The Shoah in Ukraine: Truth and Friendship

philippe de lara

28.03.2016

Philippe de Lara

Summary: The Shoah in Ukraine had specific features that have branded and were branded by the millennial relations between Jews and Ukrainians. This long history bears great obstacles as well as great potentials to a shared narrative between the two people. I would like to assess them under three headings. 1) Thepervasive nature of lies and legends create a special difficulties for the recovery of such a shared narrative, difficulties which are far beyond the average pattern of divided memories. The memory of huge and tragic events is plagued by denial, censorshipand legends at a very deep and global level. 2) The passage to the assessment of facts and historical understanding lacks hinges to work properly. Elucidating the “hinge” metaphor may prove useful to open this passage to an accurate and fair memory. 3) The memory of Jewish Ukrainians relationship are full of particular and sometimes unique stories, how to make sense of them in connections with stereotypes and general beliefs, true or false? What are stereotypes and how to deal with them, and make sense of the particular to get a sounder “big picture”? 4) I’ll conclude with some reflections on the ethical conditions for the removalof the obstacles described.

° ° °

The history of Jews in Ukraine is a major casualty of the ban on Ukraine’s history in Soviet times. Legends and stereotypes on Ukrainian anti-Semitism are a plague probably as painful as the denial of the Holodomor. They rely in fact on a twisted and darkened narrative of the paroxystic period of 1939-1944, and on the unjustified generalization of this period to all modern history. Yet, the relationship along centuries between Jews and Ukrainians is a crucial dimension of the national narrative and, I dare to say, of the European narrative. To free the history of genocides in the XXth century from prejudices and legends is essential to the building of a shared history, beyond solitary memories.

I- The majority of the “citizens” of the Yiddishlandlived on the territory of Ukraine today.[1] This world has been destroyed. Is it doomed to oblivion? And Ukraine doomed to be guilty of the crime and of the oblivion, as if the Ukrainians and not the Nazis (for the crime), then the Ukrainian and not the Soviets (for the oblivion) were the perpetrators?

Making the Ukrainians the main perpetratorsamounts to a huge injustice, but it reveals also a genuine complication: the crime happened for the most part on the spot, in the midst of Ukrainian society so to speak, and not in the secrecy of extermination facilities, far away from the living space of the victims. This makes the Ukrainian theatre of the Holocaust an unprecedented drama. The characters of theCriminal, of the Collaborator, of the Bystander, and of the Righteous take an unprecedented intensity, they are so to speak multiplied by extreme conditions, extreme violence and extreme risk on the spot. Nothing is remotely comparable in what experienced the French, the Dutch, even the Poles. Furthermore, this history, so red-hot that it is difficult to catch it without burning oneself, is also a history censored in Soviet times, more heavily in Ukraine than everywhere else in the Soviet empire.[2]The censorship iseven more disastrous since being the site of the crime creates special responsibilities, guilt, questions, as well as exceptional heroic commitments and heavy traumas, disproportionate to what happened in the countries where the Final Solution consisted in persecutions, deportations, the murder itself being remote.

The burden of being present on the crime scene and the burden of forbidden history are both obstacles to a shared memory, of a common narrative. The Ukrainian collective memory must face the fact of radical closeness, with all its consequences in matter of involvement if not complicity, as well ascompassion and heroism. In paroxysmal situations — and such were the Nazi occupation and the Holocaust in Ukraine —, the condition of ordinary life, of common decency are not only altered but destroyed, the good and the evil in human behaviour, righteousness and malignity are dramatically enhanced. Two (and even three in the West) occupations banalized violence and created a dislocation of moral standards to an extent one cannot easily figure out. The paroxysm consists in the fact that the least act of charity is a life and death hazard, that the least act of indifference is abject or at least may have lethal consequences. In Ukraine, the Nazi moral breakdown of society came upona Soviet moral breakdown: a world of suspicion, where every one is forced to inform on every one. The least compromise — to take a job in the police to avoid work deportation in Germany — can lead you to the most ugly criminal complicity. All the reactions of the people to the persecution against Jews are overdetermined by fear. AharonAppelfeld, Mariana’s bedroom (2006) expresses such a predicament in a very sensitive way. It tells the story of a Jewish boy hidden by a prostitute (a former schoolmate and friend of his mother) during the occupation in Galicia. The boy is kept hidden because anyone could betray him. Fear is ubiquitous in every attitude towards Jews: in Mariana, selflessly devoted to the boy, in the concierge, a fierce anti-Semitic informer, in Victoria, the maid torn between Christian charity and overwhelming fear.

