Hitler killed the Jews of Ukraine, and Stalin killed the memory of them: Anatoly Podolsky

Why is it important to preserve historical and cultural memory, and was this out of the question during Soviet times?

Our guest on today's episode of the Encounters program, devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations, is Anatoly Podolsky, director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies. He holds the degree of Candidate of Historical Sciences and is a leading researcher at the Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies, the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: This is not the first time I raise this topic in the Encounters program. This question troubles me a lot, and I hope we will shed light on it during our conversation. I am interested in methods and mechanisms, namely the methods we should employ in order to preserve our traumatic historical memory. We understand that right now, we are acquiring a trauma that will require very high-quality reflections and impressions in the future. Certain parallels are being drawn with the Holocaust. Since the Encounters program is devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations, I will start by formulating my question this way. In the Soviet Union, the Holocaust was hushed up. Even though the topic was supposedly not banned, it did not surface for some reason. So, how was this topic formulated in the Soviet Union, and how was it articulated worldwide?

Anatoly Podolsky: You have practically answered your own question. What is happening now is very important. Russian aggression against us is generally calling into question the teaching of World War II history, particularly the history of the Holocaust. We can no longer teach and learn it as we had been doing before 24 February. We are fated to draw allusions, associations, and reliable comparisons between the crimes of communism and National Socialism and the current crimes of the Russian Federation.

In the USSR, the Holocaust topic was passed over in silence, as were topics related to the Ukrainian national movement, the Holodomor, prisoners of war, and forced laborers. It was convenient for the Soviet empire to talk only about heroism, while the people and the sufferings and grief of civilians did not interest the communist regime. We are now suffering from all these empires and regimes because we did not deal with the difficult memory of the past. These regimes were not interested in the value of human life. In the USSR, peaceful Soviet citizens were commemorated, while the fate of the Jews was not singled out, even though the Nazis killed them only because they were Jews. The National-Socialist antisemitic policy of Hitler and the Third Reich prevailed. For twelve years, it was the cornerstone of Nazi ideology. And these people [Jews] were doomed only because they were alive.

Jews in the USSR

Anatoly Podolsky: That is how they were denoted in the USSR: as "peaceful Soviet citizens." The fate of the Jews was not singled out. In the Soviet Union, they preferred not to talk about everything the Jews had lived through. Why? Because what is important for an empire is not the fate of some communities but anti-human slogans. They may be formulated to sound like concern for people, but they are lies nonetheless. In fact, lies, the merging of GB [State Security] with the criminal underworld, and contempt for human life are all features of totalitarian states. Discussing the specific fate of the Jews and sympathizing with them was not on the Soviet agenda.

After the Second World War, Stalin expected to build a bastion of socialism — terrible, Stalinist socialism — in the Middle East. Those who created the State of Israel after the Second World War were, in many regards, socialists and social democrats. But they were not criminals and murderers. They were not supporters of the GULAG. That is why Israel did not become the country that Stalin thought it would. And this is one of the causes of antisemitism in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Antisemitism continued during the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras; over time, the national traits of the victims were eradicated. But the world remembered. The Jews saved in the Ukrainian territories ended up in North America. To this day, they have been sharing their recollections about the Holocaust. Our center has a library of memoirs about the Holocaust, where we translate from various languages into Ukrainian the memoirs of people who lived here and survived.

The Soviet Union, like Putin today, really liked camps. Why are we fighting today? We do not want a return to the concentration camp. And for me, as a historian, a citizen of Ukraine, and a Jew, the present-day Russian Federation is one entire GULAG. It is the end of life. And we do not wish to return to this end of life. Take Poland, for example. Even though Poland was in the socialist camp, there it was not possible to hush up the killings of ten or more percent of the population — three million Polish Jews. Even in socialist Poland, memorials were created, and people wrote and thought about this without taking notice of Moscow — not to mention research in the West: the United States and Canada. The Holocaust topic was wide open.

The present-day Russian Federation is one whole GULAG. It is the end of life. And we do not wish to return to this end of life. That is why we are fighting.

Until the collapse of the USSR — this horrible country that, in the form of the Russian Federation, still gives us no peace — students of the history of the Jews during the Second World War had no access to the local archives. The study of Ukrainian Jewry began only once Ukraine attained sovereignty. 

Can the crimes of the Soviet government be compared to the crimes of the Nazi regime?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Hence the lucid understanding of what the Soviet authorities did for Jewish-Ukrainian relations and how they influenced them. In this context, can the crimes of the Soviet government be compared to the crimes of the Nazi regime? 

Anatoly Podolsky: Yes, in many contexts. Hitler was Stalin's pupil. The camps in Siberia — the inhumane GULAG camps — were there before Buchenwald and Dachau. The communists began depriving people of liberty, freedom, and life earlier than the Nazis. But in the case of the Holocaust, this is too complicated. Like the Nazi regime, the Stalinist regime could not care less about Jewish lives. But the Nazi regime definitely set itself the task of physically destroying an entire people only because of who they were. Jewish culture, sympathy, humaneness, care, and empathy — Hitler detested these things. Meanwhile, the carriers of these things were the Jewish communities: the Jews of Germany and the Jews of the European countries. That is why the goal was to destroy the carriers of this complex culture. Stalin had no such task. He was indifferent to Ukrainians, Poles, Jews, and others.

We have the following recollections, for example. When the Red Army entered and occupied the territories of eastern Poland, that is, western Ukraine, they deported several tens of thousands of people regarded as disloyal by the Soviet government to Siberia, particularly members of the Polish and Jewish intelligentsias. Jews who ended up in Siberia suffered intense humiliation, but many survived. They learned later that their neighbors in Berezhany, Zhovkva, Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk [Ukraine] had been sent to Belzec and killed in the ghettos. It turns out that the utterly pitiless deportation to Siberia saved them from being killed in the gas chambers of Belzec.

The memory of the people killed by Nazism was destroyed by communism. Hitler killed the Jews of Ukraine, and Stalin killed the memory of them.

The communist regime bears responsibility for the Holocaust. From 1939 to 1941, the National Socialists committed crimes against Jewish people in Poland, Austria, and Germany. During these two years, the Soviet Union and Germany were allies in accordance with the nefarious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And for two years, the communist regime of the USSR hushed up the Nazis' crimes against the Jews. That is why Ukrainian Jews did not know what was happening with their fellow Jews in Poland or Germany. That is why they did not imagine what was coming. And that is why there is blame — absolutely.

Is the history of the Jews the history of Ukrainians?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Why is the history of Ukrainian Jews the history of us, Ukrainians?

Anatoly Podolsky: This question began to be put forward once we became independent. It is clear to young people, to those defending Ukraine at the front — ethnic Ukrainians, Jews, and Russians. They are citizens of Ukraine, for whom Ukraine is their motherland, and Ukrainian culture is a value. For the past twenty years, our center has been conducting educational activities [to overcome] the Soviet legacy: It was convenient for the empire when people used hatred, stereotypes, and superstitions in relation to another community. Ukraine and its intellectuals have been successfully fighting against this for thirty years. When we examine the fate of the Jews not as their history but as a component of our history, this is the right thing to do. The Holocaust is not Jewish history but the history of Ukraine, the history of Ukrainian Jews — citizens of Ukraine — who are part of our cultural space. Not perceiving Others as outsiders is what I champion.

Russia has been striking us for eight years and eight months, and we are defending ourselves and striking back. These last eight-nine months reveal that many communities and people are giving their lives for Ukraine. Right now, there are many Jews at the front, too. They are defending Ukraine with Ukrainian flags and in Ukrainian army uniforms. People who grew up in Kyiv and Kharkiv are returning from Israel to defend their motherland. Therefore, we understand that the horrors of the Holodomor, the GULAG, and the Holocaust are not someone else's history — it is our history.

Many Jewish cultural and religious values originated in the Ukrainian lands. Hasidism, a well-known Jewish movement, was born in the land of Ukraine. The Yiddish language, Zionism, the Jewish national movement, and the shtetl phenomenon also have Ukrainian roots. And today, Jews, mostly young people, are defending Ukraine.

I know many stories about Jews who registered their children as Russians. Parents initiated the assimilation of their own children so that they could survive. They welcomed mixed marriages in order to conceal their ethnic roots. Children were separated from their language. They knew nothing. They grew up to be educated engineers, doctors, and lawyers — not Jewish but Soviet.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Is assimilation possible in and of itself? Is this a result of colonial policies pursued by a state?

