breaks a fifty-year silence.
Intimacy and terror are strange bedfellows. It is a glimpse into a past she never spoke of. Even my Dad, Eric Spicer, her husband of fifty years, would remain locked outside that private iron curtain she wrapped around herself her entire life.
For an eyewitness account of Babi Yar, please review the extraordinary testimony of a young actress from the Kiev puppet theatre, Dina Pronicheva. She would become a key witness at a Kiev War Crimes Tribunal of 15 members of the German police responsible for the occupied city of Kiev (January 24, 1946.)
The novel, The White Hotel, is based in part on Dina Pronicheva’s survival story, that September afternoon in 1941. Today, I own this novel. It sits on my bookshelf, daring me to finish it, from cover to cover. But I can only absorb a few paragraphs at time. The emotional impact of realizing my own mother was held captive by the same Nazis only a field away, perhaps less than a kilometer, leaves me breathless. These brave women. Dina lived until 1977, and died in the Soviet Union. My mother outlived her by almost three decades, and passed away in Calgary. Their stories make us the women we are today.