Nobel laureate saved in the Holocaust: How Ukrainians and Jews find mutual understanding

On the eve of the memorial event on 3 July 2018 in Zolochiv in memory of the victims of the Holocaust, I turned to the most famous native of this city—the professor of Cornell University Roald Hoffman, the Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.

As a small boy, he, his mother and two uncles were rescued by a Ukrainian family in the village of Univ, and his father, the engineer Hillel Safran, the leader of the Jewish resistance in the Zolochiv ghetto, died heroically in 1943.

I asked Professor Hoffman to answer complex questions: do we need to remember the tragedies of the past or is it better to build a relationship for the future with a “clean slate”? Should the truth of the tragedies of history be heard in the dialogue between Ukrainians and Jews, even if this truth is bitter and unpleasant? How do Ukrainians and Jews achieve mutual understanding—based on what positive examples?

The Nobel laureate preferred to give his answers in a detailed form – in the form of an appeal to the participants of the memorial events on 1-3 July in Lviv and Zolochiv. Below is Professor Hoffman’s text, which, in our opinion, is very important for the modern development of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.

Preface: Shimon Briman (Israel).

Dear friends, Ukrainian and Israeli,

It is good to greet you in this way, as you meet in Lviv and Zolochiv to look at your and my common history. Of course, I am with you, for my life is bound up with the earth under your feet, and the actions of good people who made it possible for me to be alive.

I was born in Zolochiv, in a house that still stands. And my father graduated from the Lviv Polytechnic. Here he is, perhaps on his first job as an engineer, supervising the laying of the first cobblestones on a Zolochiv street you will recognize.

I reflect on the fact that neither Israel, nor Ukraine existed as a country at the time I was born. And yet the people, our people, were there—there were Ukrainians and there were Jews. Many of them lived on the same earth, for hundreds of years—the old graves in Zolochiv’s Jewish cemetery went back to the 16th century; how I wish those gravestones had been saved.

The two communities lived in relative harmony with each other, even as they were ethnically separate, with their own customs. Trade, on the local level, was a common glue. My grandfather ran a small haberdashery, another grandfather worked in the lumber business. Let trade, economics be an Israeli-Ukrainian link in the 21st century.

Back then, even if the communities coexisted reasonably well, there were tensions, even occasional strife. There were stereotypes, there were people who drove the communities apart—the churches of old Ukraine and Poland have things to answer for in encouraging anti-Semitism over centuries. It is hard to imagine today how unchristian those attitudes were.

In the 20th century, the churches generally did better, and you all know of the exemplary human behavior of the Sheptytsky brothers, holy and good men both, in times that tried people’s souls.

Ukraine finally became a free and independent country, a multi-religious one. And so, did Israel, come to life again as a homeland for Jews after two thousand years of exile.

Both countries are blessed by a diaspora—a community of people who share an ethnic heritage with the mother country, but who choose to live elsewhere. I think of the great Canadian and American Ukrainian emigrant communities, I think of the many Jews in the U.S., France, and Argentina. We would not be whole, Ukrainians and Jews, without these communities elsewhere.

You are here in part to remember a terrible time, that of the Holocaust. Sadly, it was a time when historical circumstances pushed many Ukrainians into collaborating, for a time, with the Nazi invaders. The Germans callously turned the local people against their Jewish brethren just when the latter needed their help. It is important to remember the truth of those days, so that one be able to pass beyond it to better times. That remembering will take some effort for all of us.

Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters will need strength, for sadly the historical facts are that many of the heroic figures of Ukrainian nationalism in World War II collaborated in the killing of the defenseless Jewish population by the Nazis. And Jews will have to recognize the pain inflicted on the Ukrainian community by the Soviet (not Jewish) NKVD killing so many Ukrainians. The world is not cleanly black and white but has shades of gray in it.

What should never have happened—the killing of Jews in those terrible days in Zolochiv in the first week of July 1941, repeated elsewhere in Ukraine, following in Zolochiv by less than ten days the killing of so many Ukrainians—deserves to be commemorated with sadness all around.

And there is a way out of that sadness, in the example of courageous goodness in terrible times, as of the Diuk family that hid my mother, uncles, aunt, and me in 1943-44, as of the priests of Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church who saved Jewish children and young people.

Even if there are very few Jews left in Ukraine, the stories of good people saving their brothers and sisters are important. Maybe even more so for Ukrainians, for Ukrainian children, than for Jewish ones.

For these stories encourage the soul. Why? We read too many accounts of human cruelty to other human beings. And it is easy to be ethical, to be good, when there is little at stake. The stories of survival, of people saving other people in wartime—of a crust of bread, a sip of water given as a convoy passes on the road—are all important because they give us a model for how all human beings should behave. They give us hope that we too, if ever faced with such choices, might behave the way those good people did. Let us pray for their strength to pass to us.

Professor Roald Hoffmann, Cornell University, USA
Photo: Volker Steger

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