Anatoly Podolsky: It’s obvious to me that this is a result of colonial policies. The example of the varied destinies of the Jews in postwar Soviet Ukraine and the thirty-one years of our sovereignty is illustrative. The Soviet system created the conditions [for assimilation] and spurred people to assimilate. I have many examples of Jewish families in Kyiv, whom I know personally — and not just in Kyiv but also in the Zhytomyr and Volyn regions and Galicia. These families registered their children as Russians, very rarely as Ukrainians. This was after 1945, when Auschwitz and the Holocaust had wreaked terror and when the communist and National Socialist totalitarianisms had inflicted great harm on the Jews. The people who survived the ghettos and camps welcomed mixed marriages and made a special point of asking that the children born to them be registered as Russians. Even the Jewish members of such families begged for this. Because [Jews] had no prospects. Well-known Jewish writers in Ukraine isolated their children from the Yiddish language. They grew up to be educated Soviet engineers, doctors, and lawyers. And when these parents died at the age of ninety, they left behind vast Jewish libraries.

One example I know of is the well-known Jewish writer Hryhorii Polyanker [Grigorii Polianker], who died twenty-five years ago. His son, Aleksandr, a Soviet engineer, said: "Take away the books." I said: "But this is your father's immense literary legacy!" He replied [in Russian]: "It says nothing to me. See, I read the books by Pushkin, I like them. And about airplane construction — I'm an engineer. But for me, all this is worthless scraps of paper." [He did not know Yiddish.] He was the son of a writer who was approved by the Soviet authorities, the winner of awards, who was not forbidden to write in Yiddish. He lived in the Rolit House of Writers at 68 Bohdan Khmelnytsky Street [in Kyiv]. And here was his son calling his father's legacy "worthless scraps of paper." This is what colonial heritage is.

Jews had no prospects during the Soviet period. That is why they had to assimilate as much as possible.

It was precisely after 1991 that this [Jewish] culture began to return and when Jewish poets, such as Hryhorii Falkovych, Yosyp Torchynsky, and Moisei Fishbein, started writing poems. Jews themselves were afraid to attend Yiddish and Hebrew language courses. They thought: "How? This is forbidden." At the outset, they had no faith. In other words, assimilation is prompted by a totalitarian-dictatorial government. Today, the Jews of Ukraine enjoy the absolute opportunity to preserve their traditions, which they did not have during the Soviet period.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Is memory policy effective when carried out through such channels as films and TV series? And if so, how should we nurture it?

Anatoly Podolsky: That is correct. A large stratum of contemporary Ukrainian literature devotes attention to the Ukrainian-Jewish topic. There are excellent translations — of Aharon Appelfeld's inestimable novel Katerina, about a Ukrainian woman who protected Jews. The wonderful books of Sofia Andrukhovych have appeared, and generally, a lot of contemporary literature; unfortunately, it is not read a lot. But people watch films, and they can be more powerful. I would recommend the impressive film Pam'iatai [Remember, 1990–1991] by the Ukrainian director Volodymyr Savelyev, based on a novel by Anatoliy Dimarov. It is to the credit of the Dovzhenko Center that the public saw this film. It is not a Soviet film but a real one; a film about Ukrainian-Jewish culture. It tells the story of a Jewish family that, in escaping from the Nazis, ended up in Poltava oblast. Then came the occupiers. Horror. The film portrays the depth of the Jewish calamity. As far as the history of the Holocaust is concerned, there are powerful films out there today: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Son of Saul, etc. In fact, the library of films about the Holocaust is enormous. Before watching, you must read. Books are much more powerful, in my opinion.

The Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies has been in operation for twenty years. We founded the series Library of Holocaust Memoirs in 2012 and have translated the memoirs of Ukrainian Jews who survived the Holocaust. For example, we recently translated Clara Kramer's fascinating book Clara's War [Ukr. Viina Klary] about a Jewish woman in Zhovkva who was saved, despite the horrors of the time. For eighteen months, a Polish-Ukrainian family hid Clara and three Jewish families (a total of eighteen people). This is the historical context. In Zhovkva, there were approximately 10,000 Jews, several hundred of whom may have survived. Five thousand were deported to Belzec, and the rest were killed during operations carried out in 1942. We translated the book from English and launched the book in Zhovkva. Such things force us to think about how things really were.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk 

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