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Blank Spots on the Holocaust Map

Attitudes toward the Jewish past are changing in Ukraine and Russia, but old ways of thought cling on.

by Tatiana Kozak and Yulia Korchagina 16 March 2017 The construction of “places of memory” connected to vanished Jewish communities and the Holocaust was very different in the Soviet Union and in Germany.

 

Postwar West Germany did not shrink from accepting its responsibility for the Holocaust, ultimately, after reunification, building in Berlin widely praised and popular places of remembrance of the Jewish past and the Holocaust.

 

There is nothing in the former Soviet Union similar to the Jewish Museum in Berlin. Daniel Libeskind’s structure resembles a huge scar or Star of David torn into pieces. The museum tells the story of the Jews in Germany, employing empty space as a leitmotif. Exhibition halls with artifacts, works of art, and items of daily life culminate in unfilled, curved spaces that evoke disorientation in the visitor, wordlessly testifying to the tragedy of the Jews under the Nazi regime.

 

In the Soviet Union, by contrast, the memory of the killings of millions of Jews on its territory was subsumed into the proud story of the Great Patriotic War culminating in the defeat of the fascist enemy. Such glorification of the heroic past undervalues the achievements and the tragedies of the national groups in the USSR, critics of official memory policies have said.

 

While the Soviet interpretation lives on in Russia in a slightly less jingoistic form, in Ukraine, critics charge that a reawakened spirit of nationalism has led the authorities to overlook the crimes of Ukrainians who aided the German war against both Soviets and Jews.

 

Buchach Jewish cemeteryThe historic Jewish cemetery in the Ukrainian town of Buchach. Photo by Roman Zacharij/Wikimedia Commons

 

Ukraine: Places Without Memory

 

While tourists who take selfies at the Holocaust Memorial not far from Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate make news in Germany, there is no such memorial in Ukraine to cause such controversy.

 

Most places associated with the Jews who once lived on the territory of modern Ukraine are all but forgotten, even though 1.5 million Jews died here during the war – one of every four Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

 

Dozens of separate memorials dot the former killing grounds at Kyiv’s infamous Babi Yar ravine, but they seem isolated from each other.

 

“The Babi Yar area reminds me (perhaps the analogy is too rough) of a cake, cut into pieces. Groups of descendants of the victims find separate ways to their memorials to hold commemorations. There is no overall plan ...” Mikhail Tyagliy, a researcher with the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies, wrote in 2013.

 

A sense of frozen time pervades Brody, in western Ukraine, the birthplace of the Austrian Jewish novelist Joseph Roth – of 1990 and the Middle Ages, Austria-Hungary, and the Soviet Union. Old houses with modern advertising signs. Yards well-maintained in the European manner, with low fences, dwarves on the lawns, neat flower beds. Although small, the town was a vibrant center of Jewish learning. On the eve of World War II, more than half of the town’s 20,000 population was Jewish. One street once inhabited by the Jews and a few houses remained after the war.

 

The same story could be told of many other Ukrainian towns, such as Zhmerynka, where Jews constituted about 40 percent of the population. During the war, the city became a ghetto for deported Romanian Jews. In May 1944, Zhmerynka underwent intense German bombardment. The prewar Jewish neighborhoods were hit hard, but people still lived there. After World War II no Jews remained. The last residential areas where Jews had lived were demolished in the 1960s and an Orthodox church built in their place.

 

Buchach, located 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Ternopil, was more fortunate. A Jewish cemetery remains here. There is a memorial: a tiled concrete slab, on which, until recently, there were plaques in Russian, English, and Hebrew. The last has been repeatedly damaged by vandals, most recently a few months ago. Of the 7,500 Jews living in Buchach, or Buczacz, before the war, 4,000 were sent to the Belzec death camp. Those remaining in the ghetto were shot. Five hundred survived the war, but soon left. A second, small memorial was erected in 2012-2013. Jewish visitors from abroad often used to visit the cemetery, although because of the war in eastern Ukraine few tourists come here, on the far side of the country.

