Israel and Ukraine thirty years ago: The first steps toward each other — via Babyn Yar

Why did the Holocaust topic surface at the earliest stage of the establishment of relations between Israel and Ukraine, and how did the fiftieth anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy become the first test of Ukrainian independence in the eyes of Israel, the U.S., and the entire international community? 

The watershed year of 1991 brought about the dissolution of the USSR, the collapse of the communist regime, and the birth of independent Ukraine. However, that year was also notable for an important and tragic anniversary: the 50th anniversary of the murder of Jews in Babyn Yar.

Thirty years later, I look at these events through an "Israeli lens," and I see them less enthusiastically than I did as a nineteen-year-old Jewish student of history from Kharkiv. Thus, it is all the more interesting to combine my impressions and assessments then and now.

After decades of silence and bans, as well as KGB special operations aimed at preventing Jewish and Ukrainian activists to access Babyn Yar and dispersing rallies, in the spring of 1991, the government of the Ukrainian SSR (then still part of the USSR) set up a committee to organize events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the tragedy that took place in Babyn Yar.

Thus, for the first time in the history of Ukraine, the memory of the genocide of the Jews was legalized and raised on the state level. Paradoxically, the Babyn Yar topic was most often broached by the very same high-ranking officials who, years earlier, had banned all mention of it from the heights of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine and the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR.

I experienced this transition from prohibition to legality in my own personal way. In April 1991, when I was a third-year student at the History Department of Kharkiv State University, I spotted a document written on the letterhead of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR displayed on an announcement board hanging near the Dean's Office.

It was an invitation to submit applications to participate in an international conference pegged to the 50th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy. I remind readers that the USSR and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union still existed at the time. The very name of the person who had signed this letter symbolized the fact that henceforth the Jewish topic would not only be permitted but approved by the government: Academician Yurii Kondufor (1922–1997), member of the CC CPU, former head of the Central Committee's Department of Science and Culture, and luminary, was a reliable beacon for all deans with regard to the fluctuations in the course of history studies in the Ukrainian SSR during that period.

Today, the fact that the invitation contained the words "Nazi genocide of the Jews" may strike one as mundane, but at the time, they caused a sensation in academia and served as recognition of the decades-long silence surrounding this tragedy.

I went to see the Dean, Dr. Yurii Zhuravsky, who was a wonderful person and a scholar of liberal views, and told him that I wanted to attend the conference and present a paper on the destruction of the Jews of Kharkiv. He instantly supported my idea and sent my application to Kyiv.

For me, this goodwill shown toward a Jewish topic was a brilliant sign of change, especially considering that half a year earlier I had been summoned to that very same office, where the Deputy Dean asked me, in the presence of a KGB official, why I had ordered some books on Jewish history from Israel. Thanks to this questioning, I discovered the identity of the informer in the circle of Jewish activists in Kharkiv, the very person to whom I had given my request for books from Israel.

In the summer of 1991, the new head of the Verkhovna Rada [Parliament — Ed.] of Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk, realized that the path to recognition by the West lay through Ukraine's recognition of the Holocaust. As regards this topic, political pragmatism was combined with the sincere, emotional experiences of Ukraine's future first president.

U.S. President George H. W. Bush visited Kyiv on 1 August 1991, choosing Babyn Yar as one of the main stops on his visit. Kravchuk stood next to Bush near the faceless Soviet monument to "the victims of fascism" in Babyn Yar and listened as the leader of the free world said in a trembling voice, "The Holocaust occurred because good men and women averted their eyes from unprecedented evil."

Then came the turbulent events of the military putsch in Moscow on 19–21 August and the proclamation of Ukraine's independence on 24 August 1991. It was a coincidence in history that the 50th anniversary of the largest mass shooting of the twentieth century became the first large-scale international event for newly reborn Ukraine.

Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, along with a delegation from the World Jewish Congress, was welcomed on 12 September 1991 by Leonid Kravchuk in Kyiv, following a brief ceremony at Babyn Yar. Wiesel aimed harsh reproaches at Kravchuk and asked him to explain why some Ukrainians took part in killings fifty years ago while others stood by and let them happen.

"From morning till evening, Jews went to their death," Wiesel told Kravchuk. "How many doors were opened? Why did no one take a child and say, 'You will not die'?"

Western journalists watched as the Ukrainian leader was unable to reply to Wiesel. However, after a minute, Kravchuk said that his mother had protected a Jewish woman during the war, adding, "I want a new era to begin between Ukrainians and Jews."

Across the ocean, the 50th anniversary of Babyn Yar was discussed on 15 September 1991 at a commemorative ceremony in New York City, during which diplomats, politicians, and rabbis spoke against the backdrop of American, Israeli, Soviet, and — for the first time — Ukrainian flags. Among the speakers at this ceremony were Thomas Pickering and Yoram Aridor, Ambassadors of the U.S. and Israel, respectively, to the United Nations.

Ukraine's first Foreign Minister Anatoliy Zlenko flew in specially to present the new approaches adopted by the young Ukrainian state, whose independence had been proclaimed only 22 days earlier.

Zlenko acknowledged that relations between Ukrainians and Jews "were not always unclouded." But he added: "It is difficult to find anything as far from the truth as the statement that over the centuries Ukrainians were antisemites and that Ukraine was the center of antisemitism."

The dates of 29–30 September 1991 coincided with the joyful Jewish holiday Simchat Torah. For that reason, it was decided to delay the main state commemorative events connected with the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust in Babyn Yar, including the scholarly conference, to the first week of October.

On 3–4 October 1991, I ended up in Kyiv at the first legal international conference devoted to Babyn Yar. As the youngest participant, I gave a paper, based on research materials held at the State Archive of Kharkiv Oblast, discussing the genocide of the Kharkiv Jews and the Drobytsky Yar tragedy.

To this day, I remember how one of the Ukrainian speakers declared that "Leonid Kravchuk's family in a village in Volyn hid a Jew during the war years" and that little Leonid supposedly brought food to this Jew. This may have been a "creative evolution" of the phrase that Kravchuk had used during his conversation with Wiesel three weeks earlier. The audience applauded, but many of those present were left with an unpleasant aftertaste from this statement because ten years earlier, historians had similarly glorified the exploits of Leonid Brezhnev at Malaia zemlia [a beachhead held for seven months by Soviet landing troops during the 1943 battle to free the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk from German occupation during the Second World War — Trans.]

Afterwards, Kravchuk never repeated this account of his family's efforts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.

The commemorative evening at Babyn Yar represented the culmination of the events connected with the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. On 5 October, immediately after the end of the Sabbath, Ukrainian and foreign guests, diplomats, politicians, scholars, and cultural figures assembled amidst the trees in Babyn Yar, in front of the Menorah monument that had been unveiled one week earlier.

I was struck by the sight of Israeli flags fluttering legally above Babyn Yar for the very first time. It seemed as though the flags were waving in the "Wind of Change," a popular hit song in 1991.

Israeli flags at Babyn Yar, 5 October 1991. Here and elsewhere, newsreel freeze-frame,

Aryeh Levin, the General Consul of Israel in the USSR, read out a message from President Chaim Herzog of Israel. The message of President Mikhail Gorbachev of the USSR was read out by his special representative, Alexander Yakovlev.

The head of the Israeli delegation was Israel's education minister Zevulun Hammer. He flew to Kyiv together with Yosef Burg, the 82-year-old ex-minister and long-time head of Israel's Ministry of Internal Affairs. At various times Hammer and Burg were the leaders of the Religious Zionist Party.

"Our history here in Ukraine is filled with Jewish blood. The memorial in Babyn Yar is a sign that the Ukrainian government wants to turn the page in Ukrainian–Jewish relations," Hammer said. 

Alexander Yakovlev and Zevulun Hammer. Newsreel freeze frame

President Kravchuk delivered a brilliant speech featuring a historical review of the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations. He emphasized Ukraine's immense Jewish heritage and the universal significance of the Holocaust.

Kravchuk acknowledged that "some Ukrainians took part in the crimes of the Nazis" and apologized for this to the Jewish people.

I remember the effective and somewhat theatrical finale of the Ukrainian leader's speech. Kravchuk said, "Peace and happiness to you, the long-suffering Jewish people!" then demonstratively put the text into his jacket pocket and concluded his speech with some words in Yiddish: Sholom, eikh tayere idn!" (Peace be unto you, dear Jews!).

Amidst the darkness of the Kyivan night, the glade filled with the people attending the ceremony was lit up by projectors that created phantasmagorical scenes of various individuals socializing with each other: the communist singer Iosif Kobzon and the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko; the leader of Narodnyi Rukh (the People's Movement of Ukraine) Viacheslav Chornovil and the former member of the Politburo Alexander Yakovlev; and Western journalists and ambassadors talking animatedly with President Kravchuk.

Leonid Kravchuk surrounded by journalists at Babyn Yar on the evening of 5 October 1991. At right: Vitaly Portnikov.

Waiters walked around serving Champagne and hors d'oeuvres, like at a diplomatic reception. A symphony orchestra and a singer performed Symphony No. 13 by Dmitri Shostakovich set to Yevtushenko's poem "Babi Yar."

The new post-Soviet epoch began right here, among the dark, forested ravines and alleys of the most terrible place in Kyiv.

In fact, all state measures pegged to the 50th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy demonstrated to the West and the entire world the existence of a new Ukraine, one that was free of old stereotypes, open to new ideas, and ready to take responsibility for its past and its future — a Ukraine that condemned antisemitism.

An interesting transformation of accents happened the following day. Leading Western media outlets published reports not so much about the high level of the international events that had taken place in Kyiv as about Kravchuk's acknowledgement of Ukrainians' partial guilt for their involvement in the Holocaust and his apology in the name of the Ukrainian people.

A young Canadian journalist named Chrystia Freeland did a report for The Washington Post straight from Babyn Yar. Of all the remarks that were heard that night, the title and subtitle of the article written by the now Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance of Canada featured President Kravchuk's words with which he admitted Ukrainians' partial guilt for collaborating.

On 6 October 1991, the Los Angeles Times also reported Kravchuk's remarks:

Kravchuk's admission of guilt and his apology had a lengthy life. Speaking in the Knesset in December 2015, the fifth president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, raised the topic of Ukrainians and the Holocaust, declaring that he had nothing more to add to what was already said by the first president of Ukraine. However, from the official, legal standpoint, none of Ukraine's presidents ever said anything about this topic because, in October 1991, Leonid Kravchuk was only the Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada.

I discovered the English version of the complete text of Kravchuk's speech in Babyn Yar in the Chaim Herzog Collection held at the Israel State Archives, inside a file devoted to the initial contacts between the head of the State of Israel and young Ukraine in 1991–1993. This document was sent from the Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United Nations and then from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the office of President Herzog.

It is interesting to note that there is no state emblem on this official document: The old communist emblem of the Ukrainian SSR was no longer in use, but the new letterheads with the Trident had not been printed yet.

President Herzog made a careful reading of the speech that President Kravchuk delivered in Babyn Yar. This is evident from the fact that even a year and a half later, in January 1993, President Herzog, welcoming the first president of Ukraine to his official residence in Jerusalem, especially noted in his welcome speech that he deeply appreciated President Kravchuk's bold words, which were worthy of a leader.

Chaim Herzog in 1991. Photo: National Library of Israel (David Mizrahi)

In early December 1991, a personal dialogue began between Herzog and Kravchuk. Immediately after Kravchuk's victory in Ukraine's presidential elections on 1 December, Herzog sent him a congratulatory telegram.

For the first time in history, the head of the Israeli state congratulated the head of the Ukrainian state:

Ukraine demonstrated great interest in stepping up contacts with Israel. Among the documents stored in the Chaim Herzog Collection, I also came across his correspondence about his meeting on 6–7 September 1992 with the first parliamentary delegation from Ukraine.

Zina Kleitman, an official in the Eastern Europe Division of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs (and future Ambassador to Ukraine, 2007–2011), informed President Herzog that the Ukrainian delegation would be composed of seventeen people, including Dmytro Pavlychko, head of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Les Taniuk, head of the Culture Committee; Yuriy Shcherbak, Minister of Natural Environment Protection (and the future first Ambassador of Ukraine to Israel in 1992–1994); Viacheslav Chornovil, head of Narodnyi Rukh; and Yevhen Kushnariov, the mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city.

The culmination of this tumultuous year — September 1991 to September 1992 — which saw the establishment of bilateral, interstate relations between Israel and Ukraine was this telegram. Interestingly enough, the note in Hebrew indicates that the congratulations to Ukraine were sent via the Israeli Embassy in Moscow, because the Israeli Embassy in Kyiv would not open for another couple of months.

This is how President Chaim Herzog of Israel congratulated President Leonid Kravchuk on the occasion of the first anniversary of Ukraine's independence:

To me, it is very symbolic that it is the eleventh president of Israel, Isaac Herzog, who represents the State of Israel on 6–7 October 2021, at the ceremony to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Babyn Yar tragedy. This event happens exactly thirty years after the words of his father, Chaim Herzog, the sixth president of Israel, were first heard in this very place. 

Babyn Yar, 5 October 1991. Newsreel freeze-frame

Text and photos: Shimon Briman (Israel)

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