Hromadske Radio: There is no Holocaust of One Nation—the Holocaust Applies to All

hr-zustrichi-15-03-22-schneier-mp3-image-120x120.jpgDr. Aron Shneyer works in the Hall of Names of Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority. For the program “Encounters” he will talk about the particulars of the museum’s work and its exhibition. He also discusses how the museum works with the education program for future generations. The recognition of Andrei Sheptytskyi as Righteous Among the Nations is a separate topic of conversation. This program was created with the support of the Canadian charitable fund the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Iryna Slavinska: You are listening to Hromadske Radio. Iryna Slavinska is working in the studio, and this is the next episode of the podcast “Encounters.” I would like to remind you that the podcast “Encounters” is dedicated to Ukrainian-Jewish relations—the joint history, common culture, different exchanges, translation, and the study of each other’s history. Today’s talk is dedicated to the history of the Holocaust. I will talk about this extremely difficult topic with Dr. Aron Shneyer.

He works in the Yad Vashem Museum and is one of the academics at the department of the Museum that is called the “Hall of Names.” This is a separate research department that is trying to list all the names of the victims of Holocaust and the names of the Righteous Among the Nations. They want every victim, every hero, and every Righteous person to be identified. This hall is spectacular. It is a huge space where there are folders with the names of people whose stories were possible to find. Each folder holds individual stories, eyewitness accounts, photographs, and everything that was possible to be restored from the stories of witnesses, descendants, or those who survived the Holocaust.

In this program with Dr. Shneyer we talked about the work of the Yad Vashem Museum, its exhibitions, and how the Museum is taking part in the education of students and those Israelis who are serving in the Israeli army. A separate topic of our conversation, certainly an important topic for Ukraine, is the recognition of Andrei Sheptytsky [Metropolitan Archbishop of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church from 1901-1944, editor’s note] as one of the Righteous. I would like to note that in Yad Vashem there is a special committee that awards the title of Righteous Among the Nations, and we will devote a separate part of our conversation to this subject.

However, at the beginning of our talk I ask Dr. Shneyer to tell us about the Yad Vashem Museum in general.

Dr. Aron Shneyer: Yad Vashem is a unique complex. The very name of “Yad Vashem” incorporates the meaning of all the work that is being implemented here. “Yad Vashem” means “memory and name.” The immortalization of the memory of those Jews who were killed during the Second World War, the study of the history of the tragedy of our people during the Second World War. The decision to establish our memorial was made at the state level in August of 1953.

Thus, two years ago we celebrated...almost two years ago we celebrated the 60th anniversary of this complex, which of course expanded tremendously during this time. And if we talk about the immediate task formulated by this title, then we should say that we collected about two million six hundred thousand special pages of testimony that individually commemorate the lost Jews.

There is an extremely insufficient number of various lists of archival materials of preserved documents. There is an extremely low number of lists of camps and ghettos, but taking into consideration all of these materials, around 4,500,000 names of the dead have been collected and immortalized. We will visit the museum with you later, and we will see these pages of testimony.

I.S.: But this number is probably not the full list of names?

A.S.: Yes, of course.

I.S.: How much bigger can it get? Are there any estimates?

A.S.: In this regard, I am quite pessimistic, because we will never be able to immortalize the names of all the victims. Unfortunately, the tragedy of our people was also based on the fact that entire Jewish towns were killed. Not just families, but entire generations, entire communities. And there is no one to talk about those who died, because most of these materials, the pages of testimony, were compiled by the relatives who survived, even though we tell them that not only Jews can compile them and provide the information for their neighbors or their students. And this is happening. Not only Jews are providing these testimonies of the victims.

But the work is ongoing, and now there is a project started about seven years ago, and this project is about immortalizing the names of those who were killed on the territory of the former Soviet Union. The unique peculiarity of this difficult task is that we do not know a large number of names of those who died on the territory of the post-Soviet space, the territory of Belarus and Ukraine, where a huge number of Jews lived before the war. The largest number of Jews was killed during the war in the Soviet Union, which is natural.

Because what happened in the Soviet Union—the tragedy—was radically different from what was happening to the Jews in Western Europe. There was, relatively speaking, before the war and Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union, an entire process of ghettoization. Jews lived in the ghetto, sometimes they incurred death penalties, various massacres, but this did not have the character of mass killings or mass genocide. And when in 1942 Jews started to be sent to death camps, they were mainly from Central Europe and identified by defined lists and registrations.