 

Although Buchach is the birthplace of Nobel literature laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon and the famed “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal, local historians have little information about the Jewish past of the city. There is a cultural center named after Agnon, and from time to time there are discussions about how to rehabilitate the Jewish contribution to the city, but nothing has been done so far. As if the Jews had never been here.

 

Babi Yar: A Place of Memory and Forgetting

 

Most residents of Kyiv remember Babi Yar, the place of the best-known massacre of Ukrainian Jews. Between 1941 and 1943 German occupying forces killed more than 100,000 people in the city. Among them were not only Jews, but also Roma, Communists, Soviet prisoners, and mentally ill people.

 

The killing reached its peak on 29-30 September 1941 when nearly 34,000 Jews were shot in the Babi Yar ravine. Only around 30 people escaped the massacre. Despite the scale of the tragedy, for many people in Kyiv Babi Yar is just a park with paths and benches where parents take their children for a walk. The 30 separate monuments in the reserve are not linked by any overall concept, making it difficult for visitors to piece together what happened here.

 

"I find it difficult to talk about a symbol that could unite all these monuments. Obviously, this must be the result of lengthy discussions. The challenge that we face is to make Babi Yar a place that unites rather than causes conflict," the head of the Institute of National Memory of Ukraine, Volodymyr Viatrovych, said in a recent interview with the news portal of the Ukrainian United Jewish Community (OEOU).

 

The Question of Ukrainian Identity

 

Discussions of the meaning of the Holocaust for modern Ukraine have carried on among historians and social scientists for many years, but their echoes rarely enter the public sphere.

 

Two points of view have dominated the discourse on World War II.

 

"One point of view, nationalism, dictates that we build everything around ethnic values and the history and culture of ethnic Ukrainians,” Tyagliy explained in an interview. “Unfortunately, this view does not leave much space for recognition of the history of other ethnicities, in particular, Jewish minorities, who were also an integral part of Ukrainian history and culture – including the history of the Holocaust.”

 

The second model draws on the Soviet interpretation, which frames the war in terms of the heroic struggle against the Nazi invaders.

 

This model also allows little room for the history of minority ethnic communities, according to Tyagliy. He argues for a more inclusive approach toward creating places of memory.

 

"This process is related to questions of identity: who are Ukrainians, what is Ukrainian history, how to form an identity for the present,” Tyagliy said.

 

Difficult questions arise when memorializing the war becomes more than an exercise in glorification of the past. One of the most divisive topics is the participation of Ukrainian nationalists in the Holocaust. Last September a number of foreign dignitaries came to Kyiv to take part in ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who made his view clear in an address to the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament:

 

“They shot them [the Jews] in the valleys, in the woods, into pits, into mass graves. Many of the collaborators were Ukrainian, among the most notorious the members of the OUN who carried out pogroms and massacres against the Jews and in many cases handed them over to the Germans,” Rivlin said.

 

The OUN, or Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, along with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), were demonized during the Soviet era as traitors and German collaborators. Many of their leaders have been rehabilitated by several Ukrainian governments with the support of the Institute of National Memory, a government research institution.

 

The anniversary of the Babi Yar massacres provided a peg for politicians and scholars to publicly debate the Holocaust in Ukraine for the first time in many years. Politicians began speaking of the need for an integrated policy of remembrance in order to honor the memory of all Holocaust victims, and President Petro Poroshenko pledged to build a museum dedicated to the victims of Babi Yar.

 

Viatrovych argues that the Soviet regime suppressed the enormity of the tragedy – not only for Ukrainian Jews but for nationalists, prisoners of war, and Roma as well – and lumped all the victims of Babi Yar together as "Soviet people."

 

Viatrovych joined politicians such as the first deputy speaker of parliament, Iryna Gerashchenko, in seeing the “Soviet myth” of OUN participation in the Holocaust behind Rivlin’s comments.

