The Holocaust in Ukraine: The culture of memory is created by society

Anatoly Podolsky is the director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies and holds the degree of Candidate of Historical Sciences. In this installment of Encounters we discuss remembrance, memorials, and enlightenment in the context of studying the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine. Can informal educational practices change the school curriculum dealing with the study of Ukrainian history? How is our memory affected by the fact that commemorative markers dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust in Ukraine are erected first and foremost by Jewish communities? We discuss these and other questions with Anatoly Podolsky. Encounters was created with the support of the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Iryna Slavinska:  Thank you for coming. Let’s start by talking about the work of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies. If I understand correctly, it was recently created and it’s among the few in Ukraine, if not the only one. Please tell us a little about it. How did the research begin? How was this separate institution founded? How does it work now?

Anatoly Podolsky:  Thank you, Iryna. You’re right, from the standpoint of history, it is a very young institution. My colleagues and I founded it in Kyiv in 2002. We have been working for [fifteen] years. In keeping with our statute, we are known as an “All-Ukrainian Civic Scholarly and Educational Organization.” Our mission is inscribed in the statute, and we have functioned like this for thirteen years. We safeguard the memory of the fate of the Ukrainian Jews during the Second World War and the Nazi years in two ways: academic and scholarly research on this subject; and teaching this topic through educational programs and subsidized projects. The fact of the matter is that we find ourselves in the field of non-governmental civic, scholarly, and educational institutions. Thank God this is possible in our country. On the one hand, this is healthy because we are defining the concept of our activities and sustaining memory as part of the history of Ukraine. The fate of Ukraine’s Jews is the fate of Ukraine. Babyn Yar in Kyiv is not the history of Jews, not just the history of Jews. It is the history of Ukraine, the history of the twentieth century, the history of the occupation during the Second World War. A horrible history but part of our shared history, as you said absolutely correctly. This is one side of the picture.

On the other hand, it is difficult. Because as the saying goes, “The squad won’t notice the loss of a fighter.” We, just like our partners—teacher’s organizations and civic institutions that deal with human rights and which teach about tolerance and inter-ethnic relations—are not banned. Yet we are not encouraged. This has been the case under every government. This is also continuing under the present government. We are already used to this, but our target groups are history teachers, students, and scholars. And it is very important that we can take pride in the fact that we have existed for [fifteen] years, that we have a database of our colleagues, which numbers several thousand people who teach in all regions of the country; who teach history, social sciences, cultural, sociological, and political disciplines, and who teach this, in fact, as an integral part of the history of Ukraine.

But it is difficult, as my colleague, the German historian Wilfried Jilge, who tracks Holocaust Studies, including Holocaust Studies in Ukraine, remarks: “You’re doing a really great job, but you, in terms of the government and authorities in your country, are not forbidden, yet not supported.” Whereas prior to 1991 topics like the Holodomor, Stalinist crimes, the Holocaust, or the Ukrainian national-liberation movement were taboo—in fact, banned—since 1991 Ukraine, thank God, has been a sovereign nation for nearly a quarter of a century, and these topics are being developed.

Iryna Slavinska:  On the Center’s website I read that you defended your Candidate’s [Doctoral] thesis in 1996. This was the first dissertation in Ukraine on the history of the Holocaust in the Ukrainian lands. This means that until 1996 this question was not being studied in independent Ukraine? Or was it because no one dared write a dissertation?

Anatoly Podolsky:  You’re right, yes. The topic was “The Nazi Genocide of the Jews of Ukraine, 1941-44, According to Archival Documents” and it was one of the first research studies. I will mention briefly that regional studies emerged after 1991. The first books appeared about the fate of the Jews in Vinnytsia oblast, Transnistria, Berdychiv, the Jews of Kharkiv or Dnipro, the Lviv ghetto, about Babyn Yar. These were done by scholars, Ukrainian historians. But you must understand that post-Soviet tendencies persisted during the first half of the 1990s and to the end of the 1990s. Quite frankly they persist to this day. Mainly in people’s behavior. You know, it was considered peculiar to research questions relating to Jewish Studies or the fate of Ukrainian Jews during the war years. For historians who were raised in Soviet times, this topic was very simple: “They were Soviet citizens, let’s not single out special features.” This was the approach that existed in the 1950s, 1960s, 1980s.