Soviet Jews were killed where they were found, without any registration or without lists. There is no list from Babi Yar. They just gathered people, told them to come, and shot them. The same happened in Drobytsky Yar (Kharkiv, editor’s note). There were however more documents there. The Jews lived in the tractor factory barracks for some time and some of them were registered. There are also a small number of documents. Or the violence in the Odessa region…Although Odessa’s ghetto existed for a short period, the Romanians burned (there are different estimates, and I will give you the maximum now) up to twenty thousand Jews in gunpowder storehouses. Nobody asked for their documents.

After the end of the war, Jewish communities [in Western Europe] were rather quickly rebuilt with government support, which is extremely important. Commemorating the memory of Jewish communities took place throughout the postwar years. In the Soviet Union the word “Holocaust” was almost unknown to everyone since this tragedy was deliberately not given attention, not even on monuments that local Jews put up on behalf of the memory of their loved ones and family. It was impossible to mention the word “Jew.” They wrote “Soviet citizens.”

I.S.: Yes, I saw these memorials. I just wanted to say that they were “in memory of the Soviet people who were killed.” I would like to go back to the first question though. It looks like Yad Vashem functions as a research center, maybe as an archive and as a museum.

A.S.: Yes, and by the way we have the biggest archive. We have an archive and library dealing with the Holocaust. And also, as you mentioned, there is a research center and research institute. Besides, there is a museum that we will visit. It is mostly open and very well known. The second part of Yad Vashem is not known by that many people, even though we talk about it a lot. It is mostly about memorialization. But as a matter of fact it is memorialization, an educational task, and the transfer of this knowledge to new generations…

I.S.: If I am not mistaken, a visit to Yad Vashem is necessary for all students in Israel. How does it work? How does this education start? Is this some kind of a tour that all the children in Israel attend?

A.S.: Practically speaking, yes. There are special programs designed for a certain age and a special methodology for getting to know the tragedy of your people. We stress that this is “your nation,” but nonetheless the Holocaust of one nation does not exist. The Holocaust applies to all. This is a tragedy of all humankind and many components and destinies of the nation of Europe and not only Europe are tied to it.

So, we work with different age groups. An introduction, then in senior classes there is deeper and more systematic work with the students. They work with some literature, write some works, and study everything deeper…in the universities no, but the Israeli army started to attend our memorial about twenty years ago. This is extremely important. They studied this at school, but here it is very important to know and understand their own tragedy so that it is not repeated.

This has the nature…maybe for former Soviet citizens it seems too much like some patriotic education in a negative sense…but I am sure that all citizens of every state should know their history and tragedies and they should raise their new generations based on that. This is extremely important.

I.S.: Let us talk about the exposition. Every exposition has a central narrative. I mean some central message that is seen throughout all the exhibits. What is the message of the exhibition that visitors can see in Yad Vashem?

A.S.: We clearly speak about the tragedy and what happened, but we try to tell the stories through the destinies of specific people, through certain stories. A many-sided mosaic of tragedy is formed out of these specific fates. As a matter of fact, I think that this grand picture will never be written, because every man and every story have their own war. And, of course, you quite rightly said, there are some main points...

I have to provide some background. Pre-war life, the Nazis coming to power in Germany, the peculiarities of antisemitism—all of these things were very different in various countries and in different ways. For instance, and we always stress this, the Nazis made racial antisemitism the basis of their ideology; the Jew was guilty by birth. Nothing like this existed before.

Even though Nazi antisemitism for the most part developed on a serious basis from preceding historical moments, including even religious antisemitism, we always underline that in Christian antisemitism, which existed, which also exists now in separate cases in Christianity, in Islam, there never in any case had been the idea of the destruction of a people as such. Of course, the adherents of this or that religion are always talking about justice, the supremacy of their own, and so on.

When a Jew converted to another religion, that was it, all the problems for Jews always ended. Indeed, if not in the first generation, then in the second or in the third the Jewish origins of a person were already forgotten. Few people know that in the great exodus of the Jews from Spain in the year of 1492—the great exodus of the Jews, the official expulsion, most of them accepted by Turkey—not all Jews left Spain. Their homeland, their own country, their businesses, their wealth…and furthermore few people speak out, most do not mention that the chief rabbi also converted to Christianity.

Today in Spain and Portugal there are mostly Marranos, those who are the descendants of the Jews, who are looking for their roots and emphasize the antiquity of their families now. Spain even adopted a law that Spanish citizenship should be given to those Jews who can prove their Spanish origin because it is very important for the country. Besides, this is on preferential terms, and now everybody is looking for their Spanish origin.

I.S.: But if we go back to the exposition, there is besides the history of the tragedy and antisemitism, relations between victims and torturers, a very interesting element in this topic. This is the chapter about the Righteous Among the Nations. I know that there is quite a number of the Righteous in Ukraine.

A.S.: There are about two and a half thousand as of today. These are very sad stories, of course…

I.S.: Please, tell us more about this.

A.S.: Yes, this is really a specificity of the museum. We remember and we want to remember not only our victims, but also those people who helped and saved Jews during the war years. Unfortunately, it was a minority and for the most part they were the exceptions. Nonetheless, every new name and every new person that we find is very important to us.

A lot of time has passed after the creation of the memorial. The survivors have for the most part departed, and in the statement about awarding a title it is said that the petition for conferring the title should be done by the survivors. But now we have extended some approaches to this since some documents may be found, or grandchildren pass along some kind of correspondence from their parents regarding saviors and so on. This institution is extremely unique as such. In order to understand this progress, this process of how it is... the process of awarding the title in proportion of...

I started working at “Yad Vashem” in September of 1990. At that time we knew only three hundred Righteous Among the Nations from the area of the Soviet Union, an area regarded without distinction to republics or nationalities. We just had three hundred of them. A huge stream of Jews who repatriated to Israel in the 90’s did not only bring bags and suitcases with them, but they also brought the most important thing—a memory of the past. And people started to come to us. These were not really old people—they were in their 50’s or 60’s. They were kids during the war. They started to come to us with their stories and requests to immortalize those people who stayed very human in that absolutely black world and who were risking their own lives to save the Jews.

Thus, as we said before, we now know more than two and a half thousand of the names of the Righteous in Ukraine. And in Kyiv, Ukraine there is also the status of the Righteous of Babi Yar. And according to their information, a lot more by the way. We require a lot of this judicial criteria and I think maybe sometimes our requirements for evidence of the Righteous is too demanding.

I.S.: I wanted to ask something about this. As far as I know, Andrei Sheptytsky, a famous Ukrainian public figure, is not recognized as a Righteous by Yad Vashem.

A.S.: Yes. I can tell you my personal position on this: I think this is absolutely and unfortunately not fair. It would have been not only a very important decision from the political point of view. In the committee of the Righteous there are only a few—one or two—people who survived the Holocaust, the catastrophe—a former member of the Supreme Court and so on. They of course have their own special attitude towards this period, their own feeling on this tragedy.

I think that you cannot look at this tragedy of the Holocaust only through the eyes of the victims. This, I think, is the main task of the historian. For objectivity it should be seen not only with the eyes of the victim, but there should be an attempt to understand the problem, the tragedy of this or that nation during the war and in that hour. Oh, I even said that in Ukrainian. By the way, I read Ukrainian, but I do not speak it of course.

I.S.: And what happened to Sheptytsky?

A.S.: He was being blamed, and there is a question why it was being considered for all these years and there were denials all the time. Opinions are divided, as a matter of fact, but mostly it was a denial. There were different discussions in articles published from time to time as well.

It is well known that Sheptytsky saved around 150 people. He sent the letters himself. His brother was awarded the Righteous title. He was distributing Jews according to instructions throughout his monasteries. He issued concrete orders to save. As far as I know, he saved Rabbi Kahane [who for many years was chief rabbi in the Israeli Air Force, editor’s note] if I am not mistaken. The situation is not taken into consideration and is not understood. He sent a letter of thanks to Hitler for the liberation from bolshevism.

People do not want to understand the problems of national dignity and the loss of independence that Sheptytsky experienced along with the people of Western Ukraine, especially after 1939. It was also a Polish problem and Ukraine was partially Poland at that time. After 1939 there was an attack on Poland from two sides. There were Germans on one side and Soviets on another. Maybe it is easier for me to understand this because I am from Latvia and we had the same problems, regardless whether you were a Jew or not. You could have this problem regardless of nationality if you were a patriot of your own country.

So the Nazis, the Germans, were seen as liberators from the Bolsheviks and from that horror and Soviet terror that was in the area for a year and a half. This terror was in all the territory that was part of the Soviet Union and it transcended nationality. And what was seen…I mean the terror—it was not specifically aimed against Ukrainians, Latvians, or Jews.

By the way, I am against comparisons of the Soviet genocide and Nazi genocide. When it comes to the Jews, the Nazi genocide was absolutely motivated by national background and Soviet terror had a class nature—against the national-minded, as we sometimes say today.

I.S.: But there is also the story of the Famine I think.

A.S.: Yes, the Famine. But the Famine was beyond the sphere of Western Ukraine. It was in the South, Central, and Eastern Ukraine. This is something else…and Sheptytsky was acting on behalf of Western Ukrainians first of all. There were almost no priests or hierarchs on Soviet territory. They were almost all in jails.

And understandably, after you know the story that happened—the very cynical Lviv pogrom. It was very awful, violent and cynical…it is also a very big tragedy for the Jews because not all of the pogroms in some other places were of such a violent nature. But Ukrainians saw this horror when they opened Brigitka [a notorious prison in Lviv where prisoners were hurriedly massacred by Soviets retreating from the advancing German army in 1941, editor’s note] and saw hundreds of dead bodies. The same happened in Zolochiv and other places. Everything was very mixed up. But in this tragedy Jews were the ones who turned out to appear guilty. Even though among the victims of Brigitka there were Jews who were also killed. That is why this transcends nationality. A Jewish investigator could be sitting at the interrogation table facing an arrested Jew, or a Ukrainian interrogator facing an arrested Ukrainian. This is much more complex, with the elements of civil war.

Therefore, Sheptytsky felt the pain and tragedy of his people, which was natural, and at that time Ukrainians saw the Germans as liberators. Well, many Jews also thought that Germans were liberators. They remembered the Germans from 1918 and nobody could imagine how everything would turn out. Besides, what was most frightening, nobody thought that neighbors sometimes would become killers. This is important, a very important and serious topic.

This is really amazing history. I am working a lot with the documents and one woman wrote a letter regarding a Righteous. She wrote, “My grandfather was saved by his school friend during the entire war. He hid him in his house, in the basement, and let him out only at night to get some fresh air.” And by 1944 he had been hidden by the Ukrainian for nearly three years. Some other neighbors noticed and called the local police, the Ukrainian police. They killed that grandfather and his Ukrainian friend was hanged and his house burned down. So the neighbors did it. And she writes: “Unfortunately, we do not remember in our family the name of this Ukrainian.” She means the person who saved her grandfather. “But I want at least the memory of this unknown person to remain in your organization.”

Thus, people themselves made their choice between good and evil. This is the main thing—the choice. It can be sometimes very unpredictable and we know it. This is not connected with any ideological settings or religious views, but I would like to believe that real Christian ideology “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” should have played a big role in that.

I.S.: I would like to ask about Sheptytsky. You said at the beginning when we started to talk about him that this is a very important political decision. Why is that so? Please, explain this drama. What is the story?

A.S.: I think, it is because Sheptytsky is so important and a highly moral figure for independent Ukraine. It is also because he wrote his address “Thou Shall Not Kill” [pastoral letter issued in 1942, editor’s note]. Again, some people say: “Why did not he write this in 1941?” You know, those are…I almost said “abnormal” questions. In any case, those are very illogical questions. The situation, the time, we are all people, the feeling of the tragedy, time…we cannot make a person guilty for what he did not do. We should remember what he has done.

I.S.: Can we maybe transfer this story…

A.S.: …for making relations between Ukraine and Israel better, even though the relations are good through all the years of independence. I know this very well because I accompanied many different political actors in Yad Vashem, even those politicians who are inconvenient today, such as Yanukovych, but also Tymoshenko and the mayors of different cities.

I.S.: So it turns out that this story is not only about Sheptytsky, but also about relations between countries, right?

A.S.: Of course, I would say that. But then again, we well know that in a democracy we cannot say this openly.

Let's draw absolute parallels: the refusal to award the Righteous title to a person who is completely opposite to Ukraine, but who is absolutely necessary from the point of view of Soviet ideology, and the story of this man is connected with Ukraine. This is the hero of the Soviet Union Kuznetsov [Second World War Soviet intelligence agent Nikolai Ivanovich Kuznetsov, editor’s note], who was buried in Lviv, and that is the whole story...He was twice refused the Righteous title, although there were exactly three cases of salvation recorded. And his messenger Lisovskaya, who died soon after the war...the girl rescued by them now lives in Lviv and his messenger is now awarded the title of the Righteous Among the Nations. What was the motivation of this refusal? Our committee met because of this.

Kuznetsov, who then operated undercover with the name of Paul Siebert, a German lieutenant, saved another Soviet prisoner of war. He snatched him from the hands of the Ukrainian police, saying that he was my man who was sent there, and brought him to a partisan unit. The son of the person who was saved lives with us today in Israel. He adopts the boy Pinia. I forgot his last name. Before leaving for the last mission he writes a letter about the adoption of this child of fourteen or fifteen years old, who was a Polish-saved Jew. He already was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union title, because people were always motivated immediately. And secondly, he was a Chekist [Soviet secret police, editor’s note]; the NKVD is also a kind of bogeyman. You understand this is also not fair.

These two things are absolutely not connected. He behaved like a human here. And then again I think it would have been very important for Israeli-Russian relations. But then again…two different people on different sides of the barricade. And such is the decision.

I.S.: Is there a narrative about Ukrainian antisemitism that is in the exposition or in the documents that Yad Vashem is studying? Is there such a stereotype?

A.S.: No. There is a stereotype, but there is not such a line. Because when we see and we enter the hall about the activity and tragedy of our people on the territory of the Soviet Union, of course there is Babi Yar, there is a photograph of the pogrom in Lviv. There is the activity of one of the Einsatzgruppen [German killing squads, editor’s note] teams that was active in Central Ukraine. There were four of them. Lithuania was fine; there is nothing about Latvia or Estonia. But there are places like this.

I think everything depends on the person, guide, or companion. It depends on what he is emphasizing, if he wants to be objective or if he takes into consideration his own sympathies and antipathies. He can emphasize one or the other thing according to this. But there cannot be a special line because we always say that not one nation should be blamed.

Thus, if we were to talk only about Ukrainian antisemitism, we would slip into the position of antisemites towards the Jews, and they were blaming the Jewish people for all the troubles. Responsibility should always be individual. There were some groups—yes, it is about the professional community there. In Latvia, for example, there were mostly fraternity students in one of the firing squads. There were several student groups. It was the same in Lithuania. We can note that Latvian historians have now published a book about the Lettonnia student corporation—they say that these local “home-grown” murderers were most active there.

Yes, there are characteristic features of German antisemitism, but I have always been categorically opposed to accusations of Cossack antisemitism—for example the Don Cossacks...Yes, there were tragedies—Uman, Gonta—and we know their names, and yes there are Israeli laments also. And there were prominent features, but what I was saying was we know that Jewish colonels were in the Zaporozhian army. These documents were found along with the signatures. There is something like, “Do you drink vodka? Do you believe in Christ?” And that was it. That was enough. Yes, we remember the classic things all at once, and that was enough. Not one nation in general can be blamed for any trouble.

I will say this again—the responsibility should be only individual. This is for me a deep conviction precisely because...maybe because I am from Latvia, and I know all these problems from my own experience. For me there is a very clear understanding: not everyone who wore the uniform of a German soldier was a killer. Not every policeman was a murderer. It was all individual. We can simply say that a person who wore this uniform and was found in these systems was defending the regime of the killers. This is another matter. But the responsibility should be individual and it should be evaluated: the SS Galicia Division, the Latvian Legion—are they killers or not killers, all these front-line connections, units, the punitive organs—all this has to be considered very seriously.

І.S.: Dr. Aron Shneyer works in the Hall of Names in the Yad Vashem Museum. For the program “Encounters” we talked about how this museum works, about its exposition, and the role the Yad Vashem Museum plays in raising future generations of Israelis. We also talked about the recognition of Andrei Sheptytsky as Righteous Among the Nations. I would like to remind you that this was the program “Encounters” and Iryna Slavinska was working in the studio. I would like to note with my greatest pleasure that the program “Encounters” is produced with the support of the Canadian charitable fund the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. You were listening to Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Edited with additional translation by Peter Bejger