Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies

Ihor Shchupak, the director of the Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies, is our guest on the program Encounters.

Iryna Slavinska:  You are listening to Hromadske Radio with Iryna Slavinska and the program Encounters. Today we are speaking with Ihor Shchupak, the director of the Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies. At the beginning of our interview, I asked about the work of the Tkuma Institute.

Ihor Shchupak:  The Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies, known as Tkuma, which is translated as “revival,” was founded in 1999. Its founders were the Jewish community of Dnipro and individual community leaders. The goal of the center was to establish a Holocaust museum, which we opened [four] years ago, and to develop scholarly and educational programs specializing in the history of the Holocaust. It became instantly clear that in order to conduct serious research, it would be necessary to broaden the context. As one remarkable historian has noted, the deeper you wish to research some interesting history, the broader the context should be. We cannot study the history of the Holocaust outside of Jewish history and the history of Ukraine. Outside of the problems of world history. Outside of problems of international, interethnic, and interreligious relations both in the twentieth century and in the historical retrospective.

The main direction of the work done by our institute is, undeniably, scholarly work. The study of relevant problems pertaining to the history of the Holocaust, international and interethnic relations, and other questions, beginning with the Righteous Among the Nations and ending with collaboration. Beginning with the system of extermination that existed here, ending with Nazi propaganda and its effectiveness. And the issue of that inhumane propaganda is one of the most urgent questions, particularly the experience that is being exploited today by the enemies of Ukraine. The result of this scholarly work is the publication of books—monographs, collections of documents, collections of articles—and, of course, conferences. We work in partnership with many scholarly centers: the Institute of the History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine; the Institute of Political and Ethnic Studies; with universities, etc.

The second direction is educational work. Above all, we work with teachers. There are programs geared toward working with both students and pupils, but we believe that the most effective path is working with teachers because, as some of our partners in the West say, they are “multipliers.” We work with them, then they work with a large audience.

Iryna Slavinska:  It also offers the possibility to work with the lowest rung, implanting ideas and changes from the bottom rather than the top.

Ihor Shchupak:  For me, a teacher is not the lowest but the highest rung. There is no title higher than that of teacher. I am proud of the fact that I was a teacher for twenty years. I am a teacher/methodologist, a teacher of the highest category. For me, this is no less important than the fact that I defended a dissertation and obtained a Ph.D. in the West. A teacher is the central figure not just in the educational system. Teachers create the main ideological axis around which the state is built. Also important here is the fact that we are not simply studying the history of the Holocaust but also problems pertaining to the Second World War, historical mythology, the methodology of teaching history, the problems of approaching those requirements and traditions that exist in democratic Europe.

Of course, there is no single European teaching model. There are absolutely many different systems. In Germany, for example, everything is said clearly: what is good, what is bad. There are Anglo-Saxon educational establishments. Spain, Northern Ireland, and other countries. They have their own approaches.

Iryna Slavinska:  No wonder, since every country has its own historical narrative of the Second World War and remembrance surrounding this event.

Ihor Shchupak:  If we are speaking about historical narrative, there are no discussions in this regard in Europe. Everything is clear and everything is understood. One can speak only about concepts that are being constructed and about teaching methodology. The concepts of teaching and treatment are connected with various models of historical memory, and they are all absolutely different.

If we take Spain’s experience as an example, after the well-known events of the Civil War of 1936–1939 they decided to capitalize on the fact that a joint monument was built in honor of all the victims of the Civil War, and to a certain extent for a certain period of time they arranged to forget about sensitive problems in order not to provoke and split apart society. There is in addition a problem of separatism, in separate lands such as Catalonia or the Basque country.

In Germany, there is a completely different model. In that country everything is clearly indicated, and you can speak about the war and Hitler and the criminal Nazi regime only in a certain way—there are no discussions around this, and the state controls this. The Germans took this upon themselves, having realized the extent of the horror that existed during Nazism. They made their choice. There is the Anglo-Saxon model, where alongside a statue of a king there may be a statue of Cromwell, who executed this king. Somehow it works, in monuments, in historical literature, and in historical memory.

In Ukraine, we are now at a critical point, where we cannot understand what our model will be, especially now that laws on decommunization have been passed.

Iryna Slavinska:  Are these laws having an impact on what we are talking about? On these models that exist in Ukraine? We have to take a step back here and ask what historical models existed in Ukraine.

Ihor Shchupak:  Ukraine has always stood a bit with its “feet apart.” On one side there was always a segment of society that was oriented on the liberal European model. Another part was oriented on Russia, that is, not on Russia, but on the post-Soviet model of history and historical memory. And these are the questions that were the important preconditions of the terrible crisis and war that took place in Ukraine.

The enemies of Ukraine also exploited various models of remembrance and a useless humanitarian policy, which did not exist in Ukraine under any president. Neither under Kravchuk nor under Yanukovych. Only during Yushchenko’s term in office were there certain trends in creating a Ukrainian model of remembrance around the tragedies that our country experienced throughout the twentieth century, at the center of which was the Holodomor. Historians have identified the four greatest tragedies of the twentieth century in Ukrainian lands: the Holodomor, the Famine of the Ukrainian peasantry; the Holocaust; the deportation of the Crimean Tatars; and the Polish-Ukrainian war, along with the Volhynia tragedy. Already from this we see that the most critical moments in history are tragic. They are connected with what is understood as genocide. It is very difficult to construct historical memory on the basis of death, destruction, and genocide. To construct only on the negative is very complicated. This has an impact on a country’s mentality and psyche. Therefore, when we are teaching the history of the Holocaust, we are trying to balance it somehow.

Iryna Slavinska:  How can it be balanced?

Ihor Shchupak:  I will tell you. When we talk about extermination, it is necessary to talk about rescuing as well. When we talk about rescue, we have to talk about the Ukrainian heroes who, in risking their own lives and the lives of their families, saved people. Stories about how people were rescued in the Holocaust are a positive thing. The same goes for the Holodomor. The horrible cases of cannibalism, destruction, and betrayals took place. But they are not the whole story because there was also mutual assistance. And rescuing. Very little attention is paid to this aspect of the Holodomor. I expect that with the founding of the Holodomor Ukrainian Research Center, which is headed by the noted researcher Professor Liudmyla Hrynevych, there will be a positive shift. Of course we work with this center because we have exhibitions and special departments devoted to this issue.

It is very symptomatic that in contemporary Ukraine the tragedies of various nationalities are viewed as the histories of one people—the political nation of Ukrainians, where there are Ukrainians, and Russians, and Jews, and Crimean Tatars, and Armenians, etc. But every historical phenomenon requires separate study. Various problems can be studied. They can be compared, comparative research can be done, for example, of the Holodomor, the Holocaust, and the Armenian genocide. But these are separate problems. They were formed under different historical conditions, on different historical soil. 

Iryna Slavinska:  A further topic of our conversation is [Tkuma’s] educational activities and cooperation with the Ministry of Education of Ukraine.

Ihor Shchupak:  We are cooperating with the Ministry of Education of Ukraine, and this experience has lasted for more than fifteen years. We hold joint seminars and programs. Of course, we have other partners: the Institute of National Remembrance, the Ukrainian Catholic University, regional institutes of post-diploma education. We developed a program with institutes of post-diploma education called “The Study of the History of the Second World War and the Holocaust Under the Conditions of the Current War against Ukraine.” In this context, attempts are being made to conduct a comparative analysis of what was and what is. It turns out that the problems of genocide and rescuing, problems of international relations, and the impact of propaganda on people are extraordinarily relevant today.

It turns out that the profession of historian is the most relevant today in public life in Ukraine. This is unfortunate for a country where such a thing happens. It means that the country is looking at the past, not the future. And it is the past that tears a society and a country apart. Much can be said about the East and Crimea but within the framework of our program we run public education campaigns.

As part of this program, we conduct seminars in all areas. For example, we brought it to Luhansk. Barricades were already erected there, the SBU [Security Service of Ukraine—Ed.] had already been seized. When I arrived at large local school—I was asked not to name it—I conducted classes on the war and the Holocaust. We spoke in Ukrainian, and the perception there was the same as in Dnipro, Kyiv, or Lviv. There was also an entirely adequate reaction at a teachers’ seminar. In every audience of teachers there is always someone who says that all this is lies and that there was no joint Soviet-German military parade [An official ceremony held by the troops of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union on 22 September 1939 during the invasion of Poland in the city of Brest-Litovsk—Ed.] and that all this is American propaganda. But why should American propaganda talk about the German-Soviet alliance? Someone may argue: “This is a lie! Our Party, our Red Army was guarding the border. Our air force…” And so on. One or two—this always happens, whether it be in Lviv, Luhansk, or Donetsk. But the general atmosphere was responsible and adequate.

Iryna Slavinska:  Is the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine sufficiently reflected in the works of Ukrainian historians? Is this topic reflected in the awareness of those who talk about the history of Ukraine? 

Ihor Shchupak:  I am proud of the fact that on the educational level, Ukraine was the first post-Soviet country to introduce the compulsory study of the history of the Holocaust as part of the school history curriculum. You can see this. So, when I write textbooks, for the eleventh grade for example, I base myself on the program requirements, and I cannot avoid writing about this. It is one thing when an author of one textbook devotes two paragraphs to the Holocaust, and another author devotes an entire chapter. But there is a juridical basis for this. As concerns the study of the history of the Holocaust, I can say that the history of the Holocaust is part of the pan-Ukrainian historical narrative. The history of Ukraine is not possible without an understanding of the Holocaust as a component of Ukrainian national history. It is equally incorrect to say that the Holodomor is a purely Ukrainian phenomenon, or purely Ukrainian history. It is a problem for all of humanity. And more so for Ukraine and the peoples who settled Ukraine. First of all for ethnic Ukrainians, because it was precisely they who comprised eighty percent of the victims of the Holodomor. But Russians, and Belarusians, and Jews, and Poles perished alongside them. But putting that aside, the tragedy of one people is an integral part of the general historical context.

As for the Holocaust, it is difficult to imagine a work on the history of the twentieth century or the Second World War without any mention of or a lengthy explanation of this aspect. Professor Yaroslav Hrytsak’s comment is very apt. An awareness of the history of the Holocaust as part of national history is the entry ticket into the European community. The Holocaust is one of a few historical phenomena, which is universal with regard to studying the lessons of history. It is a component of pan-European historical memory. From Spain to Poland. From Germany to Italy. Of course, there were different aspects and specifics—in Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, or Germany. Whether in Switzerland or Sweden, it is a component of history in every country. We are preparing along with the author Paul Levine and others a Ukrainian edition of the book Tell Ye Your Children, a publication launched on the initiative of the Swedish government and published, if I am not mistaken, in fifty languages. We are now preparing a Ukrainian version. Yes, there are specifics for every country. But the Holocaust is the very phenomenon that can help find the keys to understanding other historical problems, whether the Ukrainian national movement, or Ukrainian-Polish relations, or interreligious questions, or the problem of tolerance in general.

Iryna Slavinska:  That was Ihor Shchupak, the director of the Tkuma Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies. This program was made possible by the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. I am Iryna Slavinska and this is Hromadske Radio. Listen. Think.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian (Hromadske Radio podcast) here. 

This program is created with the support of the Canadian philanthropic fund Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Translated by Marta D. Olynyk
Edited by Peter Bejger