Today, the Koffler Gallery, in partnership with Swiss Architect Manuel Herz and Canadian historian and curator Robert Jan van Pelt, announce the world-premiere exhibition of The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmares of Evil into a shared Dream of Good. This international exhibition is brought together with assistance from Canadian architect Douglas Birkenshaw and through architectural photography by celebrated Dutch photographer Iwan Baan. The exhibition features large-scale photographic murals directed by Ukrainian-Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky taken by Ukrainian photographer Maxim Dondyuk.
Babyn Yar is a 160-hectare site in Kyiv, Ukraine where the first large-scale massacre of the Holocaust occurred in 1941. The multi-disciplinary exhibition tells the story of the Babyn Yar Synagogue in its full historical, political, artistic and spiritual contexts for the first time.
The exhibition at the Koffler Gallery opens on April 17th, the eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and will run to the end of Holocaust Education Week on November 12th, 2023. It will link three moments in time of exceptional global resonance – the original 1941 massacre, the creation and dedication of this extraordinary, jewel-like, wooden synagogue and the current Russian war against Ukraine.
"We must never forget the tragedy of Babyn Yar. We understand this as an exceptionally brutal moment in the history of the Jewish people, but it is also an unspeakably horrific event in world history. We believe this exhibition, The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmares of Evil into a shared Dream of Good, is the most comprehensive account to date of the story joining the dots from WWII to the present day,” says Anthony Sargent CBE, Interim Director, Koffler Centre of the Arts. “As we honour, mourn and acknowledge the appalling events that happened at Babyn Yar, we also cherish Manuel Herz’s visionary synagogue, expressing so joyfully a wish for peace and for a better collective future.”
The Babyn Yar ravine was the location of the greatest single massacre in the Holocaust. Known as the ‘Holocaust by bullets', an early forensic record of what transpired states: “The Germans ordered everyone, without exception—girls, women, children, and old men—to strip naked; their clothes were gathered up and placed in neat piles. Rings were torn from the fingers of the naked people, both men and women. Then the executioners placed the doomed people in rows along the edge of the deep ravine and shot them at point blank range. The bodies fell over the cliff. Small children were pushed into the ravine alive.” Thus German soldiers murdered 33,771 Jews in two days.
Commissioned by the Babyn Yar Foundation in 2020, the Babyn Yar Synagogue was conceived and designed by Jewish, Basel-based architect Manuel Herz and built in six months. The unique ‘Wunderkabinett’ or cabinet-of-wonders wooden synagogue, with antecedents ranging from traditional Jewish culture to children’s pop-up story books, was conceived to bring hope and joy to a site so charged with the most profound grief.
Visitors at the exhibition will enter through an ante-room recording the Babyn Yar massacre itself, giving context to the rest of the installation and introducing the single largest massacre of the Holocaust by means of short texts and a searing selection of images from September 1941, by Johannes Hähle a German military photographer who served in the Wehrmacht Propaganda Troops during World War II.
In the main exhibition space, visitors will be entirely surrounded by immense, high-resolution panoramic mural images created as a result of a unique collaboration between renowned Toronto photographer, Edward Burtynsky and Ukrainian photographer, Maxim Dondyuk, who is the winner of a Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography for his photographic reportage on Ukraine's battle for survival. Burtynsky, a Ukrainian-Canadian artist who specializes in large format photography of the human-altered landscape, remotely directed this shoot with Dondyuk who was in Ukraine at the Synagogue site with his camera.
Other parts of the exhibition will give the visitor a multi-level experience and understanding of the synagogue project, allowing for many different depths of engagement and visit lengths anywhere from thirty minutes to several hours. The story of the project will be told through documents and artifacts, models, a beautifully detailed projection of the extraordinary painted ceiling of the synagogue, vividly recreating the stars in the 29 September 1941 night sky, and through a specially made film extending the exhibition with further contextual visuals, videos, still images and other documentary material. Images from the most celebrated photographer, Iwan Baan, are carefully selected to show the details of the Synagogue. A wooden model of the synagogue, showing the topography and the ground condition of the site. This model, being specially brought from Kyiv, was completed just before the Russian attack.
The exhibition opens in another time of immense peril for the Ukrainian people, and it also seeks to bring an awareness of what the Ukrainian people today, non-Jewish and Jewish, are together fighting for. The project, realized in a broad collaboration between official and civil society in Ukraine, stands for the aspiration to make a bold new beginning in a land cursed with too many unresolved pasts, both repressed and remembered.
A public engagement program curated by Joshua Heuman will accompany the gallery installation show and will offer a series of focused events to contextualize and help audiences unpack the intertwined layers of urgent concerns and references that underpin the exhibition.
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About Koffler Gallery
The Koffler Centre of the Arts is a cultural platform that explores critical ideas and concerns of our time through a year-round program of exhibitions, publications, performances, literary events, digital initiatives and arts education programs. We examine complex issues through transformative art experiences that stimulate intercultural dialogue. Through our in-gallery and off-site programs, the Koffler engages thousands of visitors each year. From school children and teens, to newcomers and seniors, we provide vital opportunities for self-expression and community connection. As a Jewish organization, we value and aim to foster social justice and equity, while nurturing a passion for creativity, learning and understanding. We position Jewish identity in conversation with diverse perspectives and global voices to examine complex issues. Through its public program of exhibitions and events, the Koffler offers common ground to engage the most relevant ideas shaping our cultural life and defining our shared social values. Visit us online at kofflerarts.org to learn more and follow our programs and future artistic collaborations.