Hromadske Radio: The History of Ukrainian Jews: What do We Remember and What Do We Not Remember? Robert Paul Magocsi

magosci zustrichiRobert Paul Magocsi is a renowned historian and a researcher of the history of Ukraine. He brings a particular point of view in his attention to the multi-nationalism of Ukrainian lands. Professor Magocsi described for the Ukrainian radio project “Encounters” the collective memory of the history of Jews in Ukraine. His separate focus is on the history of the Jews of Crimea, based on his new book Crimea: Our Blessed Land (2014). He was interviewed by Iryna Slavinska.


Iryna Slavinska: This year for the first time at the Lviv Book Forum there is a separate program devoted to Ukrainian-Jewish relations. A number of discussions are also taking place there. If I understand correctly, you took part in some of these discussions. Please tell us about the topics that were raised during the discussions. What did you talk about?

Robert Paul Magosci: Well actually, I am here as a member of the Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter organization and this is my first time at the Lviv Forum. I participated in many events and also had meetings with writers and public figures, but I would honestly say that my greatest work is with people who are engaged in Jewish life in Ukraine. In fact, I would say that the most interesting and the most useful meeting for me was with Mr. Joseph Zissels, which will continue in Kyiv in a few weeks. We will think about how our organization in Canada and his organization here in Ukraine will commemorate the 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar. As I said, it is very helpful to talk with Mr. Zissels, and we will continue our conversation about specific plans.

IS: What are the plans, if you can slightly reveal them? The 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar is a very important date, and I think it is very important that it is honored not only at the national level but also in civil society. What projects do you have?

RPM: I do not want to be coy, but it is difficult to share our plans with you right now as we are in the beginning stages. We already have some concepts. But we are not ready to talk about it openly. I would only say that our plans are ambitious. Most of them are geared to young people. They are not formatted for seniors. There will also be a format for seniors, but we believe young people are a very important segment, and not only in Ukraine. We want to organize everything in a way that young people from different countries would attend these events. This is all I have to share with you on this matter at the moment.

IS: In your opinion, how does the historical memory in Ukraine remember the events connected with the history of Jews in Ukraine? How well do we remember, or perhaps we do not remember?

RPM: You know, this addresses a larger question of historical memory in young people. We know that young people, not only in Ukraine, but also in other countries—I’m not talking about the world here, but about Europe, because this is Ukraine’s context—have little historical memory. In Ukraine, the study of history in schools is relatively not as bad as in North America. People still have some experience as you are always surrounded by history. You do not have to learn where Lviv, Crimea, or Kyiv is situated because you live here. Perhaps, we would be able to see a lack of historical and geographical knowledge if we asked young people from other European countries to name these cities. Perhaps it would have been difficult.

It is in this context that the lack of historical memory or interest in history in general applies to the matter of Jews who lived here. It is obvious that there were practically no Jews in Ukraine after the Second World War. And we know the reasons why. This does not mean that Jews did not live in Ukraine after the war. Not all of them were killed, some of them escaped. But they could not emerge as a community during the Soviet regime. But I do not see anything wrong in that. Why not? Because it is better to work with people for the first time than with people who either have a memory or a little knowledge and think that they know everything. This means that young people are interested in the presence of Jews in Ukraine. This is comparable to the Famine. Young people come to this topic with a new vision. They had to learn something from scratch.

IS: But at school the Famine is covered more in the history course than the Holocaust…

RPM: Absolutely. But I want to say that it is only after the Soviet Union collapsed. We are still not ready to study about the Jews and Jewish culture. I want to say even more. I was writing a large illustrated History of Ukraine, where I had a clear image of Ukraine as a country of multiple nationalities that included not only ethnic Ukrainians. I was taking into consideration the fact that all the people that live in Ukraine are Ukrainians of different origin: Ukrainians of Russian origin, Ukrainians of Polish origin, Ukrainians of Jewish origin, and ethnic Ukrainian.

It is a pity that school systems present the history of Ukraine or Ukrainian culture as the history of ethnic Ukrainians or the culture of ethnic Ukrainians. I think this is not the best way to understand your country. I always say that every citizen should have his or her own voice in the country where he lives. He should be able to say, “Oh, they are also talking about us!” Or see that Bulgarians, for instance, also are a big community in southern Ukraine, where they contributed a lot to the culture of that part of the country.

We know that professionals have already for a long time written about different nationalities in Ukraine. I should acknowledge there are some good scientific and scientific-popular works about different nationalities in Ukraine. But the approach in school textbooks is not as comprehensive as it should be. In this context, people do not have that much information about Jews and also do not know that much about other nationalities that live in Ukraine.

IS: And why did that happen? Why does this approach, for example, in teaching history have in the meaning of “the history of Ukrainian Ukrainians, Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian folklore” for us?

RPM: This is because the intelligentsia and political figures very easily conflate ethnicity and statehood. These are two different things. It is a pity, but I would say that this tradition comes from the French Revolution where Jacobins decided that there is just one culture, one language and everybody else who wanted to become a French citizen—the Alsatians, the Basque, or the Occitanes—should know only the French language and not all the other dialects. I am sorry to say that this tradition persists not only in Ukraine, but in a lot of other countries as well. They say that France is country of democracy. Yes, it is a democratic country, if you want to be French. If you do not want to be French, you might have some problems.

