The Holocaust is Ukrainian issue

Author : Mykhail Gold

Respondent : Mykhail Gold

Source : 112 Ukraine

A large part of the Holocaust events took place in Ukraine, and this is what makes us part of a global history - Yaroslav Hrytsak
17:36, 15 June 2016

Read the original text of an interview at


Professor, do you see in the Jewish-Ukrainian relations something very specific, something that that is out the from the European context? Who were the Jews for the Ukrainians for centuries?

- Unfortunately, this a classic European scheme, and not the best one. For centuries, Jews in Europe was perceived as the Other - someone, against a background of whom you can build your own identity. The Other is almost an enemy. Jews have successfully fulfilled this role in Europe, and Ukraine is not an exception. And here we had the most vivid examples, thousands of Jews fled to the eastern lands, Poland and Ukraine, hiding from anti-Semitic Catholic Europe. Therefore, by the end of the XIX century Warsaw, Vilnius, Lviv, and Odesa became the main Jewish world cities. Moreover, in contrast to the Polish and the Russians, Ukrainians did not have time to cultivate their own elite, remaining largely a peasant nation, which only emphasized the otherness of the Jews. The alienation of Christians and Jews was supplemented with the hostility between peasants and city dwellers or shtetl residents. All this has transformed the history of Ukrainian Jews - from the XVI century until recently - into the history of violence against them. This is a very difficult legacy.

Were there any historical periods, when the national interests of the Jews and the Ukrainians coincided? For how long did these periods last?

- Sometimes the interests coincided, but it rarely leaded to solidarity. Although sometimes it was shown at the level of the political elite. For example, in Galicia (Western Ukraine), Ukrainian politicians first raised the question of the recognition of the Jewish nation. It was a political calculation. In such a way Ukrainians wanted to hinder the assimilation of Jews in Russian and Polish environment and to attract them to their side. After the revolution of 1917, the level of national autonomy granted to the Jews in the Ukrainian People's Republic was unprecedented. However, it did not save them from the massacres. These moments are like a bright stars in the night sky. Nevertheless, this indicates that the relations between Ukrainians and Jews. might be different.

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How do you explain the natural wave of pogroms that swept over Galicia before the arrival of the Germans in the summer of 1941? A response on two years of Bolshevik rule and pervasive fear of "Judeo-Communism?"

- In the beginning of the war, Jewish pogroms took place across the arc from the Baltic to the Black Sea - in Lithuania, Poland, western Belarus, western Ukraine - the territories occupied by the Soviet Union in 1939. The riots were a response to the rapid, radical and violent Sovietization. "Judeo-Communism" (term, usually regarded as pejorative and an antisemitic stereotype, referring to alleged Jewish–Soviet collaboration in importing communism into Poland, where communism was sometimes identified as part of a wider Jewish-led conspiracy to seize power) is a stereotype, but it turned out to be very toxic, and most of the local population to believe in it. Literally, after two years of the Soviet power, the image of the Jew has undergone tremendous changes - roughly the same as happened in Russia after the 1917 revolution. It was the first time when the Jews took some positions in a society; previously these positions were unavailable. The locals could not deal with the fact that yesterday the Jew was unable to be an elite, and today the situation has changed dramatically.

In the first days of the war, NKVD (People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs in Soviet Union) shot hundreds of prisoners in Lviv. When the Germans entered the city, they herded the Jews to the place of execution, and in front of the city crowd forced them to dig and get the bodies. This was a direct provocation, and of course, there was a three-day pogrom. Please tell us as a historian, as a Lviv citizen, aren’t you surprised that Memorial Museum Dedicated to Victims of Occupational Regimes: "Tyiurma na Lontskoho" (Prison at Lontskoho Street) preserved the memory of this massacre, but not a single word is said about the pogrom?

- I am ashamed to answer that question, because it is my personal shame. This cannot be justified except reluctance to take an honest look in the eye of history. I am constantly referring to the image created by the historian Tony Judt in his book “Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945,” in which he calls the memory of the Holocaust the unifying element of modern Europe. The recognition of the involvement in the Holocaust is a kind of train ticket to European integration, claimed Judt. Nobody particularly wanted, but everyone had to buy the ticket. In this sense, some Ukrainians behave quite strangely claiming their European ambitions and desiring to get on the train of European integration without buying a ticket.

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There are some discussions on this matter, but they cannot radically change the situation. After Maidan, image of Ukrainian Jews (namely Ukrainian Jews and not the Jews living in the territory of Ukraine) appeared in the mass consciousness. This should lead to a new format of dialogue and the emergence of books analyzing the massacres of the Second World War.

Are we ready to publish books like the works of Jan Tomasz Gross in Poland?

- It's unavoidable. Who were the last in Europe who confessed in the involvement in the Holocaust? French people. In 1996, France even banned a film, where this topic was raised. In this sense, the starting point was the publication of a book by American historian Robert Paxton, who persuasively proved active French collaboration with the Nazis in the "final solution of the Jewish question." Obviously, it is easier to talk about these touchy things from the far: Gross and Paxton are Americans. I look forward to the emergence of high-quality books written on Ukrainian materials. Omer Bartov, the author of the study "Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine," unfortunately, did not manage to do it.

We need some kind of a trigger - a movie or a book, which will initiate the debate, to which Ukrainian historians, as well as society as a whole, probably are not ready yet. The deeper Ukraine is integrated into Europe, the more  vivid are the Holocaust issues in Ukrainian discourse. Historian Timothy Snyder wrote about it very precisely; he stressed that the present awareness of the Holocaust in Poland became possible after the country joined the European Union. To start such a discussion, the public should feel psychologically secure. In any case, such a discussion is inevitable: not because it is the Jewish question, but because it is Ukrainian matter. A large part of the Holocaust events took place in Ukraine, and this is what makes us part of a global history. If Ukrainians want to think globally, it is the perception of the Holocaust that will help us.

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Will Ukraine be able to avoid the linguistic, ethnic, and cultural cleavages?

- It is believed that there are two models of the nation: the French, political one, and the German model, the ethnic one. In fact, pure form does not exist in any country, all these patterns coexist. The main thing is what unites them. Of course, neither Donbas nor Galicia cannot be the core of such a symbiosis. Although Lviv is changing now: "Freedom" party (Ukrainian radical nationalist party; some political scientists call it far-right) has lost the elections to the city council, to the parliament, and the presidential elections as well. A model with a nucleus in Kyiv or Dnipropetrovsk  would be more efficient. If this model wins, there will be a Dnipropetrovsk-Kyiv-Lviv-axis. Ukraine is a patriotic country, as well as bilingual and pro-European.

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