At the end of the nineteenth century, there were at least three million Jews living in the territory of what is today Ukraine, which was at that time divided between Austria and Russia. Ukraine represented a major religious, literary, and political centre of eastern European Jewry. The co-existence of Jews and Ukrainians was deeply influenced by social, cultural, and economic exchange, but also by differences and conflicts. The worst example of anti-Jewish violence in the distant past took place during a seventeenth-century uprising of Ukrainian Christians and Cossacks against the Polish republic. After the partition of Ukraine between Russia and Austria in the late eighteenth century, the Jews of eastern Galicia, Bukovina, and Transcarpathia enjoyed the same civil rights as other subjects of the Habsburg Empire. There, anti-Semitism was for the most part marginal. In the Russian Empire, however, anti-Semitism was official policy, and pogroms were carried out against Jews in 1871, 1881, 1903, and 1905. The recurring waves of pogroms prompted thousands of Jews to emigrate to the Austrian part of Ukraine, the United States, South America, and Palestine. State anti-Semitism in Russia reached its climax in 1913 with the infamous trial of Mendel Beilis in Kiev. Beilis was accused of ritual murder, but due to the decisive intervention of the Ukrainian and Russian intelligentsia as well as ordinary Ukrainians, he was acquitted.
Unlike Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Baltic states, Ukraine did not gain independence after the First World War. From 1917 to 1921, a fierce struggle between the imperial Russian army, the Bolsheviks, and Ukrainian national forces took place in the Ukrainian lands. The Jews fell victim to pogroms committed by all of the warring parties during these years. The Bolsheviks accused the Jews of collaborating with the Ukrainian National Republic, while Ukrainian national forces accused them of collaborating with the Bol-sheviks. The tsarist loyalists continued the anti-Jewish policies of the Romanov dynasty. In 1922, the greater part of the Ukrainian territory was absorbed by the newly founded Soviet Union. Eastern Galicia and western Volhynia were allotted to Poland, Bukovina came under Ro-mania rule, and Transcarpathia became a part of Czechoslovakia.
Whereas the Jews in the Ukrainian lands of Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia were able to maintain their traditional way of life, Jewish life in Soviet Ukraine gradually came to an end. In the 1930s, synagogues and religious schools were closed, and Hebrew was forbid-den. Jews and Ukrainians were victims of both the Great Famine (1932-1933) and the Great Terror (1936-1938). Jews and Ukrainians were also to be found among the perpetrators. The relatively high proportion of Bolshevik functionaries of Jewish origin fanned latent anti-Semitism in Ukrainian society.
The repression of Jewish and Ukrainian national life did not stop Jews and Ukrainians from working together. This was especially apparent in literature. During the 1930s, Yiddish literature was able to develop in Ukraine. Among the brightest talents in this period were David Gof-steyn, Perets Markish, and David Bergelson. A number of Ukrainian writers of Jewish origin – Natan Rybak, Leonid Pervomaiskii, and Abram Katsnel’son – saw themselves as the bearers of Jewish and Ukrainian culture. Moreover, there existed in Ukraine at this time Jew-ish agricultural settlements where only Yiddish was spoken.
By May 1941, around 2.5 million Jews lived within the borders of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Under German occupation, the Jewish community in Ukraine, like all other Jewish communities in occupied Europe, was subjected to total destruction. The only Jews to survive were those who fled to the Soviet interior (Central Asia and Siberia) or joined the Red Army and helped to defend the Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, and Belarusians from the Nazi regime. Ukrainian-Jewish relations during the Holocaust were extremely complex. Many non-Jews in Ukraine collaborated with the National Socialists. A large part succumbed to the Nazis’ inflammatory propaganda against “Judeo-Bolshevism”, which was allegedly responsible for the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. Historians assume that in Reich Commissariat Ukraine – which encompassed Volhynia, central Ukraine, and parts of eastern Ukraine – approximately 140 000 people served in local auxiliary po-lice formations. Not all of them were Ukrainians, however. In addition, many inhabitants of Ukraine decided to work with the Nazis, and as a consequence of this decision, some ended up as guards at the death camps Sobibor, Treblinka, and Belzec. In many towns in western Ukraine, the local non-Jewish population killed Jews without waiting for instructions from the occupying authorities. On the other hand, Ukraine occupies fourth place on a list of rescuers compiled by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance authority in Jerusalem. This list includes more than 2200 people from Ukraine who risked their lives to save Jews in the Ukrainian territories under Nazi occupation.