Ukrainians already had a terrible experience of the indignity of mass massacres. Holodomor was not only a dreadful slaughter, it was an ordeal of dehumanization. Hunger drives you mad, makes your body ugly, drives you to inhuman acts. People had to survive not only to mass death but also to the indignity of hunger. This paroxysticbanalization of death and evil has nothing to do with the banality of evil. It is very painful to acknowledge and we should be tolerant with the reactions of running away of some in Ukraine (as in Poland), although these reaction should be criticized and overcame. As for the civil war in Galicia and Volhynia in 1943-44, neither penitence without end, nor claims of total innocence are sustainable. These are not only lies but also unbearable lies.

The burden, the responsibility experienced by the Ukrainians are difficult to understand from a Western point of view. It is impossible to skip it by running away, by an embarrassed silence. Ukrainians have a duty of fair and detailed historiography, of memory and building shared narratives to which they cannot escape. But it is unfair to ask to Ukrainians alone, as the titular nation so to speak, to do this job. The ignorance and legends surrounding the Shoah in Ukraine — and therefore the memory and legacy of the Shoah as such — require a repair, in a mechanical and moral sense, not judicial and penitent of the word. This repair requirement is addressed to every one, including the Jews, as outrageous as it can seem at first sight.

Since independence, Ukrainians took time to face this history, and the memories after the fall of Soviet Union were liberated but so to speak separate.[3] The Soviet legacy imposed forbidden history on Ukraine, but also the concurrence of victims. The latter is indeed as toxic in its Soviet guise of a double black-out on the Holodomor and the Shoah, as its post colonial noisy counterpart in the Western countries, subject to the assaults of relativism and guilt of the White man.

When I first visited Ukraine, I met, thanks to my friend Valentin Omelianchyk,SemyonGluzman. Gluzman, now chairman of the Ukrainian Psychiatric Association, was a figure of the younger generation of dissidence in the Soviet era: in the Seventies, as a young physician, he was sentenced and sent to the Gulag in Perm because he had refused to support psychiatric confinement of dissidents. I asked him, naively and boldly the following question: “What do you think of anti-Semitism among Ukrainian nationalists, especially the members of UPA during and after the war?” He answered: ”I think that without the old prisoners from UPA, I would be dead.” Gulag was an ordeal for political inmates because they suffered bullying and violence by common criminals, and many did not survived. Gluzman found himself with older Ukrainian convicts, UPA soldiers serving long sentences since the years after the war. They took Gluzman under their protection, and saved him. Solidarity among Ukrainians prisoners is well known, both in Nazi and Soviet camps. But whatcould Iinfer fromGluzman’s answer? Is the benevolent solidarity of hard-boiled “banderovitsi” with a young Jew enough to wipe out everything I had heard on Ukrainian Nazi collaborators, and the overt anti-Semitism of some if not many leaders of UPA? This is not only a “complicated issue” as there are many in historiography (e.g. the causes of the First World War), but a painful issue, biased by legends, lies, defensive reactions, partial testimonies without a balanced picture.

II-There is two ways to erase history, to manipulate collective memory. Denial is the most obvious, but not always the most dreadful. There is also what I would like to call the dismantling of history by legends and stereotypes. Legends and stereotypes are inherent to collective memory, but they can become dismantling under certain conditions. This happens when they reach a pervasive level, so that some facts are mentioned, but always in a twisted and partial way, to the effect that the fabric of the string of events and circumstances disappears. This is what happened to the history of pogroms in 1917-1920 in Ukraine: you can know a lot about these pogroms, without knowing much about their perpetrators: the white Armies, the Red Army, the Ukrainian Army, the armed gang led by “hetmans” who did not recognized the Republic’s authority, mobs blinded by the rumours about Jews being all Bolsheviks, Makhno anarchists? The issue is beyond numbers: many men changed their allegiance; many were involved beyond their will in murder or passive complicity. The burst of anti-Semitic violence defied logic. 100 000 people were killed amidst the chaos of several wars in one (civil war, independence war, plundering war) in which Jews had little to do as such. Denikine himself despaired when seeing his forces plundering and slaughtering Jews instead of fighting the Reds.

The situation is the same with collaboration and Jews rescuing during Nazi occupation. Even the best historians of Ukraine are extremely cautious: how many Rigtheous, how many collaborators, perpetrators, and bystanders?[4]

On these issues like some other, history stumbles against what I will call the vertigo of verification. There are conditions of uncertainty about facts beyond which, between lies and ignorance, one cannot be sure of anything, when even the most ascertained beliefs happen to be wrong or even deceiving. In these situation, there are no basic facts — like“Cesar crossed the Rubicon” —which one can rely on to dig out further facts, check and interpret them, since the most granted facts may prove to be legends: for that matter, the most entrenched one is certainly the belief that Simon Petliura is the main responsible for the pogroms of 1919, meanwhile he was among the leaders of the Republic one of the most attached to the friendship and alliance between Ukrainians and Jews, which is saw as the main warrant of the new nation he was building, a civic nation composed of several nationalities, all entitled to equality and autonomy, the four main ones by the constitution (Ukrainians, Jews, Russians, Poles) the other one on an optional basis (Greeks, Czechs, Hungarians, etc.).

Few narratives are as much encumbered by myths, legends, false, unverified or, worse, twisted. How could we rely on what we read, learn? Cartesian doubt is not an available method. If we cannot be sure whether Cesar crossed or not the Rubicon, we cannot be certain of anything regarding the Roman civil war and the end of the Republic, we cannot have any faith in Suetone’s narrative or even in material sources, who could have been forged. By dismissing every information, you throw the baby out with the bathwater, and any thought, any establishment of fact becomes impossible. As Wittgenstein puts it,

“The game of doubting itself presupposes certainty.” On Certainty, § 115.

“That is to say, the questionsthatweraise and ourdoubtsdepend on the factthatsome propositions are exempt fromdoubt, are as itwerelikehinges on whichthoseturn.” § 341.

“If you are not certain of any fact, you cannot be certain of the meaning of your words either.” § 114

It is the work of scholars and witnesses to fill the gaps, to piece together the narrative, to make it right. What does “right narrative” mean here? Making itbalanced? Fair? Thorough? I would rather say global, to give the “big picture” according to this happy English phrase. I am not a historian, my purpose is only to understand better this predicament, where doubts and questions wander out of their hinges, and also to recover some of these hinges, to clear the ground from legends and stereotypes.

III- Stereotypes are not necessarily nasty as are the black legend of Ukrainian nativefierce anti-Semitism, or the cliché of Ukraine’s Jews as traitors serving the Pole or Russian rulers. Some stereotypes are closer to truth, even benevolent, and nevertheless unsatisfying, because they freeze the common life of Jewish and Ukrainian nations, they reduce identities to sociological determinism: Poles are landlords, Ukrainians are peasants, Jews are foremen of the Poles, etc.

Now, Jews and Ukrainians are not “social groups”, determined by their position in a dominant/dominated scheme, they are individuals and living communities, stumbling upon each other in various ways. If I may say so, our understanding of social relationships should not be so Marxist. There is a standard representation of Jews as bound, as a Diaspora, to be oriented towards the dominant group (Poles and Russians) rather than the colonized Ukrainians. However partially true and benevolent (it is a promise of reconciliation of Jews with their Ukrainian brothers once Ukraine recovers its sovereignty), this representation, frequent among Ukrainian and Jewish historians(not to mention those who are both!) goes wrong. The preference of Jews toward empire and great nations rather than small ones is a well known and understandable trend, but it is certainly better matched by Jews friendly states, like the former Habsburg empire or Canada today, rather than anti-Semitic czarist Russia. In any event, it holds fully for urban intelligentsia and much less for countryside lower classes.

If we are to avoidstereotypes, on Ukraine or any subject, we must do it also in our method: that is not to indulge in the fascination for average, great figures, statistics, as if only the common was the only relevant reality. Unique facts can be as socially significant, if not more, and disclose precious ideas on collective consciousness, meanwhileaverage are often no more than stereotypes checked by science. In a former version of this paper, I deal with the character of Ivan Franko, Ukraine’s national writer, helped by a study by YaroslavHrytsak, “A Strange Case of anti-Semitism”. It is precisely because Franko was a great intellectual and political figure that he offers us an illuminating report on what I would like to call Ukraine’s relationship with Jewish society.[5]

Franko writings at different steps of his life are full of statements on Jews and Judaism.These statements are very different, sometimes ambiguous, and displaying what Hrytsak calls a “philo-anti-Semitism”. Interestingly, it is the early socialistFranko who is hostile or let us say negative about Jews, and the latter one, the nationalist, who recovers the brotherly friendship with Jews of his childhood in Drohobych. At every step of his thought, the Jewish question is not for Franko a racial nor religious issue, but a “national” one (Hrytsak). Iwould rather say “political”. Be they considered as alien or friend, in need of assimilation or as a political nation on the same footing as the Ukrainian one, Jews are a nation, a political community, with its various interests, its identity, its political parties. Franko is interested in the relation that a free Ukraine can build with this nation, but beyond politics, there is a genuine curiosity in him. This curiosity for such a strange nation is, I believe, typically Ukrainian. It is a political conception and practice of nations that gives its peculiar colour to the Ukrainian-Jewish conversation.

But what remains of this conversation after the disaster?  There is no more Jewish nation in Europe.

IV- In a recent paper on Galician culture, TarasVoznyak writes: “we shall never be able to have the Poles, the Germans, the Jews or the Czechs back in Galicia, but their cultural legacy must be taken car of. And whose duty should this be if not the current inhabitants of Lviv, Ternopil or Kolomya, since there is no one else? The answer is therefore unequivocal: we are accountable for the Jewish, polish, Austrian cultural legacy in Galicia. There are indeed small national communities, but are not strong enough. Besides, the current inhabitants of Galicia need it in the first place.”

The paroxysm of extermination and the irremediable destruction of the Jewish country make harder the building of a shared memory, but Ukrainian history, including its darkest moments, bears also a rich potential. There is indeed a secret affinity between those two nations who managed during centuries to exist, not to cease to exist as nations, that is as political being aiming at autonomy, even without State and under foreign rulers, even without own territory. Such a conversation is yet not as rich as it could be. Jews and Ukrainians both have their share in this situation. “Our stories are incomplete one without the other”, says the beautiful motto of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. How can we reach a mutual recognition of the Jewish part of Ukrainian history, and of the Ukrainian part of the Jewish history?

It requires from the Jews a duty of historical revision. Courage is needed to figure out and admit the extent of the black legend and of the Soviet forgeries. Everything is to be verified. This does not mean that nothing happened, no pogroms, no collaboration, no opportunistic plunder and denouncing, but the legend distorts even the real. True reparation requires a global history, able to weight every light and every shadow and to cast them in their proper context. Yet, on must begin somewhere. And I believe that the reconsideration of the figures of Bishop Andrei Sheptitsky and Simon Petlura are the inescapable point of departure, the bridgehead.

It requires from the Ukrainians a duty of understanding: acknowledge the uniqueness of the Shoah not despite but thanks to the evils suffered by Ukraine. This uniqueness is based on the “final” scope of the extermination, on its purely ideological ground, but also and foremost on the irremediable destruction of the Jewish land there. This requires tact.

The Jews should measure the injustice of the anti-Semitic legend, the sufferings it provokes, the interests it serves, today as in Soviet times. The Ukrainians must first understand better the radical aspect of the loss, and second face allthe ethical predicament that it happened at home and notably the fact that here as nowhere else, hostile prejudice and political cowardice had often terrible criminal consequences.

Let me conclude by underlining the beautiful junction of two words in Voznyak’s text: duty and need. The duty of Ukrainians to include the Jewish legacy in their national narrative is also a need.


[1]Considering a purelyresidential identification, and leavingaside the complexvariety of national ascription (or non ascription) of people in Galicia and neighbouringregions.

[2]YaroslavHrytsak, oral communication.

[3]See the vicissitudes of Holodomor and Shoah monuments in UKraiensinec 1991.

[4]See for Instance, W. Lower and R. Brandon eds, The Shoah in Ukraine, notably the contribution of Frank Golczewski

[5]YaroslavHrytsak, « A Strange case of Antisemitism », in Omer Bartov&EricWeitzeds, Shatterzone of Empires, 2013.

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