Do the French see Ukraine as a multicultural country? Galia Ackerman discusses this question

The French writer, historian, journalist, and translator Galia Ackerman, who is also the director of the European Forum for Ukraine, discusses stereotypes of Ukrainian antisemitism, the conflict of memories, and other challenges.

Iryna Slavinska:  Stereotypes have an impact on the perception of Ukraine, not without the influence of Russian propaganda. In your view, does the average French person see Ukraine as a multicultural country?

Galia Ackerman:  I think that generally in France there is too weak an idea of Ukraine to figure out that the representatives of various nations really live there, and that so-called fascists, the Right Sector and the like, are actually an insignificant segment of Ukrainian society and that Ukraine today is not a country of pogroms, as it was regarded at the beginning of the previous century. In short, all this requires greater knowledge, which contemporary French society simply does not possess. At certain times, Ukraine appears on the cutting edge of information, but this happens quite spottily. Yes, there was Chornobyl, then there was the soccer championship. There was the Orange Revolution, the EuroMaidan, the Crimea, the Donbas. But each time it is some kind of relatively brief period. I think that, despite the efforts of the rather active Ukrainian community and its sympathizers to offer a larger image of Ukraine, nevertheless to this day it is simply a terra incognita to a considerable degree. To the Germans, Ukraine is something closer, more familiar; it was a sphere of interest many a time. But France is far away, in all respects.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is it possible to harmonize, reconcile the memories of Ukrainians about the great tragedies: the Holodomor, the Holocaust, the deportation of the Crimean Tatars? And does a conflict of memories generally exist here?

Galia Ackerman:  I think that, of course, every nation has some kind of very great traumas. And for the Ukrainian people, one of the main historical traumas is the Holodomor; that’s the way it is. In principle, the Holodomor, in terms of the scale of the crime, is entirely comparable to the Holocaust. In both cases, several million people were exterminated, brought to death. Why one can negate the other is utterly incomprehensible to me. I think that Ukrainian Jews treat the tragedy of the Holodomor with complete understanding and sympathy. And, presumably, Ukrainians should understand that the extermination of 1.5 million people in their territories with the complicity of some Ukrainians should also be seen as a national trauma. But a horrible thing happened, for which one should not blame the Ukrainians: The entire topic of the Holocaust, as you know, was completely taboo during the Soviet period. People only talked about the destruction of Soviet citizens by the fascists.

Iryna Slavinska:  Today there are quite a few monuments and commemorative plaques proclaiming that in one place or other such-and-such a number of Soviet citizens were killed.

Galia Ackerman: The memory of the separate Jewish tragedy was not cultivated in any way. And much time passed; now it is an old story. Ukraine has begun to deal with its own memory, just like, incidentally, with the Holodomor, only during the post-Soviet period. For example, after Ukraine became independent, there were already very few people who could personally testify to the Holodomor, which took place in the 1930s. So, of course there is a conflict of memories, in the sense that for every ethnic group, “charity begins at home.” This is entirely natural. But I think that this is a question of upbringing, a matter of schooling in order to try to develop a general concept of history in which all these tragedies will occupy their own place.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we talk about civil society, does it make sense to call and regard all these tragedies as Ukrainian tragedies? I am not referring to a certain nation or ethnic group but to citizens of a country.

Galia Ackerman:  For me this would be entirely natural. Whether Ukrainian peasants or Ukrainian Jews, it still took place in Ukraine. It’s a different matter that the very concept of Ukraine as a pseudo-[Soviet] independent republic was, of course, very blurred.

Next, Galia Ackerman and I talk about Babyn Yar, an important place of memory for Ukrainian Jews.

Galia Ackerman:  During the Soviet period Babyn Yar, thanks to Yevtushenko’s poem, became a symbol of the entire Holocaust. Today in Babyn Yar there is absolutely a bizarre competition of memories, because there are probably twenty to thirty different monuments. There are Jews who come, for example, from America, and are outraged: “Why are there monuments here to some sort of gypsies? This is our place.” Although more than 30,000 Jews were shot in Babyn Yar, of course, nevertheless this was a place where during the entire war, during the entire occupation, everyone else was generally shot there also. It is likely that the total number of victims in Babyn Yar may be much larger than the number of Jewish victims alone. Of course, this is vexing, but such is human nature. I don’t know if it is possible to fight this, if it is possible to achieve a completely unified approach. Perhaps the Babyn Yar memorial, which should be built, might reflect fully all the facets of this tragedy.

Iryna Slavinska:  We are continuing the topic of the conflict of memories. Is it possible and worthwhile interpreting Babyn Yar as the site of a tragedy of the Jewish people exclusively?

Galia Ackerman: It’s true that Babyn Yar is a symbol, but on the other hand, Babyn Yar is 30,000 out of 1.5 million. A much larger number of Jews were killed in other places, and people from the Kyiv ghetto were shot not just in Babyn Yar. If we focus on Babyn Yar, I think that all the killings which took place there should be reflected there. On the one hand, Babyn Yar is a fragment of the Holocaust, it is 30,000 out of 6 million. On the other, Babyn Yar is a place where everyone else was shot. Just like in Auschwitz, except in Auschwitz there was a very large proportion of Jews. But members of the resistance were shot there, as well as Roma; you name them, they were brought there. That’s why even Auschwitz cannot be exclusively a place of memory of the Jewish tragedy.

Iryna Slavinska:  One of the monuments standing in Babyn Yar is a monument to Olena Teliha. When it was unveiled, there was a discussion about possible conflicts of memories.

Galia Ackerman talks about her perception of the figure of Olena Teliha and reflects on the possible causes and consequences of the conflict of memories.

Galia Ackerman: In my opinion, she was an antisemite, who worked for the right-wing, collaborationist press, but at the same time she was a Ukrainian nationalist, and as such she was unacceptable to the Germans; she was shot. You cannot remove the words from a song. If Ukrainian nationalists were also shot by the Germans, it is kind of difficult to accuse all of them of being fascists. I think that if this Babyn Yar memorial complex reflected all the components of those people who were killed, this would reflect to a much larger degree the reality of Ukraine than a place of exclusively Jewish memory. I don’t know whether the Institute of National Remembrance should do this concretely; in part, this is exactly what it was created to do. But in general, I think that this is an issue of public debates and some kind of consensus among historians. In fact, it is a question of immense importance.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is the name Babyn Yar recognizable in France?

Galia Ackerman: I think for Jews, yes. Maybe also to a certain part of the intelligentsia. But to the average French person? I don’t think so. I think that, where the average French person is concerned, this whole topic emerged relatively recently; it is also connected with the fact that the entire history was concealed during the Soviet period. Then films appeared, not always positive, so to speak, about Ukrainians. But on the whole, I’m not sure that the average French person knows what this is about, where it happened, how many people were killed that way. This is all because things were not called by their proper names in time. At the end of the war, when Ehrenburg and Grossman wanted to publish their Black Book, it was banned. I think that we were just very late. Now, unfortunately, this is an old story, and in the intervening years many myths have appeared, many incorrect notions. Now, it may be possible to interest Ukrainian society somehow in this topic, but in the West, I think that this is now the distant past on which so many other, more recent, tragedies have been layered, beginning with the genocide in Rwanda, for example, the war in Syria. You understand that there is also a kind of competition of memory about various atrocities. Since that time, far too much has been piled on Europe, and since then it has been difficult to elicit sympathy or even bigger interest simply because this was a long time ago, and ever since then a lot has happened. That’s what I would say.

Iryna Slavinska:  Has the study of the “Holocaust by bullets” influenced the formation of a stereotype of certain nations’ antisemitism—Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarusians, and others?

Galia Ackerman: I think that even though the Lithuanians and Latvians took a completely active part in these shootings, the issue is about much smaller figures. These are small countries and, accordingly, there were a lot fewer Jews there. Belarus is never talked about in connection with this, even though the Belarusians did not conduct themselves any better than others. It is simply because Belarus—and there is this stereotype—is a martyr-country, where every fourth inhabitant was killed, where every second male was killed; a country torn to pieces. In short, the fact that there were nationalistic, anti-Soviet guerrillas, just like in Ukraine, that there was a western Belarus which was also forcibly annexed in the very same way, and that the Belarusians also served—all this together formed a positive, martyr-like image of the Belarusians. As regards the Ukrainians, there were stereotypes that date back mainly to the Civil War, but also to the wave of pogroms in the tsarist era. There were no Jews in Russia, which means that the biggest concentration was in Ukraine. Thus, this hundred-year-old stereotype has mainly lingered, even among Jews who emigrated after the pogroms to America. Although the pogroms during the tsarist period were initiated by the Okhrana [secret police force of the Russian Empire—Trans.], by corporals, Russian organizations, and during the Civil War, of course, there were pogromists on all sides, there were a lot of them in the White army, too, but in the White army there were not that many Ukrainians, very few. Nevertheless, the stereotype of a pogromist Ukraine remains, and the case of Sholom Schwartzbard, who killed [Symon] Petliura and was acquitted, contributed to the dissemination of this stereotype. So, strictly speaking, what happened during the Second World War was layered on top of another stereotype. And in this sense, it is much more difficult to overcome.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we’re talking about historians in France who are studying the Holocaust, what do they know about Babyn Yar?

Galia Ackerman: Still and all, this is a site of mass shootings; a place that, I repeat, became extraordinarily popular thanks to Yevtushenko’s poem. It had explosive power in its time. I think that Yevtushenko’s poem was read in France, that it was first heard in the Soviet Union and somehow it spread here. But actually, the entire memory of the Holocaust is generally very symbolic and often does not correspond to the real figures. For example, everyone talks about Auschwitz, which, of course, was an extermination camp. There were people who survived Auschwitz, including my mother-in-law. And there were extermination camps, like Belzec, but this site did not become symbolic. There were also several other horrible extermination camps in which there were generally no survivors. But somehow, they did not enter historical memory. Historians know about them, naturally, but there is no mass pilgrimage there, while there is such pilgrimage to Auschwitz. I remember when we arrived in Cracow. The driver is taking us in a taxi from the airport to a hotel, and all of a sudden, he says: “Don’t you want to stop by Auschwitz?” It turns out that it is a tourist attraction today. You have Auschwitz and you have the salt mines, two tourist attractions. The third is the Jewish quarters, where there are no more Jews today, where there are only Poles, who work as klezmer musicians, waiters, they prepare Jewish foods, preserve Jewish synagogues, and the like. In other words, historical memory and its destinies are quite fantastic.

Next, we talk about possible places of memory in Paris, for example, the Vélodrome d’Hiver. Is this a recognizable location?

Galia Ackerman: It is not a place of pilgrimage, but commemorative events are held there. It did not become a place of pilgrimage. I should say that in many ways rescuing the drowning is a matter for the drowning themselves. For example, if you walk down the streets of Paris today, you will see that there is a memorial plaque on every school; occasionally with a small bouquet attached. It is written there that such-and-such a number of children were taken from this school because they were Jews. These plaques appeared comparatively recently, ten years ago, thanks to the existence of a rather active association of Jews who pushed all that through. Thanks to their efforts, there is a plaque in every place from where Jewish children were taken away. But this is dealt with by a specific Jewish organization. Of course, the authorities assisted them, but it was not an initiative of the authorities; it was a civic initiative. I think that in Ukraine, instead of accusing people of fascism, Jewish organizations could pursue the perpetuation of memory. This would be a very important factor. I will give you a concrete example. Maybe you have heard that I was occupied a lot with Chornobyl. Two or three times I was at the Chornobyl cemetery, where Jews are buried. This is an old Jewish cemetery that existed, perhaps, even until the Second World War. Today it is in a terrible state. Most of the graves are already overgrown. You walk over bumps and realize that you’re walking on top of graves. And there is a certain number of gravestones that are still standing; some are still fenced in; some are already lying on the ground. There is one monument: on this spot quite a few people were shot; the Jewish collective farm Novaia zhizn [New Life] was there. They were brought there, right to the cemetery; a trench was dug, around a thousand people were shot. This is a Soviet monument, where it is written that here lie Soviet citizens… But later this same text was written in Hebrew. But now, ahead of the thirtieth anniversary of the tragedy, they tried somehow to paint everything (Chornobyl is gradually turning into Disneyland). And this monument—a slab of concrete with a recess—was painted white; now it is impossible to read anything. I have older photographs, that’s why I know what is written there.

In short, I believe that cleaning up Jewish cemeteries is a matter for Jewish organizations in Ukraine. This is also part of memory. And not just cleaning up Babyn Yar but all the places where Jews were shot. Who is going to do this? This is a matter for the Jews. There is still quite a large community. Instead of fighting, people should occupy themselves with this Jewish tradition.

This program is made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian and the Russian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger
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