"Spontaneous monuments to the dead are reappearing in our cities, just like in the period when Jews were being shot," says Vladyslava Moskalets

Mass grave in Bucha. Photo: Anastasiya Horpinchenko, Hromadske Radio

How do we remember the genocide of Jews, and how should we record the genocide of Ukrainians in this Russo-Ukrainian war? 

Our guest today is Vladyslava Moskalets, senior lecturer in the Faculty of History at Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) and a researcher at the Center for Urban History in Lviv.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: I would like to talk about historical memory in the broadest possible sense of this term. But first, let's establish whether this concept exists as a concrete, fixed definition in the history profession.

Vladyslava Moskalets: Historical memory is an entire branch of studies that is becoming popular and important. When we talk about countries and places with a history that is shared by society, we can call it official memory that the state forms by various means: erecting monuments, writing history textbooks, sponsoring films, and organizing cultural events.

We also have everyday historical memory that functions in our daily environment, when we ask our relatives about what they experienced during the war and how they remember the Soviet Union. This is also historical memory.

This branch is complex and important because it helps us to talk about the relevance of history and to connect history to the present.

"Jewish historical memory exists mostly on the everyday level"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Who should be overseeing the preservation of all this in our memory?

Vladyslava Moskalets: When we talk about Jewish historical memory, it exists mostly on the everyday level. Oldtimers in villages or small towns will gladly tell you where Jews lived. For them, it is a normal thing that they can discuss. A number of factors led to the erasure of Jewish historical memory in our country, which is connected above all to politicians and the official policy of the USSR, when Jewish sufferings could not be singled out. Instead, it was emphasized that "all citizens of the Union suffered equally because of the war." Thus, spontaneous monuments to the victims of the Holocaust began to appear both in the Soviet Union and in Poland. But the Soviet government attempted to destroy them and did not allow something new to be built. This process changed with the advent of independence, when Jewish communities were permitted to erect memorials to the victims of the Holocaust. We have a memorial to the victims of the Jewish ghetto in Lviv, and there are Holocaust monuments in various small towns. They were often erected by Jewish communities with the support of natives of Ukraine who live abroad today.

For a long time, the state did not join this process on the official level. But it did not ban the installation of such monuments. That is why Jewish memory has remained segregated.

We have an interesting example in Lviv. The city helped establish two commemorative sites: spaces of synagogues in downtown Lviv, which hark back to the Jewish population, and Koliivshchyna Square, which showcases the names of the Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews who once lived there. We have examples in other cities that are connected, for the most part, with the Holocaust. In Rivne, stolpersteine, "stumbling stones," were laid into the sidewalk with the names of people who once lived there.

However, most often, it is the memory of death and tragedy, and these commemoration methods do not allow us to grasp fully the extent to which Jews were part of our everyday life before the Holocaust.

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: There is an area in Lviv that was once the Jewish quarter. Jewish-owned buildings have been preserved. Everything is designed in such a way that visitors can learn about the families that used to live here and the occupations that they pursued. Standing there, you sense an atmosphere; you can imagine the color and rhythm of life when these people were living and working there. Our cultural heritage is lacking because these people created irreplaceable and unique color.

Vladyslava Moskalets: This is a broad issue; it is not limited to monuments. Before the Holocaust, Jews formed one-third of the population of some cities; in others — the majority. In the Bukovyna region, there is a small town called Vyzhnytsia, where 90 percent of the population was Jewish. The town is bound up with Hasidism, which was a strikingly unique phenomenon in the Ukrainian territories of Galicia and Podillia. Hasidism, in turn, is connected with pilgrimages, large-scale events, public weddings, and songs. These were customary things for our great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers, who lived alongside Jews. Jewish words and borrowed expressions are encountered quite often in the Ukrainian language because this was a part of life next door. There is an ongoing discussion about the extent to which we can speak about multiculturalism. But even if we supposed that these cultures were separated from each other, there are many points of intersection. We can observe this in literature, which is moving in a single direction, and in popular songs, the motifs of which both cultures borrow from each other.

All this is being discussed only at the university level. Some articles or films are being produced on the level of popular culture, but it is minuscule compared to the scale of this culture in our history.

After 2014, we began asking ourselves whether we should be cultivating our Ukrainian culture, which has also been the target of destruction, and focusing on it. Be that as it may, we cannot sever other cultures from it because this would be an artificial version of it, because it was never cut off from cultures.

"Overseas, in Israel and America, Ukraine is frequently associated with the place where the Holocaust took place"

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: How important is it to know more about the history of the Jews, who, prior to the Holocaust, lived in Ukrainian cities and villages? How important is it to understand the scale of the tragedy? 

Vladyslava Moskalets: Overseas, in Israel and America, Ukraine is frequently associated with the place where the Holocaust took place. If we ourselves know how to talk about this, we must know how to talk about this with the people for whom this memory is personal, familial — important.

We must get to know this history and understand it, both its positive and negative aspects. This is our history, such as it is. We cannot throw out a major part of it. It is rich and fascinating; it enriches us. The Yiddish language contains many Ukrainian words because it was formed in a Jewish-Ukrainian environment. Jewish literature, modernism in the 1920s–1930s, actively interacted with Ukrainian modernism. Writers and poets knew each other, translated works, and associated with each other. This existence was dialogue-like. Once you know this, you understand your own culture better. We see more allusions. We become spiritually richer people.

Many regional historians and people from small towns who simply enjoy the history of their towns do not sidestep these topics. They are interested in them because they realize that the history of our localities is perceived as a complex. We do not single out something from it.

How did Jews manage not to become assimilated with Ukrainians?

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: Jews succeeded in preserving their characteristic features and did not become assimilated with Ukrainians. How did they manage this?

Vladyslava Moskalets: In the academic world, assimilation is divided into several narrower terms, one of which is acculturation. This is when Jews begin to wear non-Jewish clothing, to speak the language of their neighbors, and send their children to gymnasiums. Nevertheless, they do not forget that they are Jews, and they uphold the norms of Judaism. We can also talk about secularization and integration. These are processes of the modern era, noticeable in large cities among more prosperous people. When we look at the history of Lviv during the interwar period or the history of Poland, we see that Jews were very much a part of the Polish environment. Polish was often their native language. But in cases of modern nationalisms during the interwar period, others did not perceive them as their own kind.

The question of what it was like in villages is inadequately researched. This was everyday life. We understand that Jews spoke Ukrainian, in addition to Yiddish, because they had to coexist; their children played with Ukrainian children. According to the famous actor Alexander Granach, who was a native of Galicia, in terms of religion, Ukrainians and Jews were disconnected from each other. For Jews, conversion is worse than death. When a community member converts to Christianity, the members of his family have to hold a mourning ritual for several days, as though he were dead, and to sever relations. They [Ukrainians and Jews] are distinguished by their food. [For Jews] it has to be kosher, which means that you cannot sit down at the table with your neighbors. The real picture is interesting, and little is known about it. We may never end up learning about such things.

How not to forget historical memory during wartime

Yelyzaveta Tsarehradska: What has to be done right now in order to record information that is part of historical memory today and to transmit it to succeeding generations, so that it does not come to pass that eventually everyone will forget this moment in time or that people will say that this did happen, but it was a long time ago, and there is no sense in recalling it?

Vladyslava Moskalets: It is difficult to talk about tragedies of the past when we are embroiled in the present tragedy. The process of commemoration has already begun. During the war, I was struck by the fact that mass graves have appeared in cities in the Kyiv region. This was a shock for me. I had read a lot about Jewish mass burial sites, and now once again, the same thing is appearing in our cities. It is difficult to understand what to do with this.

Spontaneous memorials to the dead are appearing once again in our cities, just like when Jews were being shot. The sooner the state, scholars, and experts begin reflecting on how all this is supposed to look, the better. The preservation of names is important.

There is an interesting new project in Poland called "Names, Not Numbers." The problem with many mass burial sites on the territories of Ukraine and Poland is that we will never learn who is buried there. The creator of this project in Poland has decided to find the maximum number of names and details and inscribe the maximum number of details on these monuments so that they will not be nameless. This is important.

Commemoration methods change over time, and the ways in which we will be remembering our dead will change, too.

For the full conversation, listen to the podcast (in Ukrainian).

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.