People do not want to remember because they are afraid of finding out something that is incompatible with their self-image—Sofia Andrukhovych

Sofia Andrukhovych

On the Encounters program, we are continuing our conversation with the writer, translator, and journalist Sofia Andrukhovych about her novel Amadoka. We discuss how to distinguish valuable documents in archives from trash, the history of the novel’s creation, and the importance of memoirs.

Iryna Slavinska: When you are in an archive, you recognize that all the documents that are stored there are valuable. But not everything is equally valuable in an archive. Someone may bring a suitcase of photographs that turn out to be trash.

From this suitcase stems one of the sections of the novel Amadoka, which is most interesting to me. This is Buchach [a city in Ukraine, the center of Buchach raion in Ternopil oblast—Ed.], the Holocaust, and the family history that is recounted via photographs. How did Buchach and the Holocaust theme appear in this novel?

Sofia Andrukhovych: This is a story that lasted quite a long time; it came to me in different ways at various points in my life. This story begins approximately from the moment that Mariana Maksymiak [a Ukrainian poet and civic figure—Ed.] invited me to take part in a creative residency in Buchach, where Maksymiak heads the Agnon Literary Centre.

I had never been to Buchach before. Territorially, this is almost Galicia, where there are people who are close and understandable to me. I agreed, feeling a sense of adventure. A small town not far from the city where I was born. What might happen? My idea was literally turned upside down from the very first minutes I arrived there.

Every day was terribly busy. The program was about conveying [Shmuel] Agnon’s work to people, the recovery of the Jewish history of Buchach, and the ancient history of Buchach in general. The program was designed in such a way that every day, the participants of the residency had meetings with historians, tour guides, and people who deal with separate segments. For example, architecture, and [the sculptor Johann Georg] Pinsel. That is how I gained new impressions every day. The main ones were connected with Pinsel, with the contrast between the greatness of this sculptor and genius and the sad condition of the Town Hall, where his sculptures, suffering from neglect, remain. Another impression was connected with the very striking experience of the vanished Jewish mainland.

In Buchach, I saw buildings and streets, an entire small town that was once created mainly by the hands of Jews, the representatives of an entire culture. For many centuries they lived in this area on this territory. And within a very brief period of time, these people disappeared; this entire mainland. Today the traces of their existence remain, but these traces are becoming less and less noticeable. I was struck by the fact that these traces are being covered over, like living flesh covers what was there before. It is terrible and disconcerting to know that there are practically no recollections about those previous owners. Mariana Maksymiak and the people working with her are trying somehow to extricate these recollections.

This is proving very difficult; people cannot recall. They do not want to. I am inclined to look at this as at some kind of incapacity. This is not about evil intentions. For me, this is connected more with the great fear of discovering something that you cannot live with, something that will make life different from what it was earlier—finding out something about yourself that is incompatible with your self-image.

Iryna Slavinska: Are there any artifacts in Buchach? Buildings, old synagogues?

Sofia Andrukhovych: A huge cemetery remains, which until recently was extremely neglected and had grown practically into a forest. This is a typical situation for such shtetls and small towns and cities in Ukraine, where the last traces are being neglected. In the last two years, this cemetery is being restored, but this is being done not through the efforts of Ukrainians. Jewish organizations that gather young people from Israel or which have Jewish roots are restoring such monuments with their own hands. The synagogue is also ruined; today, there is a market on its site. Some excavation work was carried out; the foundations of the synagogue remain in the ground.

Iryna Slavinska: Why should Buchach remember its Jews? Why should Ukraine remember its Jews?

Sofia Andrukhovych: For me, this is an obvious matter that can be pondered at length. When we cut off a part of our recollections, reject things that we do not like or which give us pain, it only seems as though we are rejecting them. In reality, it is impossible to rid ourselves of these things. They remain very profoundly unarticulated, non-reflexive, non-resonant, invisible, but they continue to function within us and in our stories.

This is what happened in the case of Ukrainians when we talk about the Holocaust. It is only recently that we have begun to return to this topic, to research it in the scholarly sense, interpret it in an artistic sense. Concrete preconditions of the collision between neighbors exist for this. For a very long time, Ukrainians coexisted with Jews. This coexistence was extremely varied, not always harmonious, but people lived together in one space.

When the Second World War started and the German invasion began, the German occupation, the Germans created and organized conditions for solving the Jewish Question. Ukrainians forcibly ended up in a situation in which they were compelled to make a choice. They were observers and simply saw what was happening to their neighbors, people close to them. For various reasons, they could not intervene or help. Sometimes, they consciously took part in persecutions and killings. Out of concern for their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, they were forced to betray or contribute to what was happening.

They risked their lives and put themselves in danger; they tried to help and save. Of course, there were fewer such cases for understandable reasons. After all, a person fears for him- or herself, for loved ones. It is impossible to do anything to counter these natural forces.

After all these inhuman, horrible things happened, history developed such that the Soviet era commenced, and a different state began to push in the sense of forgetting history. Here, personal trauma and the inability to talk about these inhuman things were layered onto a ban instated by the Soviet Union forbidding people to talk about what had existed earlier.

It was dangerous to talk. It meant the threat of arrest and deportation, problems for relatives. All these topics were squeezed out. Time passed. But in fact, they always remained, and they remain with us. In an unconscious fashion, this silence dictated the behavior of those people who had experienced these events directly. These were people who were deeply traumatized because there existed in them part of their individuality that they simply did not communicate to their loved ones and the world.

This lack of communication, this silence or numbing, was transmitted from generation to generation. In my opinion, this torpor is very harmful because it means that we simply are not making use of some part of ourselves. This paralyzed, numbed part hinders life, movement, communication, and love. It is Lake Amadoka, which exists or not, but is felt. Its weight lies on all of us.

Iryna Slavinska: In this story, you could talk about the ratio of executioners and victims. I was somehow struck by the conversation with Martin Pollack, who also researches the fate of Galician Jews. He reasoned that in speaking about the Holocaust in Ukraine, it is wrong to divide people into executioners and victims. Do you agree with this statement?

Sofia Andrukhovych: Yes. I also have great respect for Martin Pollack and his research. I really like the way he looks at the history of his family. I am generally struck by the bravery and honesty with which he recounts the history of his father, of his father’s parents, their commitment to Nazism, their sympathy that did not change even after the end of the Second World War.

I am fascinated by the intonations where Pollack recounts unbelievable, inhuman circumstances. It would seem that in his family’s case, there is immense guilt. And he talks about this guilt; he does not deny or conceal it. He does not resort to excessive, exalted states but gives an honest account of what happened—and he does this with a sense of responsibility.

In our lands, history was expressed in a great variety of ways, so frequently did it change. Because there was no Ukrainian state and Ukrainians did not feel protected by any authority, this defenselessness made them much more vulnerable to manifestations that eventually predict a feeling of guilt.

Every person had to save him- or herself. There were people who set out to build this statehood; for example, the UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] and the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists]. But even in relation to these people, we have a lot of doubts and contradictory aspects relating to their method of pursuing their goal. That is why the majority of histories of Ukrainians are connected with things where there is much pain, much shame, many contradictory aspects that are difficult to classify. There are aspects of various viewpoints from the West and from our part of the world.

Iryna Slavinska: Ola Hnatiuk has a book called Courage and Fear. For example, the Holocaust in Ukraine is a story with a great amount of fear and a lot of courage. We know how many Ukrainian men and women have been awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations, as well as how many did not obtain this status. In the second part of Amadoka there is a story about people who were saved. Is remembering not just pain but also courage, an important part of history?

Sofia Andrukhovych: Of course, this part is no less important than all the others. When I was trying to explain this to myself, to lay it out convincingly, I struggled with stereotypes that every person has. The characters who come largely from the texts that I was reading beforehand—memoirs of eyewitnesses and people who were saved, and scholarly works on these topics—came in handy. I got the impression that the people whom we call the Righteous were far from being simple heroes who are guided exclusively by ideas of good and who absolutely do not care about themselves. It is far more interesting and truer to see how contradictory these actions can be; how every discrete case happens in a variety of ways.

Sometimes a person can save someone, sacrifice his or her own life, repudiate something that is important to him or her for reasons that have nothing to do with good. Sometimes it happens that some terrible acts result from a person’s best intentions. For me, there is a kind of complex and ambivalent truth in this, which I try to recreate in my text.

Iryna Slavinska: Which are the must-see locations for gaining a good understanding of Amadoka?

Sofia Andrukhovych: For me, it is the central part of Kyiv: Khreshchatyk and Lypky, the transition to the Podil. For me, these places are associated very much with the Neoclassicists. But Buchach is small; all of it can be covered easily. Another landmark for me is the hill on which stands the monastery of the Basilian Fathers. It is a hill to where the road leads from the center, from the Town Hall, from the place where the synagogue once stood. This road goes past the monastery and continues to the place where my characters’ building was located. When I was researching this topic, I came across an old map of Buchach. That was when I found out that behind this hill were located ritual slaughterhouses, where the ritual slaughter of animals very likely took place.

This program is created with the support of Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian charitable non-profit organization. 

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here.

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

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