Until 1930 Yiddish was heard on the streets of Rivne, where Jews formed 70 percent of the city’s population — Maksym Hon

Our guest today is Maksym Hon, Doctor of Political Science, professor, head of the civic organization Mnemonics, and a specialist in Ukrainian-Jewish relations during the first half of the twentieth century in western Ukraine.

Vasyl Shandro: The project that you and your colleagues initiated has quite a straightforward title: Paths of Memory. How long will it last? What does it involve? Who is taking part in it? What is its fundamental mission?

Maksym Hon: The project started [more than, Ed.] three months ago. It is financed by the EVZ Foundation (EVZ = Erinnerung, Verantwortung und Zukunft / Memory, Responsibility and the Future). This is a German foundation that deals with victims of National Socialism and the memory of victims. The main goal of the project is to actualize the memory of so-called non-dominant groups: the Poles of Volyn and the Jews of Volyn for example. To talk about individual victims, like the Ostarbeiter, whom we remember more or less. We hold public lectures in order to draw the public’s attention. We post them on Facebook.

The second stage will be to hold a summer school. We will teach people about the culture of memory that is integral to Western Europe and America. We will suggest to our attendees that they undertake microprojects at home. We will assign so-called mentors, consultants, and assistants, and we will finance the implementation of their ideas. During the final stage, we will be traveling to these places; we will create a virtual map that will appear on our site. People will be able to monitor how this process is moving forward. This is the main idea of the Paths of Memory project.

Vasyl Shandro: To what extent have these paths been paved? Have you already set up these itineraries with places that are worth visiting?

Maksym Hon: These paths can be viewed as real or imaginary ones. We still have a lot of work to do in order to turn these paths into real ones. This was conditioned by the emergence of our civic organization, Mnemonics. In Latin, this word means memory. If we are talking about so-called nostalgic tourism, the creation of real itineraries to memory sites, which the descendants of the Czechs of Volyn, the Germans of Volyn, and the Jews of Volyn will visit, then just the first steps have been taken. I am afraid that more than a year will be needed.

Vasyl Shandro: Are you talking about Volyn as an oblast or in a wider context?

Maksym Hon: In the broader context because there are better examples, for example, the city of Rivne, where I live. In the last five years, it has opened up to members of national minorities. Markers have appeared, informing residents and visitors to the city about historical and cultural heritage sites that are connected not only to Ukrainians but also for example, to Poles or Jews as well. In many cases, this kind of evolution is not typical of raion [district] centers, where so far nothing has been done in this regard. The members of our civic organization think that it will be necessary to prepare this culture of memory — the culture that is typical of Europeans, where memory is consolidated as a whole and about the so-called titular nation and about so-called national minorities.

Vasyl Shandro: How accurate is it to divide research on Ukrainian Jewry in this fashion? Is this caused by certain historical factors? Until 1939 Ukraine was occupied or divided between other states. Later, after the Second World War, it was under occupation by yet another state within the borders in which we exist to this day.

Maksym Hon: Without doubt, this is determined above all by the fact that between 1918 and 1939 Western Ukraine was part of the Rzeczpospolita; there are completely different storylines here. If you take Galicia, the region that was part of Austro-Hungary, it developed its own political culture. Volyn, which was part of the Russian Empire, had its own political culture. If we are talking about the late 1930s and the Second World War, then we understand that in the last few years here, the fate of Ukrainian Jewry was shared. What I mean is the repressions instituted by the Soviet authorities, which were aimed at Ukrainians as well as Poles and Jews. And, of course, there was the Holocaust.

Vasyl Shandro: How are Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries being researched in Rivne and the oblast? To what extent does this topic figure in the work being done by your fellow historians?

Maksym Hon: This topic is already noticeable; it has appeared on the margins. But, in my opinion, it is not a storyline that is sparking particular interest among historians. Perhaps this is conditioned by the fact that Ukrainian history education and researchers are first and foremost ethnocentric. These national minorities do not quite fit into this leitmotif.

Until 1939 Yiddish was the dominant language on the streets of the city of Rivne; Jews formed up to 70 percent of the population. If we take the literature on local history, then Rivne most often appears as a Ukrainian city. If Poles or Czechs appear there, they are on the margins, although the situation has changed in comparison to what existed during the Soviet period. Information about some figures and cultural and educational societies can be found.

Vasyl Shandro: Seventy percent — that’s a lot and very conspicuous. So, this community should have left behind cultural, architectural, and written monuments. What would you single out from among this for people who are not at all familiar with the history of Rivne?

Maksym Hon: First and foremost, these are sacred edifices: synagogues. Today there is a single, small synagogue in the city, on Shkilna Street; it used to be the heart of Jewish Rivne. Between the period of Soviet rule and today, it has housed a sports complex, and that complex continues to be there. One of the buildings of the Jewish gymnasium remains in our city. It was called “Education,” where the language of instruction was Polish. It was attended by Jewish children whose parents realized that Jews in Poland should be proficient in Polish. This building has been preserved. Today it houses the municipal department of public education. There are two other remnants of a school; it is in a deplorable state — the former Tarbut school. Children studied in Hebrew there; their parents were oriented toward the building of a Jewish state in Palestine.

In general, very few historical and cultural heritage sites remain in Rivne. During the Second World War, the central part of the city was bombed. The city was rebuilt, and the new micro districts that appeared during the postwar period do not have any kind of ethnic face — neither Ukrainian nor Polish, Jewish, or Russian — I have in mind the former Russian Empire. These are so-called bedroom communities featuring classic Soviet nine-storey, mostly panel buildings. Ten years ago, the old part of the city began to be recast within the discourse of the Ukrainian national liberation movement. A memorial plaque was installed for the educational association Prosvita. A monument was erected to Klym Savur, the head of UPA [Ukrainian Insurgent Army] North, to the UPA artist Nil Khasevych. That’s about it, I think.

I repeat: In the last five years, the symbolic space of the city of Rivne has changed a lot. Markers indicate where something once was or still exists today. I am not just talking about Ukrainian historical and cultural heritage sites, but also Polish and Jewish ones, and partially Russian. The city’s general leitmotif has changed overall. I think that in this sense, Rivne has drawn closer to the European culture of remembrance.

Vasyl Shandro: What memory are we talking about: what we have forgotten, what we did not know? The memory of all Ukrainian society regardless of color, background, religion, etc.? What kind of memory is this?

Maksym Hon: In my opinion, it is lost memory. I completely agree that we should view the lost elements of Polish, Jewish, Czech, or any other culture of those ethnic groups that were in Volyn or Galicia as a shared historical and cultural heritage. Therefore, we do not single out any ethnic group in this project. We are trying to find fellow thinkers, local people who will help discover worthy heroes and historical and cultural heritage sites. We will help mark or label them in the space of a specific locality or small town.

Vasyl Shandro: You mean some specific stories without generalization?

Maksym Hon: Generalization is impossible without a location. For example, we were thinking of creating a digital museum that would talk about the Czechs of Volyn. They appeared in the mid-nineteenth century; they carried out very significant educational work in the culture of agricultural work. They were probably the first to demonstrate what national schools were; they created the first fire brigades. This was done in villages or small towns. If you ask the average Volyn resident about the Czechs, you will see that everything has been forgotten. One locality near Rivne is now called Kvasyliv. It was once called Kvasyliv Cheskyi [Czech Kvasyliv]. If you ask residents about the previous name of their locality, 90 percent of them will not know it. That is why we consider this to be lost memory.

Vasyl Shandro: Regarding stories of mutual assistance, which are aimed at mutual understanding: All over the world, this is a very current topic, not just for Ukraine. For example, an official date has appeared on our calendar when we will remember annually Ukrainians who rescued Jews from the Holocaust during the Second World War. This is an important date, now officially decreed and legitimized by the state, a legitimization of its importance by the state. How often have such stories been encountered among the things that are recorded right now in the Rivne region? Of course, many years have passed, and there are perhaps not many people left who can be asked about this.

Maksym Hon: This topic is very important, above all because there is a colossal educational and moral and ethical potential in the awarding of the title of Righteous Among the Nations (this honorary title is awarded by the State of Israel, by Yad Vashem, in gratitude to the citizens of various states for rescuing people during the Holocaust). The fact that we began celebrating these people this year is somewhat belated; in the European Union this was done much earlier. What is important for me is that the first person to receive this honorary title is a native of Rivne, Maria Babych, who rescued a little girl. She was awarded the title by Golda Meir, who also has Ukrainian roots; she spent her childhood in Kyiv. At the time, she was the Israeli foreign minister, if I am not mistaken.

In my opinion, all these people, these unknown storylines that are appearing, should be made public. First and foremost, it is a bridge to mutual understanding of the complex topics of the Holocaust and Ukrainian-Jewish relations during the Holocaust. We have a chance to talk about not only collaboration but also about those who carried out acts of quiet heroism since an entire family would be shot on the territory of Ukraine for rescuing Jews. In my view, we have taken an important step in the culture of memory. Our civic organization became involved as much as this was possible. We held an event at a technical college; we talked about this with the students. I think that if other members of civil society start talking more actively about this, we will raise it to the necessary level.

Vasyl Shandro: To what extent generally are the politics of memory in Ukraine the subject of politics in the broad sense? When we say that there is no need for politics, there is some guile in this. Without politics, there would not be a day in the calendar, no legitimization on the state’s part of honoring the memory of the Ukrainians who rescued Jews during the Holocaust.

Maksym Hon: You are right. Memory cannot exist outside politics. Collective memory is an artificial construct that is created by politicians and NGOs thanks to writers’ activities, exhibitions, etc. Here it is clear that a person who writes texts, like a clerk, may notice something or perhaps not. I remember someone saying that a historian can go past a place and not notice it. Soviet politics of memory were the ignoring of the Holodomor, of the Holocaust, of the Roma genocide, of repressions and much else. Here we have a different example, the example of Ukraine. On the legislative level, much has been done in our country. The Verkhovna Rada’s Resolution about honoring the memory of the Ukrainians who rescued Jews during the Second World War speaks to a new culture of memory. But there are problems with implementing these declarations in local areas.

Mykhailo Tiahlyi, who researches the fate of the Roma on Ukrainian lands during the Second World War, analyzed the situation, after which he concluded that only some oblast administrations have even mentioned this day. I would say that any resolution is like a declaration of good intentions. But to what extent these good intentions will be implemented locally, the extent to which we will convey the recollection of these tragic or noble events to inhabitants of villages, small towns, and oblast centers, will depend on the authorities and members of civil society.

Vasyl Shandro: Can other civic organizations or researchers join Paths of Memory?

Maksym Hon: We are always ready for partnership. In a few days, we will be announcing the recruitment of participants for the summer school. If any organizations that would like to offer us assistance or their own lecture hall come forward, we are always open to and ready for cooperation.

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.

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