Courage and Fear: The fact that we are not aware of this does not mean it did not happen

On today’s show, we are talking with Ola Hnatiuk about her book Courage and Fear. This work will be of interest to readers who are fascinated by national history as seen through the prism of microhistory. The focus of attention is on life in Lviv during the Second World War and the lives of Lviv intellectuals and professionals who were destined to survive the war—or not. The author, who writes about the Ukrainian, Polish, and Jewish communities, notes that the book was born out of a feeling of dissatisfaction with existing national narratives about the Second World War.

“I would not agree that prior to the Second World War life in Lviv was carefree. Life was wonderful because we were young or because we had not been born yet. We have become accustomed to imagining that paradise is what existed earlier and then the barbarians came. This is not so,” Ola Hnatiuk says. “Lviv comes out of the Second World War maimed. The Jews of Lviv disappear, the Polish community disappears nearly completely. At the same time the Ukrainian community remains—yet does not remain. I am also trying to depict the fate of those Lviv-based Ukrainian intellectuals who remain in the city. This was not an enviable fate,” adds the author of Courage and Fear.

Lviv and the Holocaust. How was this experience survived? “Not everyone was a Righteous Among the Nations. There were both noble individuals and despicable people. But I focus attention precisely on noble people. We already know quite a lot about the general features of villainy. Any kind of assistance that was rendered through someone’s own initiative was illegal and had to be punished. We know very little about the people who were punished because they helped Jews. The fact that we are not aware of this does not mean that it did not happen,” says Ola Hnatiuk.

Read the full text of the conversation below:

Ola Hnatiuk (Source Wikipedia)

Ola Hnatiuk:  In fact, the Ukrainian and Polish editions were not published at the same time. The Ukrainian translation was published before the Polish original. The Polish original is supposed to appear in print in the very near future, possibly within a week. Only advance copies have appeared, and they were launched at the [Lviv Book] Forum. But the first translation was the Ukrainian one. I am delighted by this.

Iryna Slavinska:  Yes, and here too there is definitely a very interesting twist of fate concerning this book. I will ask you about this now. Is your book Courage and Fear aimed at the Polish reader about Ukrainian events?

Ola Hnatiuk:  No, this is not a book for the Polish reader. This is a book for a variety of readers, various…people who are interested in what national history is, how it is attractive and how it is false; for people who are interested in how the fate of their families was shaped, that is, within the dimension of microhistory. It is a history of Lviv during the occupation period, that is, the Second World War, from 1939 to 1944, and, in fact of course, insofar as it is about personal history, it is impossible simply to begin formally on 22 September 1939 and end on 27 July 1944. That is, there is history before that and history after that; the history of various families, various intellectuals—Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish—who were destined to wait out the war in Lviv. To wait it out or not, that is, to perish.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we speak about Lviv in the current Ukrainian perception, it seems to me that certain myths prevail about a happy city where everyone lived in harmony, where there were no problems of discrimination, etc. But at the same time, if you read Courage and Fear, then conflicts within the Polish community, which are invisible to those who were never deeply interested in this, emerge. Here, of course, we are talking about professionals, are we not? Therefore, conflicts among the Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish communities. About those who were engaged in scholarship, or medicine, or other such professions. If we follow this spiral strictly according to the book’s motifs, then prior to the beginning of the war, before 1 September 1939, how did Lviv enter this period, what state was it in, and in what state did it come out [of the war]?

Ola Hnatiuk:  I would not agree at all with the idea that before the onset of the Second World War life in Lviv was wonderfully harmonious and conflict-free.

Iryna Slavinska:  I am talking about a certain myth.

Ola Hnatiuk:  Of course, we always have a tendency to be nostalgic about the past; to believe that in the past—that was life, it was wonderful! It was wonderful because we were young. Or it was wonderful because we were not alive at the time, we had not been born yet. That is, we tend to mythologize something, to imagine that paradise was what existed earlier, but later all sorts of barbarians arrived or murderers came. Well, this is not so. Of course, this is not the case.

I tried to show this Lviv before the Second World War in its discrete parts, embroiled in conflicts, but not in such a conflict that could not by definition be overcome. There were conflicts that could not by definition be overcome—the conflict over territory: Ukrainian Lviv or Polish Lviv? This conflict could not be overcome at all; that is, these were two communities that lay claim to the very same territory, the same symbols that…the symbol that Lviv was as the capital of Galicia. This conflict could not be overcome.

But the various other conflicts—the conflict about the university, the conflict about civic space, about who should be citizens of non-Polish nationality of the Rzeczpospolita—all this could be overcome. It was a question of goodwill or the absence of such goodwill, or, to put it bluntly, ill will.

Ill will was also manifested on one side of the conflict and the other, so this is not…In any conflict there are at least two sides. I try to show that this conflict, which flared up during the Second World War, was considerably larger than two sides. And not three sides, that is those nationalities that were the largest—and in Lviv the Polish community comprises approximately half the population; the Jewish, approximately one-third; and the Ukrainian, a few percent—seventeen, no more. Therefore, the proportions looked like that, and when the Second World War begins, oil is poured on the flames of this conflict, the existing conflict.

In other words, at first this is done by the Soviets, by the Soviet power which arrives and somehow grants privileges to some but oppresses others. Afterwards, the Nazis do absolutely the same thing but even more brutally, even more recklessly. Therefore, in concluding my answer to your question, Lviv comes out of the Second World War maimed. This one-third, the Jewish community of Lviv, the Jews of Lviv, disappears almost completely. The Polish community practically completely disappears or is deported at the beginning of the Second World War—this is a minority, of course, a few percent—or forcibly resettled; forcibly-voluntarily resettled to the territory of communist Poland in 1945–46.

The Ukrainian community remains yet does not remain. It also is severely maimed. The old Lviv intelligentsia was to a great extent forced to abandon their homes, forced to abandon Lviv. Not everyone, of course, a certain proportion. Right now, we cannot say what proportion. Statistics, demography, and the like are needed for this. Some proportion  remained, and I also try to show the fate of those Ukrainian intellectuals of Lviv who remained in Lviv. This fate was unenviable. The so-called new liberation was a regime that was three times more brutal than that first Soviet regime.

Iryna Slavinska:  The subject of collaborationism also emerges in this history. “Work and Cooperation.” This is the title of one of the chapters in the book.

Ola Hnatiuk:  Work or cooperation. This is simply a question. I try not to use the word “collaborationism.”

Iryna Slavinska:  Why?

Ola Hnatiuk:  I believe that this cooperation has many nuances. What overt collaborationism is we can imagine more or less, but there are various nuances, which I tried to indicate in precisely this chapter, between work for an occupying regime and reckless cooperation. Naturally, I could talk about collaborationism exclusively in those cases where the issue is unconditional cooperation. That is, a person who is totally devoted to the occupying regime and along with this s/he brings to the occupying regime a new quality, in the negative sense of this word. In other words, let’s say, through public reports or those directed exclusively at the secret services; cooperation with weapons at hand; this refers to those policemen who take part in destroying a person who is defined as the enemy at a given moment. The most famous story, of course, is the extermination of the Jewish population.

Therefore, of course, I am prepared to call all these things by their proper names. But there is a huge difference between someone who was eventually called a collaborationist by the Soviet government or the Polish government and someone who can truly be recognized by the definition that I have just offered. In fact, after the war the Soviet government regarded as collaborationists everyone who had remained under German occupation. Either real or potential, but in fact for them everyone was…everyone was suspected of collaborationism.

In particular, even such a prominent figure as Mykhailo Rudnytsky. Of half-Jewish background, he was accused of collaborating with the Germans—a total absurdity, of course, and there are no grounds [for this]. The grounds were such that some namesake of his published something in a newspaper, a Ukrainian newspaper that was published in the Generalgouvernement, not even in Lviv but on the territory of this Polish Generalgouvernement. This namesake was enough for Mykhailo Rudnytsky to be identified as a collaborationist. How difficult it was for him to clear himself from this accusation and defend his good name is a separate story…

Iryna Slavinska: We are continuing our discussion of the book Courage and Fear. With me at the Hromadske Radio studio is Ola Hnatiuk. I remind you that the Ukrainian translation of Courage and Fear was published by the Dukh i Litera publishing house. The next subject on which I would like to focus attention in this second part of our conversation is the Holocaust in Lviv. Quite a few pages have been devoted to these events, and they are even interspersed with stories that do not pertain directly to Jewish families. Lviv and the Holocaust: How was this event experienced? Of course, there is the experience of the ghetto, the experience of the pogroms, the experiences of people who managed to leave, the experiences of those who rescued [Jews] and who were Righteous Among the Nations.

Ola Hnatiuk:  It must be remembered that not everyone was Righteous Among the Nations. There were both noble people and despicable people. But I focus attention precisely on those noble figures because we do not know all that much about the baseness, about all those negative pages, but we know quite a lot. We know quite a lot in general outline. In terms of details, we know significantly less. Meanwhile, we know practically nothing about those people who saved [Jews]. They saved Jews at the risk of their own lives. It must be remembered that any help beyond the bounds of these officially established relief committees—I mean the Jewish Judenrat or the Ukrainian Central Committee, or the Commission for Polish Relief—any kind of assistance that was rendered at one’s own initiative was illegal. In other words, at any moment, if it [this assistance] were to be revealed, it would have been punished. And we know very little about those people who died because they had been accused of helping [Jews]. In my book I mention only one such individual, and even then I came across this material accidentally.

