As a new congressman, Connecticut’s Christopher J. Dodd and his then-colleague – Elizabeth Holtzman, at the time a fellow freshman from New York – traveled with a Congressional subcommittee delegation to explore human rights abuses in the now-former Soviet Union.
During a trip punctuated by arguments with Soviet officials and concerns about recording devices in flower vases, they visited Babyn Yar – a ravine outside the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv and the site of documented Nazi atrocities during World War II.
“The experience so many years ago at Babyn Yar was transformative for me, for Liz, and those who were with us,” Dodd told a packed audience at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs on Wednesday evening. “To stand on ground outside of Kyiv where, in September 1941….33,000 people were massacred – it was an experience that informed my work over the next 40 years in public service.”
“We visited Babyn Yar, the Nazi killing field – I actually had the feeling that the ground was still moving underneath my feet,” shared Holtzman, who grew up in her Jewish family hearing stories of Babyn Yar as a child from her mother, who was from a village near Kyiv.
“The bodies never came to rest.”
Dodd and Holtzman shared their memories of that trip to Ukraine in 1975 as part of the presentation ceremony of the 10th Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center in Kyiv.
The Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights commemorates the distinguished career in public service of Christopher Dodd’s father, Thomas J. Dodd, who served as Executive Trial Counsel at the Nuremberg Trials, as U.S. Representative from 1953 to 1957, and as Connecticut Senator from 1959 to 1971.
Thomas Dodd continually fought against infringement and suppression of human rights in the United States and abroad during his long public career; the collection of his papers and letters from his time prosecuting Nazi war crimes at Nuremberg are currently housed at The Dodd Center for Human Rights at UConn.
“The awarding of the Thomas J. Dodd Prize for International Justice and Human Rights is an opportunity not only to spotlight individuals and organizations at the forefront of human rights work, but to reaffirm our commitment as a University to the ideal of human rights as a goal that transcends national and political boundaries,” said UConn’s President Radenka Maric.
“This year’s recipient of the Dodd Prize embodies the understanding that human rights are a cause that cannot be limited to individual countries. An attack on human dignity and freedom anywhere is an attack on human dignity and freedom everywhere.”
In total, between 70,000 and 100,000 people – including almost the entire Jewish population of Kyiv – were killed at Babyn Yar between 1941 and 1943. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center aims to serve as a physical place of memory, a museum, an educational archive, and a center of scientific knowledge about the site’s historic atrocities and their modern-day impact.
The center’s unwavering commitment to memory – especially in the midst of unprovoked and ongoing war in Ukraine today – was particularly remarkable to the Dodd Prize Selection Committee, said James Waller, director of Dodd Human Rights Impact and the Christopher J. Dodd Chair in Human Rights Practice at UConn. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center’s selection for this year’s prize was unanimous.
“We were struck by their willingness to engage with history in a region that has many contested memories,” Waller said. “Rather than stand on the sidelines, Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center recognizes the need for public discourse on Babyn Yar and the role that this place’s construction plays in the social memory of Ukraine.
“They know that nations need some kind of agreed-upon past, and that the dark silences that have been imposed on some episodes of history, the pages that have been torn out in history, must be exposed for a nation to develop a true sense of its identity.”
The Dodd Prize ceremony was punctuated by memory.
In a recorded video message, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal recalled the story of his father emigrating to the United States to escape persecution in Europe during the Holocaust and commended The Dodd Center for its work to reserve and promote human rights.
“This prize for the center to uplift and spotlight people who are fighting for their democratic values is a message to the whole world,” Blumenthal said. “The Babyn Yar Memorial Center is a vital organization that ensures the world will ever forget one of the most inhuman acts, the senseless slaughter of so many.”
Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont recalled the words of President Joseph Biden when he visited UConn for the rededication of The Dodd Center for Human Rights two years ago.
“I can tell you, when it comes to character it sounds like an old-fashioned concept, but I think it’s more important today than ever,” Lamont said. “Maybe some of you may have been here when President Biden came two years ago, and he said that character starts off with how you treat the people every day that you pass along on the street – folks who can’t do anything for you, but just you treat them with respect and dignity. And those who don’t do that, you see where that leads.”
Past Meets Present
In 1941, Victor Pinchuk’s parents fled Ukraine, emigrating to the Soviet Union and avoiding their own deaths at Babyn Yar in September of that year.
“You, senator, are here tonight because of your father, who prosecuted the Nazi killers at Nuremberg,” said the Ukrainian businessman, philanthropist, and Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center Board member, who accepted the Dodd Prize on behalf of the center on Wednesday evening. “And I’m here because of my father, and because of my parents – my parents, a small Jewish boy and girl, went in 1941 from Kyiv to Russia, to protect them from the Nazi killers.”
Pinchuk shared his memory of childhood, and his father often reading him, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” by the author Mark Twain, whose home in Hartford is now a museum, the Mark Twain House.
Pinchuk visited the museum when he arrived in Connecticut this week and sent pictures to his father, which “made him very happy,” he said.
“The first person I met and started talking with was a woman, she was a gardener in the Mark Twain museum, and she had a very big yellow-blue heart [on her clothes],” Pinchuk said. “And I asked her why. Because I’m American Ukrainian. And I have this [flag, on my jacket] – she said, I know you’re also Ukrainian. And we spoke in the Ukrainian language. It was a great sign how close America and Ukraine are.”
In accepting the award on behalf of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Pinchuk said Ukraine is a country that wants the truth about Babyn Yar and about the current war in Ukraine to be told.
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the center’s plans for physical spaces in Kyiv have been suspended in order to support the war effort and to help document destruction, atrocities, and loss in the current conflict.
Using some of the same technologies that the center has employed to map, document, preserve, and identify victims at Babyn Yar, the center has been working to memorialize victims of this war as well. Their team has digitized more than 3.5 million records and documents, according to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center’s CEO Oleksiy Makukhin, and aims to digitize 16 million documents over the next two years.
The awarding of the 2023 Dodd Prize on Wednesday, Oct. 25 also marked the launch of the inaugural Human Rights Summit at The Dodd Center for Human Rights, which kicked off on Thursday with a packed-house keynote from the Ukrainian human rights lawyer Oleksandra Mativiichuk at The Dodd Center’s Konover Auditorium.
Matviichuk leads the nonprofit Center for Civil Liberties and is an advocate for democratic reforms. The Center for Civil Liberties was jointly awarded the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, the first Nobel Prize in history awarded to a Ukrainian citizen or organization.
In her keynote, she spoke about atrocities committed against Ukrainians in the current war, the need for not just aid but also voices in the U.S. and other countries to help support the Ukraine, and the fragility of freedom in an increasingly interconnected world.
“How many people who live in the 21st century will defend a human being, their life, their freedom, and their human dignity?” she asked. “Can we rely on the law, or does just brutal force matter? The answer to this question will define not just the future of people in Ukraine, Iran, Sudan…the answer to this question will define our common future.
“Because the world should respond to the challenges of the present. It’s the determination to act that defines a civilization that has a future. Freedom and democracy must be protected.”
The Dodd Summit concludes Friday, October 27, with a focus on democracy in the United States, and with a Democracy and Dialogues session with UConn students on voting and voter participation, in the Konover Auditorium at The Dodd Center for Human Rights.
For more information about the inaugural Dodd Summit, visit summit.humanrights.uconn.edu.