The exhibition was conceived and created by historian and curator Robert Jan van Pelt and architect Manuel Herz. It includes photographic murals of the Babyn Yar ravine in Kyiv by Maxim Dondyuk, directed by Edward Burtynsky. Originally produced and installed by Douglas Birkenshaw for Koffler Arts in Toronto, the exhibition is now on an international tour with Dala Projects and Tanata Productions.
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The first major massacre of the Holocaust took place over two days in September 1941 (on the eve of Yom Kippur) in the Babyn Yar ravine, Kyiv, Ukraine.
80 years on, honor was paid to those murdered during these unspeakable events through the creation of an extraordinary, jewel-like wooden synagogue by the visionary Swiss architect Manuel Herz. This place of memory, reflection and prayer now stands as a living sanctuary of hope for humankind.
The exhibition presents the Babyn Yar Synagogue in multiple layers and narratives. It aims to retain and unfold the many interweaving accounts, histories and discourses of the synagogue. This unfolding is meant figuratively, but – at least to some degree – also literally, giving an overall shape to the exhibition design: an exhibition akin to a “Wunderkabinett” or a cabinet of wonders. The exhibition consists of several elements that each have their own “speed”, each conveying the narratives in a specific medium, some more immersive, some more abstract, some through archives and some through visual experience.
“Profound historic tragedy and poetic artistic beauty may exist side by side in our world,” says curator and architectural historian Robert Jan van Pelt. “The memory of the tragedy can provide depth to the experience of beauty, while the latter may, to some extent, illuminate the abyss of our loss.”
The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmare of Evil into a shared Dream of Good was the 2023 headline project for Toronto’s Koffler Arts, created in partnership by the Dutch-Canadian historian and curator Robert Jan van Pelt, the Swiss architect Manuel Herz and the Ukrainian-Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, together presenting the Babyn Yar synagogue for the first time in its full historical, political, artistic and spiritual contexts.
The exhibition, which opened on the resonant date of 17th April 2023, (the eve of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day), in many ways is the most ambitious project Koffler Arts has ever presented, capturing two moments in time of exceptional global resonance – the creation and dedication of this incredible synagogue (with antecedents ranging from traditional Jewish culture to children’s pop-up story books) and the current Russian war against Ukraine. As this brochure goes to production and threats of war enflame the Middle East, further resonances with the drama of Babyn Yar are almost too strong for words.
The Synagogue at Babyn Yar: Turning the Nightmare of Evil into a Shared Dream of Good includes a short presentation of the Babyn Yar massacre and its afterlife in both official Soviet and informal Jewish memory; the dramatic history of the Babyn Yar site after 1945; the current condition at Babyn Yar as an eloquent natural reserve and public park; the debate within the Architectural Board of the Babyn Yar Foundation on Jewish spatial and architectural traditions that triggered the idea to construct a synagogue; the key idea of Manuel Herz’s project in the double context of now utterly bygone East European Jewish architectural traditions and the tradition of the moveable pop-up books or Harlequinades; a documentation of the Synagogue’s design development; the remarkable mobilization of Ukrainian builders and artists that allowed for the construction of the synagogue in record time; the profoundly moving commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the massacre at the new synagogue in October 2021; the threats to the synagogue in the current war, and the profound significance of the synagogue for the future of Jewish architecture.
Key Objects and Moments
Immersive photo murals
Models and objects of inspiration for the synagogue
Synagogue model (operational with gears, crank, bespoke music, lighting)
Contemplation theater with projection of Babyn Yar skyscape