Iryna Slavinska:  By the way, this reminds me of the array of steІae and commemorative markers that can be seen in many Ukrainian cities: “In this place the German-fascist invaders shot peaceful Soviet citizens.”

Anatoly Podolsky:  You just hit the nail on the head, Iryna. And that is when we say “the culture of memory” we mean research, teaching, and memorialization. And monuments reflect the state of a society. Soviet Ukrainian society was silent. This was a conflict, let us say, between family/individual memory and official memory. I remember in my childhood and my youth in the 1970s that there was a conflict. Within my family I knew about such things that on the outside I could not get either in school or at the institute. I could not obtain information and knowledge from anywhere. It was a kind of double standard, where people preserved these things within the family but outside, nothing. There was no discussion about the exceptional fate of the Jews. It truly was exceptional, and this specific feature was tragically determined by Nazi ideology and practice, and was carried into the Ukrainian lands with the occupation of Ukraine.

Returning to the 1990s, there is another point. There were very few dissertations. There are few of them to this day. Our center has—this is our professional mission, we monitor scholarly research on this topic—literature. We have a library, and we are collecting this.  And I will tell you that today there are fewer than twelve or thirteen dissertations devoted to Ukrainian Jewry during the war years and the occupation.

Iryna Slavinska:  Per year or in total?

Anatoly Podolsky:  The total in Ukraine over twenty-three years. My colleague Dieter Pohl, a German historian who deals with this…who learned Ukrainian and Russian and studies documents here, said that in fact this is nothing.

Our center represents informal education. For example, we carry out joint projects with the Nova Doba History Teachers Association, or the program “We Understand Human Rights,” or the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine. Thank God there is a sector of civic and scholarly educational institutions that collaborate with us. But those who attend our seminars and the readers of our books and manuals are methodologists, history teachers, associates of institutes of post-graduate education. This is a collaboration with formal and informal education, and it has resulted in our having courses today.

For example, one of the Center’s projects that we are very proud of is a competition for schoolchildren called “The History of the Holocaust Years.” The competition is two years older than our Center. The competition was launched in 2000–2001 on the initiative of civic institutions, and today the Center has taken over major responsibility for it. We seek sponsors every year. Young people who are fifteen or sixteen years old submit their work.

Iryna Slavinska:  This is like MAN, the Small Academy of Sciences?

Anatoly Podolsky:  Absolutely. Later, after our competition, such works end up at the MAN. Thus, there is collaboration with the MAN, but the main thing is that these are the pupils of those teachers who completed our summer schools or seminars. We have created a network. We have established a continuity between our projects. There is an annual seminar, there’s a summer school, and afterwards teachers receive our bulletins and journals, and then they train pupils.

The value of these works lies in the fact that they are regional histories. They are local. When these young people gather oral, eyewitness testimonies from people who remember, and they work with archives, and work with oral history, the results are such valuable works that, I must tell you, four years ago we issued a collection of children’s essays in full. Not excerpts. There was a criteria of awards for first, second, and third prize. There were approximately twenty essays by schoolchildren. These people are twenty-five years old today. We selected these works from 2005 to 2010, and are planning to do the same again. And these people saw their first publications in print. I will tell you that this school work is valuable to scholars. This is a blend of a collection of documents from German and Soviet archives and oral history.

Iryna Slavinska:  In this first part of our talk we began discussing various informal initiatives, particularly the educational, and ways to raise public awareness and encourage ordinary Ukrainian citizens—children and those slightly older—to study their own history, both local and more global. I would like to continue this conversation with a focus on the impact of these informal initiatives on formal work. Does the educational research you spoke about during the first part have an impact, for example, on the history curriculum in Ukrainian schools?

