Who benefits from myths about the Second World War?

Adrian Karatnycky

Adrian Karatnycky: “The claim that Nazi tendencies supposedly exist in Ukraine is absurd.”

This article first appeared in the Kyiv-based newspaper The Day (Den′).

The letter written by 56 US Congressmen asking the State Department to join them and human rights organizations “in standing against anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and all forms of intolerance,” and calling upon the government of Ukraine “to unequivocally reject Holocaust distortion and the honoring of Nazi collaborators and fully prosecute anti-Semitic crimes” caused a big stir in the Ukrainian mass media. Many people were offended by the [letter writers’] ignorance both of the real situation in present-day Ukraine and the historical context, especially the formation and evolution of the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists—Ed.] during the Second World War.

The Day already responded to the unfounded accusations in this letter by publishing the article “History is a much more complicated thing, or ‘Liknep’ [likvidatsiia nepysmennosty; Elimination of illiteracy: a system of institutions and resources that were established in the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR in 1919 and 1921, respectively, for teaching reading and writing to the illiterate citizens—Trans.] for 56 congressmen,” on 3 May. (https://day.kyiv.ua/uk/article/podrobyci/istoriya-rich-kudy-skladnisha).

We asked Adrian Karatnycky, member of the Board of Directors of the international organization the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter to comment on the accusations contained in this letter and to explain why the Jewish community has such a critical attitude to certain pages in our history during the Second World War and how the question of creating the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center—among whose sponsors are several Russian oligarchs—should be resolved.

“There are no leading Jewish U.S. Congressmen among the signatories”

— First of all, there are no leading Jewish U.S. Congressmen among the signatories. The initiator of the letter was Ro Khanna, a Congressman of Asian background. I don’t know what his motivation was, but he is not deeply engaged with the life of the Jewish community. My conversations with leading Jewish organizations convinced me that they were not the ones who were behind the publication of this letter.

Such things usually do not happen spontaneously. Basically, some lobbying or community groups direct the attention of Congressmen to some phenomena which demand commentaries or condemnation. They likely are behind this.

Second, the arguments on which the letter is based do not quite correspond to reality. And the main accusations about the supposedly significant rise in anti-Semitic incidents are based on a report released by Naftali Bennett, Minister of Diaspora Affairs, who is on the right-nationalist spectrum in Israel. It was his ministry that published that report, but without any clarifications on which these claims about the increase in anti-Semitic incidents are based.

Vyacheslav Lykhachov, who represents a human rights organization that conducts careful monitoring of [right-wing trends and anti-semitism in Ukraine], says that not a single incident of physical assault on any person of Jewish background took place in Ukraine in 2017 and that the level of anti-Semitic incidents was quite low.

The report, however, talks about hundreds of incidents, and we do not know what the basis for this is.

Incidentally, surveys conducted by the Pew Research Center reveal that of all the countries in Central and Eastern Europe, Ukrainians are the most open to Jewry in various dimensions.

And this is an accurate reflection of reality in Ukraine. We also see that the fact that there are no state manifestations of anti-Semitism in Ukraine is not taken into consideration. The policies of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance are controversial to a certain degree, but anti-Semitism cannot be attributed either to this institution or its director.

It is another matter that the glorification of the OUN, which cooperated with the Wehrmacht and the Abwehr [German military intelligence service—Ed.] until 1941 is unacceptable to the Jewish community.

In addition, the Jewish press wrote about the naming of streets and squares for some nationalists but did not take into account that this occurred as a small part of a massive decommunization of tens of thousands of cities and streets. Hence, the Jewish community perceived a proportionally small number of street renamings as a great wave of renamings in honor of such nationalists as [Stepan] Bandera, [Roman] Shukhevych, and others as a significant glorification of individuals whom the Jewish community sees as having been involved in Nazi collaboration and anti-Semitism.

These are some very complex historical questions here, but there was no special renaming of streets after OUN members; there was no glorification of one political trend or another in the history of Ukraine.

On the other hand, the Jewish community will never understand how an armed force that was part of the Waffen SS can be the object of commemoration of a 70th anniversary celebration or an organized, festive march.

“The Jewish community does not understand the evolution of the OUN movement”

— But this list includes Stepan Bandera. How can he be accused of collaboration when he was imprisoned in a German concentration camp and his family was killed by the Nazis?

— The OUN was an independent organization that constantly sought to promote its main goal: the liberation of Ukraine. But it is a fact that from the 1930s to 1941 the OUN received financial support and cooperated with the armed forces and intelligence service of Nazi Germany. As the historian Timothy Snyder has noted, the growth and instrumentalization of the Bandera movement would not have been possible without such assistance from Germany. Drilling and training were provided both to the Croatian ultranationalists of the Ustashe and the Ukrainian nationalists. This is part of the legacy of the Bandera movement, and that is why I would say the biggest problem for the contemporary Bandera movement lies in the failure to acknowledge that this policy was mistaken at the time. It is true, however, that such nationalistic trends were characteristic of various societies, including in Europe and even in America.

By the way, at the Third Extraordinary Assembly of the OUN [in August 1943] a reorientation took place from racial and xenophobic approaches to an attempt to unite a broad liberation movement and to the understanding that there are allies from among various organizations and nationalities. And the OUN rid itself of those negative features.

But the Jewish community and the citizens of Israel do not grasp all these nuances or the evolution of the OUN movement. They have quite a superficial and, occasionally, distorted idea of the various Ukrainian forces and currents that had both an anti-communist and non-communist orientation. The main thing that they don’t understand is that Ukraine is quite unique in that, during the Second World War, the percentage of victims among the Ukrainian population, with the exception of Belarus, was the highest in all of Europe. Besides the two million Jews who were killed during the Holocaust on the territory of today’s Ukraine, at least five million non-Jewish Ukrainians were killed during the course of this war—as civilian victims of the war and the occupation, within the OUN underground, as soldiers in the Red Army and the partisan movement, or as prisoners of war. All these phenomena are not understood very well.

And the genuine absence of pro-Nazi tendencies in contemporary Ukraine is explained by the fact that horror of what the Nazi occupation meant is part of the historical memory of the vast majority of the Ukrainian population.

The main question in any discussion is for both sides to understand each other. And this kind of distortion—the claim that Nazi tendencies supposedly exists as large factor in Ukraine—is simply absurd. It is simply impossible.

“Ukrainians comprise the largest number of fatalities among fighters who fought against the Nazis on the territory of Ukraine”

— I was in Yad Vashem, and there are a few photographs that show Ukrainians and German soldiers taking part in anti-Jewish pogroms during the Second World War. Has this question truly been researched? Was the participation of Ukrainians voluntary or forced?

— With respect to Yad Vashem, there are various problems. The first is the refusal to recognize [Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church] Metropolitan Sheptytsky as a Righteous Among the Nations, despite the fact that he helped save more than a hundred Jews during the occupation period. Also in the discussions within the Jewish community there is no understanding that the largest armed force that fought alongside Nazi troops was General Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army, which numbered nearly a million. Despite the fact that Ukrainians comprised the highest number of fatalities among the fighters who waged a struggle against the Nazis on the territory of Ukraine, the myth remains that it was supposedly the Russians who were liberating the Jews, while the Ukrainians were collaborators. In reality, everything was the exact opposite. Obviously, this does not whitewash the dark pages of Ukrainian history because there were Ukrainian collaborationists. Collaboration on a level that was not very different from what took place in Poland. And in Romania, it was a much bigger phenomenon. The main difference is that Ukraine did not have a state, and the attempt to create one was nullified by the Nazis.

And here is the main problem, I think. If there is no stable and powerful, formed administration and armed forces, then incidents of anti-Semitism cannot be attributed to a state or a people.

One must also not forget that, as Timothy Snyder notes in his book Bloodlands, a period of post-traumatic stress in society lasted in fact from 1932 to the conclusion of the Second World War and the Stalinist terror. You cannot expect completely humane conduct from people who are brutalized and living in an atmosphere of dreadful tribulations and horrors.

I think it will take decades to heal these wounds in Ukrainian society. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a signal that society had healed from many of these troubles. It is very important for the Jewish community to understand how the restored state of Ukraine is earnestly commemorating the past, the Babyn Yar tragedy, as well as commemorating various events of the Holocaust. Though, of couse, not adequately in all cases.

Still, the general trend is such that the leading role of Jews in economic, state and political life is accepted in Ukraine. Jews are a powerful phenomenon in Ukrainian culture. Ukraine is one of those rare countries where the prime minister is of Jewish background. I think that average American or Israeli Jews are not aware of this phenomenon.

“Jews are not aware of how many Ukrainians were victims of the Nazi occupation, nor do they know that nearly 40,000 Jews died during the Holodomor”

— What conclusion should be drawn from all this? Should we follow the example of the French and the Germans, who have created a joint history textbook?

— We are trying to do this through various scholarly discussions at the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. In the last seven years I have taken part in four such conferences that were organized by our Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Obviously, we are finding some events regarding which we can reach a better understanding. But the Ukrainian side sees some things differently. For example, many Ukrainians accept the myth that Jews were supporters of communism and the nucleus of Stalinism. This is partly true, but Ukrainians, too, were the nucleus of Stalinism, of this totalitarian system. The main thing is that the victims of Stalinism were culturally and nationally aware and religious Jews. Ukrainians are unaware of this.

These [victims of Bolshevish and Stalinism] were the carriers of this traditional identity and were regarded as enemies of the Soviet system no less than Ukrainian believers, Catholics, Greek Catholics, or Orthodox, who did not subordinate themselves to the Communist structures.

By the way, Jews are not aware of how many Ukrainians were victims of the Nazi occupation, nor do they know that nearly 40,000 Jews died during Stalin’s Holodomor.

Thus, it may be said that the Holodomor is a shared horror that Ukrainians of various confessions, including Jews, confronted. One should also realize that even though the Holocaust is unique because of the intentions of its initiators to exterminate all Jews and the Roma people, the number of non-Jewish Ukrainian victims of Nazi occupation is proportionally the largest, together with the Belarusian people, in all of Europe. And both sides should understand this.

I can say that Ukrainians themselves do not know that so many Jews were victims of the Holodomor. That’s why there is a large arena for educational work, fruitful scholarly work, and dialogue between these communities.

I would like to direct attention to the following phenomenon. Ukrainian society regards Israel as a very fine example of effective national-patriotic state building and has great respect for this example and is searching within it for a model for developing society.

Therefore, I can announce that on 12 –13 June our organization, together with the New Europe Center, is organizing the conference “Israel’s Experience of State Building–Lessons for Ukraine” in connection with the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. Parliamentarians as well as a former deputy prime minister, the minister of justice, the secretary of the National Security Council, members of parliament, and leading politicians from various currents in Israel will take part in this event. They will be discussing Israel’s cooperation with its diaspora, public diplomacy, the organization of its defense complex, and how to protect democratic values within conditions of constant tension and continuous threats. This will be a workshop for Ukrainian politicians.

“The US Holocaust Memorial Museum can be a role model in the creation of the Babyn Yar Memorial”

— You probably know that Ukrainian experts hold different views on the activities of the Foundation of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, the general director of which was Marek Siwiec. I would like to hear your view.

— Now, the main role there is being played by Hennady Verbylenko, the former director of COMFY [retail leader of the Ukrainian market of home appliances and electronics—Trans.]. I think that the narrative which is being produced by the group of scholars headed by Karel Berkhoff is heading in the right direction, more or less. But there is a certain uneasiness as to whether this direction will be realized. This is explained by the fact that no one knows how decisions are approved there. Furthermore, the main shareholders of this projects are businessmen with deep roots in Russia. And this is giving rise to a certain skepticism.

Another question is that in the context of the Holocaust it is necessary to explain the context of the occupation. The population of Ukraine is different from the population of America, which did not live through the Nazi occupation and did not have millions of victims, with the exception of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who fought in the war in Europe.

It would be a big mistake not to portray what not only Jews experienced in Kyiv or Ukraine as a whole but the entire population, and to interpret this inaccurately.

But the main thing is that there is no one correct model of administration. The foundation is a closed one. There are very fine advisory and scholarly councils. But these councils do not make fundamental decisions; nor did they approve a decision on the change of the project head, which took place. As far as I know, there was no discussion; the main shareholders/funders did this.

I believe that the role model for creating the Babyn Yar Memorial should be the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where one-third of its board of directors represents the state, which sets certain conditions and allocated a plot of land. One-third is comprised of donors, and the other third consists of experts and leading voices of civic society, Jewish and American.

And if such a board, modeled on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, is created, this would eradicate all the main concerns relating to handing down decisions and to some adequate, balanced interpretation of these events. Because if there are businessmen there who have assets in Russia, then, as we know, they may become subject to great pressure from Putin, who uses any means to wage a hybrid war. It is especially important for this memorial museum not to become the object of a Russian hybrid or propaganda war.

I would say that such an improvement, where all these trends in society—experts, donors and patrons, and the state—would provide the correct balance. And it would also improve and provide an opportunity to build a worthy and righteous monument to the victims of Babyn Yar and the Holocaust on this space. 

“The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is supposed to be a Ukrainian project”

— So, what has to be done in order to achieve this balance, which experts talked to me about in interviews, emphasizing in particular that the state is supposed to join this project?

— What is really interesting here is the total absence in the management of this structure of prominent leaders from the international Jewish community. To this day we are not seeing this. But these people have to be brought in. I don’t know why they still have not become involved in the project, which has been going on for quite some time.

Obviously, this is not supposed to be a state project, but the voice of the state must be heard in it. And world Jewry and international and Ukrainian experts must be enlisted in this project.

I think that this can still be rectified. There is still a chance to reformat the management structure of this very necessary project.

Since questions of history, memory, and historical nuances are interwoven here, I do not understand why the former director of COMFY should be running such a complex project. And this reflects the influence of individual, very powerful patrons—not of a wider circle of experts who were gathered initially.

To summarize, I want to emphasize that the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center is supposed to be a Ukrainian project and be approved with the active participation of experts. And since it has international importance, it is crucial to enlist international representatives in its realization. At the same time, the participation of international moral authorities and experts and authoritative representatives of the Jewish diaspora, as well as representatives of Ukrainian society, especially historians, is mandatory.

Mykola SIRUK, Den
Column: World Discussions, Issue no. 80 (2018)
Published on 10 May 2018

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.