IS: After Euromaidan started in Ukraine, everybody started to talk about the birth of a new concept of the nation, and they still talk about that. If it was about the nation from the ethnic point of view before, now it is probably more about the political nation, because people with different heritages and different languages were at the Maidan. All of them, with their different origins and languages, also are in the war in Donbas now. Therefore, there is a question: this new Ukrainian identity, how new is it in its multi-nationalism? And what is it? Can it be described? What is this identity?

RPM: You know, I was in Ukraine twice already in 2014 after the Maidan, but I was not here for a long time. Only several months have passed and it is a short time to say there is a change. We know that it is very important that people of different nationalities took part in the Maidan. And this is talked about. It is important to talk about this. It is important to repeat this so people know that there is an interest by all citizens of Ukraine, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality, to build and defend this country. I think ethnic Ukrainians see that there were Ukrainians of Jewish and Crimean Tatar origin at the Maidan. We know that there are volunteers in the battalions that are ready to fight in eastern Ukraine. All of this is a very good sign of understanding what it means to be a citizen of Ukraine. These are early days.

But I will again repeat the biggest problem is still to be found in the school curriculum and textbooks. This is where a person is formed. A child’s personality is formed between the ages of five to fifteen. And during this time he or she should be informed about the equality of all the nationalities, cultures, and religions, and that all have something to contribute to the state. The state is one matter, the people another.

IS: If we are talking about Jewish presence in Ukraine today, in what way should it be characterized? In what way does it appear? Where can it be seen? How does it function?

RPM: It is obvious that the Jewish community in Ukraine today is not the same as it was in the past. We all know the reasons why. But on the other hand, I visited renewed centers of community life in Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa, and you can see the renewal of Jewish cultural heritage in the context of rebuilt synagogues or the creation of museums and exhibitions. Dnipropetrovsk apparently has the biggest center in Ukraine. Maybe even ethnic Ukrainians do not have centers like this. This means that we see dramatic changes in the status of Jews in Ukraine that took place since the Second World War. These are positive changes.

IS: I have your new book Crimea: Our Blessed Land. Going through the book, I found in the seventh part, the part with the name “Crimean Autonomous Socialist Soviet Republic,” a separate chapter entitled “Jews and Karaites.” Let’s talks more about this. And perhaps about Crimea being the home for different identities in Ukraine, where many nationalities lived together, and maybe we could talk more about this chapter “Jews and Karaites in Crimea.”

RPM: I decided from the very beginning that this book would not be only about Crimean Tatars. This book is about Crimea. Crimea was always a country, a land, like Ukraine and most European countries, of multi-nationalism, with different cultures. Over two to three thousand years some of the ethnic groups vanished, and some exist until now. In this context I decided not to concentrate only on the Crimean Tatars—though of course they played a very important political, historical, and cultural role—but also on others such as the Goths, Alans, Kipchaks, etc. I’ve included the first Jewish population, which began to settle on the peninsula during the Khazar Khanate, which had some control over part of Crimea. And these, as we can say, local Jews, who after the arrival of the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century gradually started to use the Turkish language. The local Jews were called “krymchaky” (Krymchaks), and obviously I am talking about Krymchaks. Also the Karaim, or Karaites, appeared very early in Crimea and they have their own specific relationship to the rest of the Jewish community. They are the “Protestants” of the Jewish world who believe in the word of God but not in the commentary on the word of God.

We know that in the 19th, and even more so in the 20th century under the Soviets, the Ashkenazi started to arrive. This means in fact that we have three groups that come from Jewish tradition. Two of them are called Jews, that is the local Krymchaks and Ashkenazis, and one more—the Karaim, or Karaites. I tried to write about all three of them because they are an integral part of Crimean history.

IS: What are the relationships among them? How does all this national construction function in Crimea?

RPM: I would say that Crimea was not in the best situation after the Second World War and even during independence. Why? Because, in fact, after the Bolshevik Revolution new people, the Soviet people, came to Crimea. And those who came could be either of Ukrainian and Russian origin. Here we should talk not only about ethnic Ukrainian, Russians, Jews, Crimean Tatars, etc., but also about the Soviet people. They still think in those terms.

We know that the Jews, except the Karaites, who were not considered by the Germans to be Jews, were killed. Very, very few remain in Crimea. They almost do not exist. When at the end of the Soviet Union Crimean Tatars started to return, and this wave of immigration continued after the declaration of independence of Ukraine, the Soviets for the most part reacted negatively. Who are these people? What do they want? The local government, which was under Soviet influence and not dependent on the central government of Ukraine, did everything possible to block the return of the Crimean Tatars. We must admit that tensions existed. Very hostile attitudes were expressed towards these people who came back and had no place to live, and continued to live for some time in those containers they brought with them from Uzbekistan. Unfortunately, this tense situation continued. The Russians, or Soviet people, lived in the former houses of the Crimean Tatars, and the returnees had to live on the margins. It was very unpleasant.

We did not know how to solve this and it was a very big challenge for the Ukrainian government. I should say that the government of independent Ukraine did almost everything they could. Crimean Tatars became patriots of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government originally did not recognize the Mejlis (the executive representative body of the Crimean Tatars), and did not want to recognize Crimean Tatars as the indigenous people of Crimea. Such was Soviet policy. But it changed after some pressure. The situation is now catastrophic for the Crimean Tatars. Ukraine before defended them somehow at least but now, under Russia, the situation is frightening.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian at:

Transcribed by: Anastasiya Shybiko

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger