Memory of the Holocaust during the Soviet period: permitted and proscribed practices

The historian Iryna Sklokina discusses the unofficial memory of the Holocaust during Soviet times, the search for unknown heroes, and the struggle to establish monuments.

Today we will be talking about a lecture that took place in Lviv entitled “The Unofficial Memory of the Holocaust in the USSR: Places, Monuments, People.” The word “unofficial” was not placed in parentheses. So, we will also be talking about the official component and the less official one. Our guest on today’s Encounters program will help us figure out these words. She is Iryna Sklokina, Candidate of Historical Sciences and a researcher at the Center for Urban History in Lviv.

Iryna Slavinska:  According to the announcement about the lecture, whose ideas we are discussing, you defended a dissertation on the topic “The Official Soviet Politics of Memory of the Nazi Occupation.” This can also include memory of the Holocaust; perhaps not everything, and perhaps not exclusively. Your lecture was based on Kharkiv materials, but you delivered the lecture based on Lviv materials?

Iryna Sklokina:  No, it was broader. It is what I managed to dig up in the Kyiv and Moscow archives and several others.

Iryna Slavinska:  I think that for listeners of Hromadske Radio, for people who were not in Lviv, this is an opportunity to hear the exclusive radio-version of this conversation. Let’s begin with some general questions. Official and unofficial questions: How does one tell them apart?

Iryna Sklokina:  Yes, one of my main theses concerns their mutual entanglement. It’s very interesting when you look at what was happening, for example, during the Soviet period, when it seemed that, because of state antisemitism, the negative attitude to Israel, and the eternal struggle against Zionism, the commemoration of the Holocaust was absolutely marginal. But if you focus on the places where it was becoming possible, those points where gaps were occurring, a possibility was emerging of the effectiveness of individual persons, or even groups and institutions. Both official, and the completely unofficial, or even anti-Soviet, things were very closely intertwined.

Iryna Slavinska:  If we continue this conversation about official and unofficial memory, it is precisely the memory of the Holocaust that is very interesting, of course. In Kyiv, for example, for the longest time, there was not a single monument dedicated to the memory of the Holocaust. Babyn Yar became an important place on the map. And these monument wars that eventually began after the installation of the first monument and the installation of individual commemorative markers for the Roma or victims of Jewish background. The various monuments invoked various aspects; monuments that refer to Ukrainian nationalists who were shot in Babyn Yar. There is a huge landscape of official and unofficial memory here. How similar is this Kyivan history to what is generally taking place in Ukraine?

Iryna Sklokina:  For me, it would be interesting to begin with the Soviet period, the postwar years, when the foundations of our memory of all these events were being laid, when investigations were taking place, and collaborators were being sentenced. There were still many living witnesses and those who had survived. It is interesting that few people know that in fact there were monuments commemorating Holocaust victims. And at the outset they bore inscriptions concretely about Jews who had been killed; occasionally, the inscriptions were in Yiddish.

Iryna Slavinska:  And where were these monuments? I haven’t seen a single one.

Iryna Sklokina:  Very often, these were small towns or villages to which the survivors were returning. Sometimes these were people who had saved themselves from being shot; who had literally crawled out of death pits. Sometimes, as I have already mentioned, people used their high status in the symbolic Soviet hierarchy. For example, the achievements of Jewish war veterans, who were proud of their awards and exploited their status in order to push through the installation of these monuments.

For example, in Kharkiv, this took place after Stalin’s death. One of those activists, an honored Jewish veteran, managed to have the site in Drobytsky Yar tidied up. This is an extraordinarily large burial site. An obelisk was also installed. These often looked like obelisks dedicated to veterans. In other words, they mimicked Soviet officialdom in order to fit into the general picture.

Iryna Slavinska:  At which point, as regards these commemorative markers, which could include references to the Jewish population and inscriptions in Yiddish, as we have already heard, does this formula of “innocent Soviet citizens” [Trans.] begin to appear? I think that it is these very monuments that our listeners might have seen most often. One can spend a long time listing the cities where episodes of the Holocaust took place and where markers commemorating the “innocent victims of the German-fascist aggressors, innocent women and children” have been installed. When did this euphemism appear?

Iryna Sklokina:  It is very difficult to pick up on this in documents, but it is more present in memoirs or the current memory of what, as is said sometimes, was a centralized operation, when all the inscriptions were completely changed. And this was connected with the restoration of cemeteries. This is not just an ideological issue but also the history of the way these burial sites were being restored; how standard tablets were created. The monuments to the “Great Patriotic War” are all the same; not just because of the totalitarian regime that imposes a single model but also because this is the history of culture in the age of mass reproduction.

If we are talking about dates, then such inscriptions were unlikely in Ukraine sometime after 1946–1948, the start of the largest antisemitic campaigns. However, in the Baltic republics or in Minsk [Belarus], which is a very central place, there is a “Minsk pit,” where there was an inscription in Yiddish. It is interesting to think about why this was not the case in Ukraine. It’s difficult to answer this question. We can only speculate and speak of some kind of difference in cultural policies, perhaps, even on the level of antisemitism. This is a complex question; we have to think about this.

Iryna Slavinska:  There is another aspect. Can we talk here, not about an exact date, but the same way about the preconditions, when, instead of a euphemism, a discussion about Jews becomes possible once again? In Kyiv, for example, a monument appears in Babyn Yar, but to Soviet citizens. But, if this metaphor can be used, something is beginning to thaw.

Iryna Sklokina:  The thing is that there were undoubtedly sporadic references to Jews. And one of these contexts is the trials of former collaborators, which took place in the 1960s and 1970s. It is interesting that during this period Soviet propaganda begins to exploit the theme of Ukrainian nationalists or “fascist accomplices” who collaborated actively, including taking part in the killings of Jews. It should be said that this is not just propaganda; without a doubt, this is the use of real facts. And some propagandistic series clearly talked precisely about Jewish and Polish victims. This was done carefully, not in a very generalized fashion because no overall figures were cited, but it was written very clearly in concrete small towns. Such operations were aimed at undermining the rapprochement between the Ukrainian and Jewish dissident movements as well as the anti-Soviet movement in the diaspora.

Speaking of Babyn Yar, was anything articulated about Jewish victims, that these were specifically Jewish victims? Certainly. For me, it was very interesting to see in the archives materials relating to the discussions that took place around the competitions for this monument. Of course, if we look at this official Soviet monument, it strikes us as incredibly conservative and false, but in fact there were many different versions. The most famous one was by [Volodymyr] Melnychenko and [Ada] Rybachuk, which is being talked about a lot today. It certainly was one of the most experimental ones. I think that it refers directly to the Jewish theme through a specific—I would say abstract—reference. It speaks to us about the fact that the events which took place in the USSR were not entirely removed from what was happening in the world.

At this very time, the theme of the Holocaust and its commemoration also appears in the West. This theme was not always regarded as a central one during the war—these attempts to express the inexpressible, to talk about the Holocaust, to find the words. Perhaps there is significantly more non-figurative art in this. In recent publications, historians have focused attention on this: that this glorious Wall of Memory at Baikove Cemetery, near the crematorium, is also by its design a monument to Babyn Yar, even though this is present more in popular memory. [Ukrainian Communist party leader] Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, who supposedly said that the faces depicted there do not have many Slavic features, focused attention on the Jewish identity of those who were represented there. We can continue listing such examples and contexts. It was precisely Jewish affiliation that was being mentioned.

Iryna Slavinska:  Here, of course, one can say a lot about the origins of those types. I remember sketches of this wall, which can be found on the Internet. It refers, in particular, to the ancient Greek myths as well. That’s why, of course, this kind of Mediterranean type may be present.

Let’s move on to unofficial memory. We touched on this topic separately when we mentioned how people in some cities, capitalizing on their prestige, could install monuments that straightforwardly articulated the Holocaust theme and those who were killed. How else could this have taken place? Where else does it break through in the supra-official context?

Iryna Sklokina:  For me, what was most interesting was not just the fact that a monument existed, but what was taking place around it. I think this is also a big problem in Ukraine today. We love to put up a monument, and afterwards, we think that the question is now closed and that in a certain sense we have released ourselves of the responsibility to talk or think and study the events that stand behind this monument.

Beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, many of these places, commemorated or uncommemorated by monuments, become open for visits. Undoubtedly, according to reminiscences, “people in civilian clothing” were on duty near these sites, and they could stop people and turn them away, not allow them to go there. But it is very interesting that after the mass meeting in Babyn Yar in 1966—this is undoubtedly a well-known and decisive event—many other sites, through unofficial channels, heard and knew about what had taken place there. So, informal networks are created, particularly between Zionists and members of the Jewish dissident movement, who are taking a look at each other.

For example, a member of the Zionist movement in Minsk—incidentally, a colonel who decided to join the Jewish dissident movement—notes in his diary and reflects on what happened in Babyn Yar. Later events in Kharkiv may be considered a reverberation of this. After a monument was installed in Babyn Yar in 1976 and a very large, official monument in the form of the Motherland was erected in a forest park in Kharkiv in 1978, which was absolutely indifferent to the Jewish component, some Kharkiv activists, following the example of their Kyivan colleagues, decided to organize an informal community work day to clean up the burial site in Drobytsky Yar. They took a photograph and drafted a petition that they brought to the Municipal Executive Committee.

This is an extraordinarily interesting story. On the one hand, this is a network that has been created in the Soviet Union, and on the other, these are people who are using very official Soviet channels, like, for example, the community work day. The authorities were so alarmed that they actually joined this effort. They dispatched official people to the cleanup and show support. The question of installing a large monument began to be contemplated. There was also a small obelisk there, which is quite important: a blend of Soviet formats and something absolutely anti-Soviet.

Iryna Slavinska:  In this conversation, there is another very interesting thing—at least to me, as someone who deals with philology: I have a question about language. How does one talk about the Holocaust? This is a big topic, but how was it talked about during the period marked by the struggle to install monuments and when the issue concerned official memory, perhaps stirring and impressive.

Iryna Sklokina:  Here, we have to talk about the fact that no person can break out of the matrix of those concepts that exist around him or her. And, certainly, even in the language of these Jewish activists you can see many Soviet propaganda clichés about the “friendship of peoples” or mutual assistance and henchmen of the fascist occupiers; about the fact that these were individual renegades who became accomplices of the fascists. I think that the search for language was complicated. A big impression was made on me when I understood that our current discussions are also not all that distant from this.

For example, if we look at the materials of these discussions—and these are very interesting materials because they were public presentations of designs and stenograms of Babyn Yar and the Syrets POW camp. For example, the public was made privy to the idea of the need to depart from large-scale monumentalism in favor of something smaller and more spiritual. There was an idea that the most important element of the commemoration of such sites has to be a landscape approach or a critique of excessive pathos and the attempt to avoid “cemetery rhetoric.” All this is topical for us today, too. Perhaps these are eternal themes, or maybe we have not advanced so far in our attempts to do something with this theme.

Iryna Slavinska:  I recall my conversation with the French-Jewish writer Cécile Weisbrod, who attended school in postwar France and whose family history is connected with surviving the Holocaust; not by all members of the family, but experiencing it. In her interview on the Encounters program she recalled the experience of an older female classmate, when the school curriculum reached the period of the Second World War and it turned out that for all the stories that had circulated within the family about the arrival of gendarmes and arrests, and the Winter Velodrome, where Jews were gathered prior to deportation—it turned out that there was no place in the school curriculum for all these stories. Because in postwar France—and this lasted for quite a long time—there was space left only for a heroic discourse on the Resistance, without any mention of collaborationism, which is natural, perhaps. But also, without mention of the Holocaust, which is rather strange from today’s perspective. At which moment do those who talk about the Holocaust begin to speak about it? Does this happen after 9 May 1945?

Iryna Sklokina:  I would probably agree that in the entire world there was a general logic to this commemoration. Initially, this is first and foremost an emphasis on soldiers and the thesis that the blood of a soldier is the most precious. Right now, this may strike us a bit paradoxically, partly because there is also a war in our country. And there are people who will agree that this is honoring those who made the biggest contribution to the issue of national liberation. And for Jews, this is a focus on the Warsaw Uprising, which was very important during the entire period of samizdat literature, which was also focused on the contribution of Soviet Jews to the Red Army. This is pride as well as a chance to present yourself not just as victims. Undoubtedly, around the Khrushchev era, these accents begin to change, and the fate of the civilian population ends up increasingly in focus.

And this process in the politics of memory at the time, which was called the “search for unknown heroes,” and the movement of the Pioneers, who searched for these heroes, was connected with the effort to inflate the number of members of the partisan movement in Ukraine, and the creation of a myth about a nationwide partisan movement. On the other hand, because of this approach, those who earlier could never have been considered heroes came into focus.

For example, women who simply lived under the occupation and carried out everyday acts of resistance, or children who helped the partisans or carried out acts that demonstrated their resistance. Thus, this category of resistance and the gap between everyday life and heroic events begin to blur greatly. Against this background, completely different categories get a chance to appear. [Anatoly] Kuznetsov’s novel is a turning-point, as are a number of poetic works; for example, [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko’s, and other works. It is important that the names of not only Jews emerge here but also, for example, [Boris] Chichibabin; those who felt this tragedy as their own. This search for language could be based on samizdat materials and the search for an alternative, but also on those possibilities that were emerging in official life.

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

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

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