After the Second World War, Jewish life no longer existed in Ukraine. There were no more Jewish communities, no Jewish schools, no Jewish periodicals, no Jewish agricultural settlements. At the end of the 1940s, Stalin’s anti-Semitism moved from latent to open, resulting in the open persecution of everything Jewish. This anti-Semitic campaign culmi-nated in the shooting of Soviet Jewish writers in 1952. By the 1960s, Jews in Soviet Ukraine had largely assimilated to the Soviet way of life.
According to the 1989 census, there were 486 000 Jews on Ukrainian territory. The collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a massive wave of emigration to Israel, the United States, and Germany, on the one hand, and the resurrection of Jewish social and community life in Ukraine, on the other. According to the 2001 census, there are now only 103 000 Jews in Ukraine, but synagogues and Jewish schools have re-opened, Jewish newspapers are being published, Jewish social organisations have taken up their work, and there are institutes of Jewish studies.
Ukrainian research on the Holocaust
Over the past decade and a half, the progress made in community life has been matched by great progress in Holocaust research in Ukraine. A new school of research on the Holocaust has emerged. The development of Holocaust historiography in Ukraine began with regional research and published memoirs. In a second step, individual aspects were examined. This was followed by the publication of standard document collections and dissertations, of which there are still too few.
The works of Ukrainian historians who research the Holocaust are largely ignored by official scholarship in Ukraine. At the same time, they have been received with great interest in the West and are fre-quently cited. The persistent ignorance of Ukrainian academics has increased in the last few years. Recent academic publications on modern Ukrainian history and university-level historiography textbooks address the Holocaust by making brief mention of Babi Yar – the Kiev ravine where nearly 34 000 Jews were shot over two days at the end of September 1941 – or these works suggest that the victims were first and foremost Ukrainians and Russians. In introductory surveys to historiography, no reference is made to publications about the genocide of Ukrainian Jews. Especially shocking is a recent publication by the Institute of History and the Institute of Political and Ethno-National Research of the National Academy of Sci-ences of Ukraine, a publication dedicated to the political history of Ukraine in the 20th century and the early twenty-first cen-tury. This enormous volume, with more than 1000 pages compiled by a collective of well-known and respected authors, addresses the most important events of the country’s history. One of the central chapters concerns the Second World War on the territory of Ukraine. There is not a single word about the fate of the Ukrainian Jews to be found there. In recent years, the road has apparently led from disconnected pieces of information to the total exclusion of the Holocaust from academic publications.
This volume and other publications like it are based on the idea of a mono-cultural or even mono-ethnic history of Ukraine, although there is widespread understanding in Ukrainian historiography that Ukraine’s culture and history were also influenced by minorities, including Jews.The published papers from the series of conferences entitled “The Second World War and the fate of the national minorities of Ukraine” are evidence of this ap-proach. These volumes reconstruct the fate of numerous peoples under Nazi occupation in great detail. Such conferences and publications are as a rule initiated by non-state academic organisations, in this case by the Committee Babi Yar and the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies. The sponsors prepare the shape of events with regard to content and search for funding to pay for the conferences and resulting anthologies. Interestingly, representatives of academic institutes such as the publishers of the aforementioned work on Ukrainian political history also gladly take part in these conferences. They give informative presentations about the Crimean Tatars, Poles, Jews, Germans, or Czechs of Ukraine. But in the “official” tomes published by the Academy of Sciences and financed by the state, national minorities, such as the Jews, are not to be found.
Unlike Ukrainian historiography, European historiography follows a multicultural approach. This approach is also widespread in post-socialist countries. In Poland, for example, the most delicate subjects – such as the shooting of Polish officers by the Stalinist secret police in Katyn in 1940, the Polish-led expulsions of the Germans from western Poland in 1945, the destruction of Polish villages in Volhynia in 1943 at the hands of Ukrainians – can be discussed. Even the Jedwabne pogrom, which was carried out by Poles in 1941, and the 1946 pogrom in Kielce are topics of public discussion. This shows that Poland is assuming responsibility for historical remembrance.