Anatoly Podolsky:  Impact—that’s the whole point. Both during the period of that criminal Yanukovych regime that we lived through and which we removed thanks to the public—thanks to the people, thanks to all of us—and the period from 2010 to 2014, the situation was such that I sensed, from the work of our projects and our center—I sensed this very keenly—that there are two parallel worlds or lives. Ukrainian society and the Ukrainian government. Right now I don’t know to what extent we will be making points of contact, and creating things. I don’t know. But in those days we were working and holding our seminars not thanks to those government institutions belonging to the Ministry of Education. On the contrary. That is, opposition gave us strength. And in those days many teachers established courses and taught this subject as an optional course thanks to their participation in our projects. Today we have examples in many cities and in Kyiv, especially in high schools and lyceums with a humanistic approach who have more time, where our colleagues are teaching specialized courses on the “History of the Holocaust in Ukraine.” This is the result of cooperation with us. We supplied the literature and curricula. We fostered the creation of this specialized course. That’s the position.

What are some results right now? One result first of all is the network of people. Above all teachers who are beginning to work with pupils, preparing them for the school competition. Teachers who have begun reflecting, who… This is very difficult! The Holocaust topic is in textbooks, it is there. But one of my colleagues, Yurii Komarov, a history teacher in Kyiv with whom I work a lot, once said: “This is once again an absolutely post-Soviet approach, when a topic is not forbidden, but realistically there is no time to teach it.” That is why teachers who have not become interested on their own and have not attended the programs at our Center or other institutions in Ukraine that also deal with this topic, if they have not encountered such manifestations of informal education as learning, summer courses, or competitions, then they give up and move on.

That is why when there are six teaching hours for the Second World War on the territory of Ukraine, when there is a lesson on the “Nazi Occupation Regime,” and there are so many social and national groups in Ukraine that ought to be mentioned—Ostarbeiter, prisoners of war, those who were under the occupation, the Roma with their fate—it’s very complicated. You have to place into context the fate of people under the occupation and relations between Jews and non-Jews, not just Ukrainian-Jewish, Russian-Jewish, Polish-Jewish relations, relations between people in extreme circumstances, where the authorities placed these people outside the circle of life. Where only by virtue of having been born of a Jewish woman a person was condemned to persecution and death by the Nazi occupation regime. And how neighbors behaved.

The history of the Holocaust is not only the history of Jewish communities. It is the history of people, of relations between Jews and non-Jews, the history of neighbors. It is postwar history. How people lived afterwards with the memory of this. This is the entire context. To openly tell people who are fifteen to sixteen years old today that Jews were not guests on Ukrainian land. The Jews of Ukraine are part of Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian history. This is complex. You must have motivation. You must have knowledge.

Iryna Slavinska:  And the second, more global, question is a continuation of this first question, that is, the possible paths of cooperation with the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. Since the EuroMaidan, it seems that the new staffers at this institution have some sort of intention to expand the narrative of the Second World War. At least this year they are speaking for the first time about the various wars in which Ukrainians took part in the context of the Second World War. Is there any place in this conversation for the experience of the Holocaust in Ukraine?

Anatoly Podolsky:  In the last ten years the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance has been a conundrum for our Center and other colleagues who study the Second World War. The fact of the matter is that it was [President Victor] Yushchenko’s intention during his term in power to create in 2006, in fact ten years ago, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance on the model of Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance. You know, very many people took the Polish Institute of National Remembrance as their model. And this is important. This was truly the first time that there had to be such an institution that takes responsibility for collecting materials, proposing a message for society about how to treat that conflictual, complex, ambiguous past and relations among people in the extreme conditions of the Nazi occupation, in the conditions of the communist regime. And this was serious.