 

In 2015, Viatrovych initiated the adoption of a law on the recognition of OUN and UPA soldiers as fighters for Ukraine's independence.

 

The institute’s policy of ridding the country of Soviet monuments and renaming towns and streets, often in honor of OUN and UPA leaders, has raised protests among the Ukrainian Jewish community. Last summer, representatives of Jewish organizations addressed an open letter to Viatrovych assailing him for trying to rewrite history by suppressing and denying the anti-Semitic ideology of wartime nationalist organizations.

 

Viatrovych believes that these charges are baseless.

 

"The revival of national Ukrainian memory is not going on at the expense of the memory of the Jewish people,” he told the Jewish Community news portal.

 

“When we talk about Ukrainian national memory, we are talking about the memory of all ethnic groups who lived in the territory of Ukraine. I keep saying that the Holocaust is an integral part of Ukrainian national memory as one of the greatest tragedies and genocides that took place in our lands," he added.

 

Babi Yar children\'s memorialThe children's memorial at Babi Yar. Photo by Adam Jones/Flickr

 

Meanwhile, the Institute of National Memory is pushing ahead with a revised interpretation of the war years, based on rejection of the "Great Patriotic War" rhetoric.

 

Last year the institute organized a street exhibition in Kyiv and four other cities on the role Ukrainians played during the war. Some of the displays gave information on the Holocaust and the Babi Yar massacres.

 

"We decided to break up the black-and-white image of the Second World War which is still in people’s minds due to Soviet and then Russian propaganda," Viatrovych said in the OEOU interview.

 

Russia: Writing Jews Out of History

 

Compared to Ukraine, Holocaust memories are submerged even deeper in Russia.

 

More than 400 Jewish massacres have been documented in Russia, far greater than the number of memorials to their victims.

 

"In Russia there are several hundred places where Jews were killed, but you can find only 40 [memorial] sites," said Ilya Altman, the co-chairman of the Holocaust Research and Educational Center, a non-governmental organization.

 

According to Altman, Russia has done little to preserve the memory of Holocaust victims, while in the Baltic states, Belarus, and Ukraine the process began soon after the Soviet Union broke apart.

 

One reason is the lack of large cities in today’s Russian Federation that were well-known as Jewish centers, compared to Ukraine, Poland, or Lithuania.

 

Even so, on the eve of the war nearly a million Jews lived in the Russian Soviet Republic, predecessor of modern Russia, according to the 1939 Soviet census, and several Russian cities had large Jewish populations. In Rostov-on-Don the Jewish community, dating back to the 18th century, was extinguished in a series of massacres in August 1942. In 2004, a memorial plaque was erected on the site of the largest killing field, Zmievskaya Balka. Funded by the Jewish community, the plaque read: "On 11-12 August 1942, over 27,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis here.”

 

However, seven years later, the city administration ordered the plaque replaced. The new inscription reads: "Here in Zmievskaya Balka in August 1942, Nazi occupiers killed more than 27,000 peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners of war. Many nationalities were represented among the dead. Here occurred the worst mass extermination of Soviet citizens in the Russian Federation during the Great Patriotic War.”

 

Most memorial projects are carried out by the Jewish community, primarily in larger cities. International organizations have also played a role in preserving Jewish culture and memory.

 

In smaller towns, though, few local historians, human rights activists, or efforts such as Holocaust research projects for teenagers remain, says Maria Vyatchina, a sociologist who studies the phenomenon of Holocaust memory.

 

“Also gone are various sects like the Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Charismatics, who held to the idea that Jews are people of Christ and re-enacted his tortures during the Holocaust,” she said.

 

Still, local efforts are responsible for many commemorations of Holocaust victims, as Altman found out. "When we began our work in the early 1990s, it turned out that most of the [Jewish] grave sites in different regions had been maintained by local people for many years,” he said.

