Ukrainians and Jews in Israel discuss historical memory of the Holodomor and the Holocaust

Vasyl Rasevych

The tragic moments of Ukrainian and Jewish history were discussed at a three-day seminar entitled “Jews and Ukrainians: Controversial Issues of Historical Memory,” which ended late last week in Tel Aviv. The focus of the discussion that centered on a range of problems pertaining to historical memory was the two tragedies, the Holodomor and the Holocaust, and the unhealable spiritual wounds of the two nations.

Over 50 Israelis took part in this brainstorming meeting, organized by the civic group Israeli Friends of Ukraine, with the support of the Canadian non-profit organization Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter (UJE).

Among the distinguished guests were Ukrainian specialists, such as the historian Vasyl Rasevych and the media expert Taras Nazaruk from the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe (Lviv).

Vasyl Rasevych’s paper entitled “The Creators of Memory: Ukrainians and Jews in the Politics of History in Contemporary Ukraine” set the direction for further discussions in Tel Aviv. Rasevych also highlighted current questions dealing with the historical names (ethnonyms) of Jews and Ukrainians in a speech entitled “How (Not) to Offend a People.”

Taras Nazaruk

His younger colleague, Taras Nazaruk, talked about the integration of the Jewish heritage in the public space of contemporary Ukraine, using the city of Lviv as an example.

The Kharkiv-based director Borys Shusterman’s new documentary film, which was screened during the seminar in Tel Aviv, depicts (the sympathetic) feelings of the current residents of the Ukrainian village of Bobrovyi Kut, in the Kherson region, who feel the pain of the tragedy that befell their Jewish neighbors during the Nazi occupation.

The Israeli journalist and historian Shimon Briman, using the genocide of the Jews that took place in the city of Zolochiv, located in the Lviv region, as an example, analyzed the model of the disappearance and restoration of the memory of the Holocaust among Ukrainians.

Tsuvik Keren, a kibbutz resident, shared the story of his family, which hailed from the Volynian city of Dubno. In the municipal hospital of this town a room in the maternity ward was equipped thanks to funds collected by a group of Israelis who discovered their roots and wanted to honor the memory of their relative, who was killed there during the Holocaust.

The well-known Israeli documentary film maker Boris Maftsir offered his own version of why Stalin and his heirs concealed information about the Holocaust.

Hannah Nevzlin, a historian based at the Museum of the Jewish Diaspora in Tel Aviv, presented archival materials on the repressions launched by the Soviet secret services against the Jews of Ukraine in 1945–1953.

The German scholar, Dr. Nicolas Dreyer, spoke about how the memory of the Holocaust and the Holodomor changed in the contexts of the politics of history in the USSR and contemporary Ukraine. He emphasized the use of these two tragedies in the political sphere in recent years, against the backdrop of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

Shimon Briman

Within the framework of open and frank dialogue, impassioned discussion took place around such questions as, “Who are they—the contemporary heroes of the Germans, the Ukrainians, and the Jews?”, the “monuments war,” and controversial questions pertaining to the Holocaust memorial in Babyn Yar, which has yet to be created.

Also discussed was the painful question of the position of the OUN and the UPA during the Holocaust. The seminar participants sought to understand why the Knesset is still refusing to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

“This was a seminar featuring topics of concern to Jews and Ukrainians. [We] touched on the problem of the historical memory of the tragedies of our two peoples: The Holocaust and the Holodomor. The questions that were raised were not easy ones. Nor was the discussion easy. But such questions must be asked and solutions must be sought,” seminar participant Tetiana Gur said, commenting on the results of the three-day meeting.

The importance of this format of Ukrainian-Jewish dialogue was underscored by Yulia Ostapenko, an activist from the organization Israeli Friends of Ukraine. “Three days of immersion in history and connecting with amazing people, three days of the common, shared energy of a quest for the historical truth, sense, and heritage that was left to us by our forefathers. Everyone has something to learn, both Ukrainians and Jews. Ukrainians, in particular, must learn how to understand and be responsible for themselves, for their life, and for their history and their future.”

Summing up the results of the final dialogue, the seminar participants and especially young Israelis suggested that it would be extremely important to continue this kind of open dialogue between Ukrainians and Jews next year and to reach a larger audience composed of participants and specialists from Ukraine and Israel.

Text and photo: Shimon Briman (Israel)
Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk (Canada)