But the fact that we are not aware of this does not mean it did not happen. We simply understand that these executions by shooting took place summarily, even without special evidence. It was enough for someone to be caught in the area of the ghetto, a person who did not have the right to be there, and a person who was carrying food there, say, like my grandmother or Mrs. Yaroslava Muzyka, an artist, a famous Lviv artist. There were quite a few people like this, and from this very milieu, the Association of Independent Ukrainian Artists, practically everyone who remained, was involved in such assistance to one degree or another. One person tried somehow to help with food, another tried to help with lodgings, and another found some kind of refuge or ferried [Jews] to a safe place; like a safe place at a given moment at his friend’s, or a distant acquaintance’s, or a completely unknown person’s. That is one question. How many people from this milieu suffered? The situations differed, but no one was shot.

Iryna Slavinska:  Here I would like to say that for me, personally, the book Courage and Fear is very important reading, particularly in the context that this is now a text that can be singled out when the issue is discussions surrounding the myths about Ukrainian anti-Semites, myths about Ukrainians who eagerly welcomed the arrival of the Nazis in Lviv. Did you set yourself this task in general, to deal with these myths, to show them in another light?

Ola Hnatiuk:  First and foremost, I set myself the goal of reviewing the national narrative. Dissatisfaction was the primary intellectual reason for writing this book. I was not satisfied with national narratives—Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish—because they did not perceive one another. When it comes to history writing, when it comes to some personal reminiscences, memoirs, or other ego-documents, that is, documents of a personal nature, I was somehow particularly struck by the notion that the later the document the more it fit into the current or matrix of the national narrative.

Meanwhile, when you look into the none-too-numerous documents of the same personal nature but from the period of the war or immediately after the war, the picture looks very different. And these are very substantial nuances. I was lucky in some cases to find a manuscript and find an edition published up to twenty years later, and they differ fundamentally.

Iryna Slavinska:  Who was the editor? Who excised these things?

Ola Hnatiuk:  Mostly the person him/herself excises, the very author excises; the author him/herself corrects—I would not even call this censorship. A kind of autocorrection takes place under the influence of various factors, but the main factor is this national narrative, the need for a national narrative. In other words, that which fits into this national narrative appears in such a publication. That which does not fit is narrated behind the scenes. That is, in some personal conversations, if you dig deeper, the author will always let something slip, s/he will nevertheless recount [it] if you are lucky enough to speak with him/her.

But in the given case, this was my first goal: To see how this looks, why do these national narratives still and all not see other communities? They treat these communities, in the best case, as neutral persons, but very often as enemies. And, of course, nothing good can be attributed to this Other, who has been assigned this role of enemy. This is precisely how a pogrom against the Jewish population takes place: Because every evil is attributed, and, just imagine, the Bolsheviks, that is, the Soviet government, liquidates prisoners on the territory of Galicia and in Lviv in particular. The mass destruction, the mass shootings of these prisoners takes place between the beginning of the German-Soviet war and the Red Army’s retreat from these territories. And the liquidation of these prisoners is a great shock, a shock to the local population. And the desire for revenge can be understood at such a moment: Your relatives have been killed, and killed in a brutal fashion. Accounts from this period, from early July 1941, are horrific. They are simply horrible. And when something like this is revealed and when German propaganda-inspired baiting of other inhabitants begins, that is, of the Jews above all, but their [Nazis’] helpers, some were for a Ukrainian newspaper, others for some Bavarian. Therefore, the Jews are to blame, of course, and the Poles, who helped and who denounced, etc., etc., are to blame.

Well, such falsehood is blatant, such falsehood is horrible. Nevertheless, it sparked a wave of indignation and pogroms. Absolutely the same method is present in relation to the Polish population. That is, they are incited against both Ukrainians and against Jews. They begin to fear one another, and, at the same time, to be horribly afraid. They attribute impossible things to one another, and, of course, a pogrom takes place. But it cannot be said that this pogrom was carried out exclusively by Ukrainians or that Ukrainians alone rejoiced upon the Germans’ arrival. Not in any case. Everyone but the Jews rejoiced. Because they believed that things could not be worse. It turned out that they could be, but this is not a joke at all.

Iryna Slavinska:  We have one minute left to conclude our conversation. I will pose a question that may be somewhat naively formulated. Is reconciliation possible on the shared field of memory? Can these different national narratives be reconciled with each other?

Ola Hnatiuk: It is impossible to reconcile national narratives. It is possible to go completely to another level, that is, to try and write a transnational history, and I tried this by going downward as much as possible to the level of personal history. Perhaps this is transnational history from a bird’s-eye view, but I think that maybe the next historian will do this. I was not able to.

This program was made possible by the support of the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated by Marta Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.