 

One example took place last year. In the town of Novozybkov, in the Bryansk region, school teachers, with the support of the Russian Jewish Congress and the Holocaust Center, erected a stele on the site where 950 ghetto residents were killed in 1942. About 17,000 Jews died in the Bryansk region during the war.

 

‘Babi Yars’ of Russia

 

Unlike Ukraine, Russia does not observe a national Holocaust remembrance day. And the successes of some neighboring countries in utilizing the official resources of small towns have not been matched in Russia, where bureaucrats are often indifferent to the Jewish Holocaust, according to Vyatchina.

 

“For Russian authorities the Holocaust is only an episode in the context of the Great Patriotic War, especially as the cult of war is being revived,” she said.

 

Soviet officialdom virtually ignored the Holocaust or suppressed its memory for decades, starting with the ban soon after the war on the “Black Book” of the Holocaust, a compilation of testimonies edited by the journalists Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman.

 

"The word ‘Jews’ on all the monuments of the Holocaust was replaced by the phrase ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’ throughout the country,” Holocaust Center co-chairman Altman has written. “There were exceptions, such as in Smolensk in the mid-1960s, where it was possible to add the word ‘ghetto,’ but not the nationality of the victims. Only occasionally did you see the phrase ‘Jewish victims’ on memorials in small towns, mainly in the Baltic republics.”

 

Not until the era of glasnost in the late 1980s was the Holocaust discussed in public. In those years the first days of remembrance took place in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and scholarly interest in the subject picked up.

 

Projects on a large scale, similar to Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial and Jewish Museum or the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, have made little progress.

 

In 2003, at a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of the importance of the subject and pledged to open an exhibition on the Holocaust at the Museum of the Great Patriotic War in Moscow.

 

Five years later the promise was fulfilled, but only in part, with a section on the Holocaust installed in the new Genocide of the Peoples exhibition. In 1998 a memorial synagogue was built to complement the Orthodox church and mosque in the museum complex.

 

The Russian state seemed to have taken proper account of its Jewish past and the meaning of the Holocaust when Moscow’s Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center opened in 2012 in a blaze of publicity.

 

One of the giant museum’s 12 thematic exhibitions explores the Holocaust and World War II.

 

Although present-day Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and Lithuania were the locations where most Soviet Jewish victims of the catastrophe died, dozens of massacres took place in what is now Russia, Judaic and Near Eastern scholar Olga Gershenzon wrote last year.

 

“The museum, however, presents the Holocaust as part of the heroic narrative of the war, according to which the good Soviets defeated the evil Germans. Consequently, the museum succeeds in glorifying and mourning, but without raising more controversial and relevant questions that would require the viewer to come to terms with a nation’s difficult past,” Gershenzon wrote.

 

There is scant mention of relations between Jews and non-Jews during the war, she notes: “In the entire exhibit, there is only one brief paragraph about local collaborators ‘in some Lithuanian and Ukrainian towns.’ ”

 

“The Jewish Museum is great as a museum, but it omits pressing issues. It’s a completely pro-government project,” Vyatchina said.

 

Yet political and public figures in Russia continue talking about the importance of preserving the memory of the victims of the Jewish genocide. In November Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke at the Yad Vashem Holocaust center in Jerusalem: “Yad Vashem is a mournful, grim place, but it is very important for all of us who understand that the tragedy of the Jewish people must not happen again."

 

Russia was trying to do everything to ensure that the memory of Holocaust victims would never be erased, Medvedev said.

 

Yet it appears that the task of preserving the memory of the Holocaust in Russia is moving at a painfully slow pace, in spite of its importance “for all of us.”

Tatiana Kozak is a freelance journalist from Ukraine. 

 

Yulia Korchagina is a journalist in Russia.

 

The article was prepared within the project "Creating a space for dialogue: Mass media and peaceful conflict transformation in the post-Soviet space." The project was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Germany and carried out by the Center for Independent Social Research (CISR) in Berlin, in cooperation with CISR St. Petersburg, the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and the Imagine Center for Conflict Transformation (South Caucasus).

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