But the issue was complex, and I realized during the first period, say from 2006 to 2010, when Ihor Yukhnovsky and Professor Verstyuk were there, when the young [Volodymyr] Viatrovych (and he is still not very old yet) worked there also at the time, that there were cardinal, or mainstream, directions in the work of the UINL. The issue was about commemorating the victims of the Holodomor. It was about studying the insurgent Ukrainian national movement during the period of the Second World War. But it was odd when you are called the Institute of National Remembrance and when we say…if Ukrainian intellectuals say today that Ukraine is not mono-national, when we talk about the past, that’s the Jewish profile, the Polish profile, the Crimean-Tatar one, the Russian one, the Ukrainian profile—any kind—it is a component. They made contributions to Ukrainian culture. This has been written about by many of our intellectuals outside Ukraine’s borders and here at home; a whole array of surnames of pleasant, educated, thoughtful people. So then we should say that we are also preserving the memory of the Crimean Tatars, of the Jews…. This was declared, but not felt. It was not felt.

Later, in 2010–2014, the period marked by the criminal regime in my country—I have no words to express anything in general because both the topic of the commemoration of the victims of the Holodomor came to a standstill, as did research on the movement. They talked about the Great Patriotic War. Professor [Valerii] Soldatenko was there. I have known him very well for many years, but his views are what they are. And there was absolutely nothing to talk about. While that first group at the institute had at least issued declarations about the Holocaust or the Crimean Tatars, between 2010 and 2014 we have the Soviet style. This does not exist. There are only Soviet civilians. And this was felt, although there was some research. One cannot say otherwise. But we have to be careful here, it was ambiguous. Even under the influence of that government it was understood what the issue was. Nevertheless, we have to look at the research that was done during that period. They were doing something.

And finally, after the Maidan, right now, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance introduced these decommunization laws. There is serious discussion right now, not everything is so simple. But there are young historians at this Institute of National Remembrance with whom I met, and this is very…Oleksandr Zinchenko, and Serhii Hromenko, and Volodymyr Viatrovych. Right now I have very optimistic expectations concerning…. One does not need to explain to these people that Ukrainian Jews are part of the history of Ukraine. And they do not fear to talk about things that… I think that simply by virtue of their generation and education they are professionals, and they understand responsibility.

This is what’s important—to be aware of the responsibility. If you do not feel a sense of responsibility, then strange things happen. But, once again, at the present time cooperation between the UINR and the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies has been sketched out. I hope that something will come of this. Right now it is too early to say anything, but I am very optimistic. This is one locus. Another locus is: Where is that place for the culture of remembrance? One of our books…. You know our Center publishes various study guides and puts out a periodical once a year; twice a year when we find the funds. The journal is an academic one. Our informational bulletin, for example, is called Lessons of the Holocaust. Our journal is called The Holocaust and Modernity: Studies in Ukraine and the World. They are accessible as PDFs on our website. The index of references to our journal is significant; this is since 2005. The first issue came out in 2005. And we have held on for ten years. In better times there were two issues a year; right now, once a year. And Dr. Wendy Lower from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, Dr. Karel Berkhoff from Amsterdam, Dr. Dieter Pohl from Germany, who is a member of the editorial board of our journal, along with Ukrainian historians, are writing not only about the territories of Ukraine but also about Central and Eastern Europe. This is arguably the only scholarly journal. That is the fact of the matter. But how, how to hold on? This journal is not supported by any state institution. This is our journal, we are creating a portfolio of texts, but it is very complicated. It is not the portfolio of texts which is complicated but the financing.

In addition to a journal, we publish translations. As my long-standing colleague, Professor Martin Feller of Drohobych University, who unfortunately is no longer with us, back in 2002 welcomed the founding of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies and said, “Anatoly, you will be publishing manuals, books, journals, and this is good. But if you publish translations of some things that are known throughout the world and which pertain to Ukraine and the fate of the Ukrainian Jews, you will be performing a great service.” And we are sticking to this. We are publishing the memoirs of people who survived. We have created a library of memoirs written by people who survived the Holocaust. Our publications are on the website.

