Radio Liberty: “Ukrainians and Jews in Ukraine have a common history.”

Is there a difference between antisemitism in Ukraine and in Europe? What now influences interethnic relations between Ukrainians and Jews? How can you find a path to understanding? Oleksandr Voitenko, a historian from the Hadyach Gymnasium in the Poltava region, shared his thoughts on these issues in an interview with Radio Liberty.

image menoraRL: Mr. Voitenko, you take an active part in international projects that are aimed at the study of human rights and battling discrimination. You are also the author of books on the Holocaust and the Famine in Ukraine. What are the roots of Ukrainian antisemitism, as seen from the historian’s point of view, and how is it different from antisemitism in other European countries?

OV: I think there are some serious differences. Taking into consideration the influence of history on how Ukrainian antisemitism was formed, I would say that today it is difficult to talk about the entire Ukraine in a historical context. The antisemitism of Western Ukraine, antisemitism in Central Ukraine, and the antisemitic “tradition” of the South of Ukraine have some differences.

If we are talking about Western Ukraine, or Galicia, the antisemitism there is very similar to what they have in Poland. This is because there was a larger Jewish population on the territory of Poland in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Late Middle Ages were characterized by fairly liberal freedoms, including those granted to the Jewish population, which were partially protected by law. At the same time there were contrasting periods of vividly expressed antisemitism, which often had a political or economic basis, depending on the situation.

After the three partitions of Poland, the situation in the central Dnieper Ukraine was fundamentally different. The Jewish population was not numerous, especially in the provinces. A significant proportion was in the cities where such a population was common, and cities in Ukraine were usually formed as multicultural centers. For example, in the Poltava region, where I live, traditional, or latent, as I would say, antisemitism was present in a fairly skeptical and condescending irony towards the Jews. They were different, they were more separate, but often were not perceived aggressively.

In the south of Ukraine, when we look at the large cities such as Odessa, Mykolaiv, or Kherson, the Jewish population was quite numerous and Jews were perceived as a component of the entire population. Again, they might have been perhaps different, but it was without any aggression.

RL: Jewish collective memory holds some traumatic historical events and the most frightening most likely was the Khmelnytskyi uprising. How much does historical memory still poison relations between Jews and Ukrainians?

OV: It is easier for me to talk about how this influenced the collective memory of Ukrainians and how it influenced the creation of latent antisemitism. When the topic of antisemitism is raised or people talk about some other Jewish themes in Ukrainian history, there is a typical perception even today among older students—and many of my students have never met a Jewish person or are familiar with the culture—of Jews as tavern keepers, rentiers, or those who collected taxes and were a separate component of foreigners who did not take into consideration the interests of Ukraine.

All these jokes and folk humor portray Jews as some rollicking and crafty people who know how and where to make money and whose first interest basically is money. This goes back to exactly the era depicted in Shevchenko’s works, in Haidamaky, and so on. The roots of these attitudes date back to more ancient traditions because it is very difficult to associate them with present times.

RL: In contemporary times the stories of Ukrainian oligarchs of Jewish origin are often mentioned in this regard.

OV: Yes, this is possible in later years. I think the emergence of these stereotypes most likely has an origin in the European tradition and more modern Ukrainian tradition. I have in mind the conspiracy theory. This is more characteristic in young students. These young students move from the provinces to bigger cities such as Kharkiv, Kyiv, or Dnipropetrovesk and first hear about this theory, and then everything is happening against the background of some political games and speculations.

RL: What is your formula for battling antisemitism in Ukrainian society?

OV: Today we have a very big problem in the lack of traditions of regarding the memory of the past as the memory of a jointly shared past. Soviet history, historiography, and especially school history has traditionally shown Ukrainian history as the history of a homogeneous nation, a mono-ethnic history. Not only the Jewish component went missing, but also some others.

So for the average modern Ukrainian some very simple things are absolutely incomprehensible. For example the fact that the Holocaust is not only a Jewish tragedy, but also a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, because it took place here. Antisemitic massacres are perceived as something accidental and no one teaches and shows the roots of these phenomena.

I think that today first of all it is important to change the approach and highlight facts in our shared history and disclose the reasons for antisemitism even in its latent form, which exists also in Ukraine. If we stop isolating the Jewish component as a foreign element that is not part of our history, the situation may change.

Originally appeared in:

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger