There are cities that seem to have suffering in their DNA. Places that due to their location have seen all possible wars since their existence. The case of Kharkov is one of the most striking. Eighty-one years have elapsed between two photographs. In the first, several Jews are seen hanged by the Nazis on the balconies of Sumskaia Street. The other shows the City Hall building that was built exactly on the same site a few years later and that was bombed on March 3, when all eyes in the country were on kyiv and the city was experiencing its worst days after World War II due to the Russian invasion.
Today the eastern Ukrainian capital is not doing much better than it used to be. The historic center of Kharkov, the country’s second largest and most important city, has been reduced to rubble. Museums, official buildings or the famous Korolengo library, jewels of Soviet constructivism, which made the city an architectural symbol, are a heap of dusty and sad ruins. But not only cultural heritage, also cafes, banks, bakeries, clothing stores, restaurants or supermarkets are empty shells where broken glass mixes with twisted iron or collapsed roofs.
According to the mayor of Kharkov, Igor Terejov, “more than 30% of the city’s population has left, some 500,000 people -of the million and a half inhabitants it had before the war-, plus the 300,000 students who usually reside here ”, explains the alderman to this newspaper. In his assessment of the damage suffered, Terejov, who now attends the press in the basement of a restaurant, explains that “109 schools have been attacked, 55 hospitals and clinics have been damaged and 500 houses have been totally destroyed.” The last affected school was reduced to rubble by a missile last Thursday morning.
This Friday the city authorities concluded that the recently bombed City Hall, a symbolic building erected after the slaughter of thousands of Jews during World War II, will have to be demolished. The layers of history have wanted Kharkov to be a succession of superimposed horrors.
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Eight decades before Vladimir Putin decided to “denazify” Ukraine, his main argument for an invasion that has so far left 15 million displaced people and refugees and thousands dead, in cities like Kharkiv 15% of the Jewish population lived and converted. quickly targeted by the Nazis when in 1941 the German army entered the city. For Hitler, this city was key in his attempt to neutralize one of the industrial hearts of the former Soviet Union which, in its best days, between 1919 and 1934, had also been the capital of the Ukraine, before it was transferred to kyiv. .
In the lively Sumskaia street, which forms the backbone of the city, was the headquarters of the Communist Party at that time. It was a two-story building built years before in stone and brick with long balconies that became the headquarters of the Nazis after the bloody occupation of the city in what was known as the First Battle of Kharkov. The arrival of the Nazis gave way to massive raids and the murder of some 15,000 Jews in four years, recalls Professor of History at the University of Kharkov Pavló Yeremieiev. The professor recalls that Kharkiv was already one of the most populous cities in the Soviet Union at that time, with almost a million inhabitants, and that just as is happening now with the Russian attacks against the civilian population, which have destroyed entire neighborhoods, also then “There was an exemplary intention of the Nazis in exhibiting the Jews hanged on the balconies so that the entire population could see the consequences of not collaborating. It was a common thing during the first months of the invasion.”
The academic recalls in front of the current building, bombed by the Russians, that a common way of killing Jews was to walk them in the so-called Gaswagen, a rolling gas chamber where hundreds of people were introduced for hours so that they would die little by little by inhaling carbon monoxide.
That invasion was followed by more battles in which the city passed from Russian to German and vice versa on three more occasions, leaving the city shattered and 260,000 dead. In 1954, in the same place that was the headquarters of the Communist Party of the USSR, the current City Hall was built, a huge six-storey building facing Liberty Square.
The historical schizophrenia that accompanies the great Russian-speaking city of Ukraine, located 35 kilometers from Russia, has shaped a spirit that recently played against it again. In 2014, Kharkov experienced protests by pro-Russian separatists during the overthrow of the country’s then president, Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually fled to Russia precisely from Kharkov. But the city remained in Ukrainian hands.
The building was attacked with a missile launched from Russia. This Friday the authorities concluded that it will have to be demolished due to the damage.
A few meters away is a subway entrance that every day in the late afternoon sees how dozens of people enter it, not to get on the brand new subway, with more than 30 stations, but to sleep on the platforms. More than 100 days after the war began, entire neighborhoods remain shattered and thousands of families have fled the city or are sleeping rough as they continue to hear the sound of bombs and artillery fire. After the military success in this part of the Ukraine, from where the Russians have withdrawn, the inhabitants of Kharkiv are left with the consolation of the historian. “The difference between 1941 and 2022 is that that time the invader took the city, but this time he couldn’t,” he says.
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