Iryna Slavinska:  Anatoly Podolsky is the director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies and a Candidate of Historical Sciences. We have been talking about studying the history of the Holocaust and popularizing the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine, this tragic, shared page of Ukrainian history.

Is there a space of memory? We have already broached this subject in one sentence. Is there a place of memory with regard to the Holocaust in Ukraine?

Аnatoly Podolsky:  We translated a book that is sparking commentaries, causing exasperation, but which we must discuss. In 2010 we translated the American historian Omer Bartov’s book Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine. He writes about conflicts of memory. He writes that in the lands of western Ukraine after 1991 the memory of the heroes of the Ukrainian national liberation movement began to be honored, and people began talking about Holocaust victims. But we have to talk about what exists. We have to speak about conflicts of memory because a proportion of the representatives of the right-radical Ukrainian national liberation movement, particularly Bandera’s OUN during a certain period in 1941, the beginning of 1942, took part in the murder of Jews in Ukraine. We must simply state this. We should not extrapolate this onto the present day. We should not accuse anyone. We have to say this. This is a reconciliation with the past. We have to state that this happened, and this was how it was. It is complicated, but it is necessary to do this. Along with this we have to talk about the Ukrainian Righteous, who saved Jews.

About places of memory. After twenty-three, twenty-four years of, thank God, Ukrainian sovereignty, there is an immense number of places of memory. Right now we are preparing a catalog in the Center. We are photographing these places, and I dream of publishing a historical-scholarly reference book in which there will be a place of memory, which will have its history, its bibliography, and an index of references, from which the reader will grasp the situation. What is the situation? For the most part, these places of memory have been created by Jewish groups, initiated privately by some wealthy people, relatives who survived and who are living today outside Ukraine, or by civic institutions, civic organizations in Ukraine, local Jewish communities. That is, there is a monument, a memorial called Drobytsky Yar in Kharkiv, or a monument to the ghetto in Lviv, or there are plaques, commemorative markers in many places in Ukraine. But for the most part the funds for them were collected and these [monuments] were installed by a local Jewish community. Or there is no such community, and people who remember their parents come from afar. We today face a challenge. These places of memory should function, there should be educational activities. If they are simply locations, this does not say anything…

In other words, the situation today is such that this culture is being created by society, but society needs a state policy on culture. As I once said somewhere, is it about the politics of memory or memory as politics? And here we should calmly acknowledge that as part of our own history. And we must say that many locations, whether in Drohobych, Berezhany,  Chortkiv, Smyla, Shpola, Bohuslav, Boryslav, or in Dnipro, Chuhuiv, in Kharkiv—unfortunately there are many such places—do not have commemorative markers. But this is about the installation of commemorative markers with non-Soviet inscriptions, as you pointed out correctly; whereas a monument in Kamianets-Podilsky has finally been erected.

And again we have Kamianets-Podilsky as an example, with a Soviet monument and its inscription stating that over the space of two days [starting] on 23 August 1941—this was one month before Babyn Yar in Kyiv—more than twenty thousand people [ Jews] were killed in Kamianets. Nearly ten thousand Hungarian Jews were deported there because they did not hold Hungarian citizenship. And they perished at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi SS subunits, and local guards as well. They perished together with the Jews of Kamianets. And yet there was a monument to peaceful Soviet civilians. In the early 1990s the very much diminished Jewish community of Kamianets found some money and erected a commemorative marker next to the monument stating that these people were slaughtered because they were Jews. Because politics led them outside the circle of life. That commemorative marker is standing, but pupils in Kamianets don’t visit. Their teachers don’t know what to say—and that is the issue. This is how memory must work.

This program was created with the support of the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Originally broadcast in the Ukrainian language (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

Translated from Ukrainian by Marta Olynyk and Miriam Feyga Bunimovich, MF Language Services Platform
Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger