The USSR's antisemitic policy made it impossible for Jewish families to visit Babyn Yar—Anatoly Podolsky

Photo: Slipachuk Artem

On 2 February 2021, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine adopted a decision establishing 14 May as the day on which Ukrainians who rescued Jews during the Second World War are honored.

Our guest on today's program is the historian Anatoly Podolsky, the director of the Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies and a leading scholarly associate of the Kuras Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

Vasyl Shandro: Why should Ukrainians who rescued Jews during the Second World War be honored? Why is this important?

Anatoly Podolsky: I think that in society, in the public sphere, in academia, in education, the theme of the fate of the Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War is a part of the history of Ukraine and of the history of the Holocaust on Ukrainian lands. This is a theme of relations in extreme conditions. The Nazi occupation in Ukraine was extreme for all the ethnic groups in Ukraine. This is about people who, in risking their lives, rescued others. Helping Jews was punished not by imprisonment or camp but death for those who were rescuing and their families. That is why this was an achievement—no exaggeration and no understatement. This is a story of those who brought upon themselves victimhood by saving others and of Ukrainians saving Jews. The term Righteous Among the Nations was introduced by Yad Vashem in 1963 in Jerusalem. [Editor’s note: The term Righteous Among the Nations was coined in 1953 with the creation of Yad Vashem. A decade later a special commission was formed for granting the title.] The criminal Hitlerite National Socialist ideology did not leave Jews a chance to live. Therefore, the people who rescued Jews—Ukrainians, Poles, Russians, Frenchmen, Germans—were named the Righteous. In Ukraine's educational, scholarly, and public space, such people have long been known and honored. It became possible to study this topic only with the collapse of the Soviet empire when Ukraine became sovereign. People began to recount these stories. Society always moves ahead of the authorities. Officials follow and react to the challenges of society. That such a day has appeared on the calendar is without doubt a positive sign, but this topic has long been known in Ukrainian society. People are studying and preserving the memory of this.

Vasyl Shandro: The title of Righteous Among the Nations is awarded by the State of Israel, correct?

Anatoly Podolsky: Yad Vashem, which translates from the Hebrew as "a memorial and a name," is Israel's state memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Sixty years ago, Yad Vashem adopted a resolution containing the criteria of the term Righteous Among the Nations. Why was this such an unprecedented case? The Nazi regime in occupied Europe persecuted many peoples; many Ukrainians and Poles, and other Slavs suffered. But where the Jews were concerned, the policy was unambiguous: They were to be killed, not for armed resistance, not for holding different political views, but only because these people were born.

As the famous historian Yehuda Bauer once said, the idea that in Europe in the mid-twentieth century, a person could be condemned to death because of the fact of his birth is preposterous. The persecution and murder of Jews were lawful from the standpoint of the Тhird Reich. The people who helped the Nazis to persecute others were not violating any law, but in the moral sense, they lost all face and became scum. The people who were rescuing Jews were morally, in fact, rescuing us and you—today.

Everything is transparent. The official website of Yad Vashem contains statistics about the Righteous Among the Nations from all over the world. As a citizen of Ukraine and a Ukrainian historian, you and I can be proud that Ukraine holds fourth place on this list, after Poland, France, and Holland. Every year on 1 January, this figure is refreshed because research is ongoing. As of 2020, the number stands at 2,659 [Ukrainian Righteous, Ed.].

Vasyl Shandro: We cannot say that Ukrainian-Jewish relations are ideal, including in the historical sense. Especially with the topic of the Second World War, which you have worked on during your life as a historian. This is a topic that affects Ukrainian-Israeli ties. Is the Ukrainian parliament's similar initiative constructive?

Anatoly Podolsky: Constructive, yes. Look, the Ukrainian historical calendar as a result of society is becoming more compelling. Little by little, we are ceasing to be afraid of our historical past. We are restoring the memory of the Ukrainian national movement, the Roma, Jews, prisoners of war, forced laborers, workers, Holodomor victims, and Holocaust victims. These memory dates are very important.

Yes, I consider it constructive if we are speaking about the historical context of the Second World War, the Ukrainian context, and the history of the last century. We have dates like 27 January, International Holocaust Remembrance Day; or 2 August, Roma Holocaust Memorial Day, to honor the Roma killed in Auschwitz; or the day in November [fourth Saturday of November—Trans.] to mark Holodomor Remembrance Day. Victims of Babyn Yar Day on 29 September. This commemorates the victims of totalitarian regimes. For Ukraine, this is another step toward general European history.

If we are speaking about the Nazi occupying regime and the changing circumstances not just on the front but also in the lives of the civilian population, Jewish and non-Jewish, then the Ukrainian context does not resemble the context of other Nazi-occupied European countries. Cases, where the local population abetted crimes, were not unique. But there were always people who rescued other people from death. This was intrinsic not only to Ukrainian society, which suffered under the Stalinist regime, the Famine and the Great Terror, which was then replaced by Nazi terror. The famous Ukrainian actress Ada Rohovtseva put it wonderfully when she said that after the Nazis occupied Kyiv in September 1941, people in the city learned to live in slavery and later, after a short pause—in new slavery. I consider it constructive and important to remind society that there have always been noble people, and there still are today. Thanks to these people, we are rescuing our lives as well. We should talk about these various contexts; in Ukraine, the discussion is open.

Vasyl Shandro: Are oral histories about rescuing lives being collected? How many of them are there? How is this being framed?

Anatoly Podolsky: Thank God, there are many such stories. This deserves a separate and very long meeting. I will only say that research on the fate of saviors began in the early 1990s as the study of the history of the Holocaust in the Ukrainian lands. These people were afraid, and they kept quiet. In the Stalinist USSR, Jews were never singled out from among the victims of National Socialism. That antisemitism and Ukrainophobia which existed in the USSR prevented people from remembering it. Families preserved the memory of the victims of the Holodomor or the Holocaust, but outside, in the Soviet empire's public space, it did not exist.

Vasyl Shandro: Why? Shouldn’t this have reinforced the myth of the Soviet regime?

Anatoly Podolsky: No! The Soviet regime was antisemitic, and it persecuted dissidents—Ukrainians, Jews, Tatars. The Soviet regime considered the Jews inferior. There was a fixed quota on admissions to higher educational institutions. And those Ukrainians and Jews who were in the Soviet government did not advertise their Ukrainianess or Jewishness. They were representatives of the regime. There was large-scale antisemitism. Those Jews who survived the ghetto and the camps and returned to their homes in the period of 1948–53, until the death of that tyrant Stalin, experienced an openly antisemitic campaign. The USSR was displeased by the founding of Israel, which did not become a socialist state. Stalin had said that it would be an outpost of socialism in the Middle East, but Jews who survived the war and the Holocaust and were fighting for their sovereignty in the Middle East told Stalin: "We do not want to build a GULAG in the Middle East." A lot of them were social democrats or socialists. This is one of the reasons why Jews in Soviet Ukraine and the Soviet Union were targeted by the Stalinist antisemitic policy from the end of the 1940s to the early 1950s.

Furthermore, ethnicity was absolutely leveled in the Soviet Union; there was this ephemeral "Soviet people." Jewish families did not have the possibility to go to Babyn Yar, and Ukrainian families could not honor the memory of Holodomor victims. People were afraid.

Even in Germany and Western Europe also, the French, the Dutch, the Germans, those who saved their Jewish neighbors, or people not their neighbors, were not very popular. A German historian colleague once wrote that in West Germany, where there was no Stalinist or Soviet totalitarianism, the saviors were also not popular. Why? The historian said because they highlighted the indifference of the majority.

Thanks to Yad Vashem and the activities in Ukraine undertaken by Jewish communities, civic institutions, and collected materials, today, the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War has launched an immense scholarly project called Portrety.UA (Portraits.UA). It features materials from all oblasts about Ukrainians who rescued Jews. We must be honest with ourselves: the number of Righteous was small in Ukraine, Holland, France, Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. This was one of the reasons why, after the war, those people were in no rush to say that they had accomplished something because this did not go down well with the majority.

Some time passed, and people began talking about this. This was not talked about in our country, in the lands of the totalitarian Soviet empire, because the Holocaust, the Holodomor, the Crimean Tatars, the Katyn massacre, the UPA, the Ukrainian movement, were taboo topics in Soviet ideology. At the present time, the stories of these Righteous have become known. Scholarly and educational projects were carried out during the course of which Holocaust survivors were interviewed. One of the initiators in the mid-1990s was Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation from Southern California. Nearly four thousand interviews were conducted in Ukraine, in the course of which people talked about saviors. Later the State of Israel, to its credit, was searching for and honoring those who risked their lives.

At present, our Center for Holocaust Studies is publishing a book series of memoirs. This will be a library of reminiscences written by people who survived the Holocaust. Most of them survived the Holocaust thanks precisely to their saviors—Ukrainians, Poles, and Russians. Thanks to civic and scholarly activities in public institutions, these stories exist today; they are being published in various collections. This memory is thus being restored. The only downside is that much time has been lost. We will never learn about a lot of stories. Many people who were saviors do not believe that they did something extraordinary. But truly, I ask colleagues, how many of us today, in 2021, are ready to take strangers into our homes? And to feed and protect them? We are not ready to do that in our present circumstances. And back then, it was the end of humanity—the end of the world. Someone hid someone in their home, in a cellar. Someone gave clothing and sent them out and said they were afraid. Someone took them to another location that was safer.

Today Jewish communities in all Ukrainian oblasts are collecting materials about Ukrainian saviors. Scholarly institutions and researchers are amassing these materials. The activity in Ukrainian society centered on the restoration of the names of the Righteous did not start, excuse me, with the resolution adopted by the Verkhovna Rada. The Verkhovna Rada resolution, like many others, was about thirty years late. Like many other resolutions. Ukrainian society is far ahead of past governments, or any government. This date is spurring the media as well as the information sphere and stimulating educational and academic institutions to talk about this. This is positive. However, there was a lot of work on preserving the memory of Ukrainian saviors many years before this resolution.

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.

NOTE: UJE does not necessarily endorse opinions expressed in articles and other materials published on its website and social media pages. Such materials are posted to promote discussion related to Ukrainian-Jewish interactions and relations. The website and social media pages will be places of information that reflect varied viewpoints.