An article from Israeli paper Haaretz, by Omer Bartov
Saturday 13 October 2007, by Haaretz
Last week’s conference on the Holocaust in Ukraine marked a historical watershed. Over two dozen scholars gathered in Paris to discuss the murder of some 1.5 million Jews. I was fortunate enough to be one of the participants. The conference’s significance derived from the fact that the details of the Jewish genocide in Ukraine are still relatively obscure. Since the fall of the Communist regime, there has been only a very gradual increase in research on what happened in hundreds of communities during World War II. But it was just as important that the meeting was co-hosted by the Sorbonne. This indicated a formal recognition by France’s most prestigious university of the Shoah’s historical significance.
Even more striking was the attendance of Father Patrick Desbois, who has spent the last four years gathering hundreds of testimonies and excavating hundreds of mass graves of Jews in Ukraine. This unlikely combination of a French Roman Catholic priest searching for evidence of local massacres of Jews in a largely Greek Catholic and Orthodox land struck a powerful chord in the media and made a deep impression on those who attended the conference. Finally, along with participants from the United States, Europe and Israel, the meeting also included several Ukrainian scholars.
If anyone is capable of turning the massacre of hundreds of thousands into a positive story, it is Father Desbois. But such a transformation of horror and despair into hope and a celebration of humanity calls for a certain narrowing of vision and a carefully circumscribed set of questions. As Desbois says, he has to "listen to these horrors - without any judgment." Yet my own rich collection of interviews and testimonies has provided me with a more troubling perspective on what happened in those towns that were once populated by several ethnic groups and are now almost exclusively Ukrainian. Especially in the region of Western Ukraine, which once comprised Eastern Galicia, such testimonies have revealed a series of communal massacres in which the vast majority of the inhabitants participated. This is not simply a story of good and bad people. Some gentiles sheltered Jews at one point and denounced them at another. Some of the most active collaborators also hid Jews in their own homes. Hardly anyone was a passive bystander. The killings took place on a town’s main street, in the nearby cemetery and forest, in the local hospital, marketplace and synagogue.
The Ukrainian participants in the conference did not spend much time on this issue. The Holocaust is still a highly controversial episode in Ukraine, and Ukrainians prefer to speak about the rescue of Jews. But in Galicia, the cradle of Ukrainian nationalism and the support base of the country’s Orange Revolution, there is also an active effort against attempts to recall the past. Almost all 500,000 Jews of Eastern Galicia were eradicated during World War II, with massive collaboration by Ukrainian nationalists. As I have documented, what remains of the sites of Jewish life and culture, as well as the sites of their murder, has in part been demolished, in part been converted to other uses, and in part simply left to rot.
But since Ukrainian independence in 1991, a new trend can be observed. Now the heroes of Ukrainian nationalism and liberation, whose memory was suppressed by the Communists, can be resurrected. The fact that they also actively participated in the mass murder of the Jews does not concern their supporters. The former Eastern Galicia is experiencing a memory renaissance. But this is strictly a Ukrainian national memory. As ever more memorials honoring the Ukrainians’ struggle for liberation are erected, the remains of Jewish life are increasingly consigned to oblivion. Cemeteries have become marketplaces, synagogues are used as garbage dumps, mass graves remain unguarded and the bones of the murdered resurface during every thaw. And just as the last remnants of Jewish life and culture disappear, anti-Semitic discourse is back, and the Jews are blamed for all the suffering Ukrainians have endured, from the great famine of the 1930s and the Soviet murder of nationalist heroes all the way to the corruption of post-Communist regimes. This is not a tale of Christian love and reconciliation, but of intentional distortion and erasure. Yet it, too, must be told.
The current political situation in Ukraine does not offer much hope. President Viktor Yushchenko is trying to have the great famine recognized as genocide. Doing so will not only suggest an equivalence between Stalin’s induced catastrophe, which cost the lives of up to six million mostly, but not exclusively, Ukrainian citizens, and the Holocaust. It will also serve to explain anti-Jewish actions in World War II. Nor can one expect much from Prime Minister Viktor Yanukevych, whose anti-nationalist stance is related to his links with the corrupt Soviet-era apparatus and his desire to reestablish Ukraine’s ties with Russia.
One can only hope that Ukraine will learn from the example of Poland. The Poles long denied collaboration in the Holocaust and repressed the memory of their country’s large and influential Jewish minority. Yet since the fall of Communism, things have been changing. Poland has discovered that it is far better politically and more profitable commercially to celebrate its multiethnic past than to deny it. But in the meantime, we must act now to stop the erasure of the last vestiges of Jewish culture in Ukraine. Beyond issuing public protests, Jewish communities in Europe, the United States and Israel can help preserve these sites. Ukraine is poor, and small amounts of money will go a long way. There is no time to lose, for the little that is left will soon disappear without a trace.