The omission of everything Jewish in official Ukrainian historiography cannot be explained solely by the continued existence of the mono-cultural Soviet approach to history. Ukrainian society seems incapable or unwilling to perceive its national history as a history of various cul-tures. The “other” tends to be excluded and viewed as something alien. Apparently, it is more comfortable to talk about “us” and “others”, for example about “our Great Famine” and about “the others’ Holo-caust”. A certain narrative is taking shape, in which the Holocaust does not appear. This is leading to a situation in which Ukrainian society, especially the younger generation, does not know the background to the Holocaust in Ukraine. A notion has even taken hold that the Holocaust took place exclusively in Western Europe and is not of any importance to Ukraine. The generally acknowledged, indisputable fact, as depicted in numerous Western and Ukrainian works of historiography, that the primary victims of the German occupation in Ukraine and other European countries were the Jews is being ignored or withheld. What is more, in recent times, the Great Famine in Ukraine is increasingly being called “the Ukrainian Holocaust”. The fact that the Jews were the Nazis’ chief victims is being obscu-red.
Liberal historians in Ukraine and abroad, independent publications, non-government organisations are working to counter this simplification. They clearly understand the Holocaust in Ukraine as an integral part of Ukrainian history. But they are not supported by the state, or only insufficiently so, and therefore have only little influence on public opinion. With the subordination of academia to political interests, Ukrainian historiography as an institution is continuing the Soviet tradition.
The Holocaust in the classroom
No less important than research into the Holocaust is discussion of the topic in school so that the memory of the fate of Ukrainian Jewry is preserved and passed on to future generations. Starting in the first half of the 1990s, the Holocaust was included in the official school curricu-lum, to be precise: in the basic course “History of Ukraine and World History”. In 2000, the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine recommended universities introduce a special course on the history of the Holocaust in Ukraine and Europe. This decision was apparently mo-tivated by the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000, at which Ukraine gave its approval to a declaration to preserve the mem-ory of the Holocaust through research and education. Since 2006, questions on the history of the Holocaust have been included in the final examinations of general-education schools.
Although all of the preconditions have been formally met, the Holocaust can hardly be taught in Ukrainian schools. First, the curriculum does not provide enough time for the topic. The Holocaust is to be handled in just one class as part of the more general topic “National-Socialist Occupation Regime”. Second, official textbooks lack compelling explanations of the Holocaust as part of Ukrainian history.Here, too, the Soviet tradition of maintaining silence on the Holocaust is being continued. In Soviet textbooks, the Holocaust was not even mentioned. Yurii Komarov, a teacher and training specialist from Kiev, has compared the treatment of the Holocaust in textbooks from Ukraine, Germany, and Great Britain. He has noted that, under such conditions, it can hardly be expected that Ukrainian pupils see the connection between Babi Yar and the Holocaust. In a study of how Ukrainian pupils receive the Holocaust, Professor Elena Ivanova of Kharkiv concluded that the Holocaust was for youth an abstract event without any kind of connection to Ukrainian national memory.
Since the mid-1990s, the non-state education sector in Ukraine has been a source of invaluable impulses. Step by step, institutions such as the Committee Babi Yar, the Association of National Minorities of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies, the history teacher association Nova Doba, the centre Tkuma are working towards changing official education policy and embed within Ukrainian society an awareness of the responsibility to remember the Holocaust. With almost no state support, these organisations have developed a system for conveying the history of the Holocaust. They organise educational-methodology seminars for teachers and university instructors, work with schoolchildren and university students, hold competitions and summer schools, and facilitate internships in international Holocaust centres. In addition, they publish instruction materials that go far be-yond official curricula and textbooks. Numerous teachers and instruc-tors have since used them. The state does not place any obstacles in the way of teachers who want to learn more about the topic of the Holo-caust. Unlike in Soviet times, the Holocaust is not taboo. However, discussion of the topic in school is not given any special support.
In Western Europe, it is widespread practice to use the study of the Holocaust to instil ethnic and religious tolerance in younger generations. Ukrainian NGOs are therefore able to receive financial support from abroad. Important partners for Ukrainian NGOs are the Anne Frank Museum, the Dutch government, and the Task Force for International Co-operation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research.Such projects attract little attention in Ukraine. NGOs represent a significant segment of Ukrainian civil society, but, unlike those in other countries, they receive little state support. Whereas the partner institutions of the Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies, such as the Centre for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo and the Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, receive state funding, in Ukraine, there is a complete lack of moral, institutional, or financial assistance from the state.
The Holocaust in politics and society
In Ukraine, there is no official remembrance of the Shoah. There is no state museum of the history of the Holocaust. The sites where the mass shootings took place are not always indicated. At Babi Yar, there is no memorial complex. January 27, the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, is not officially observed in Ukraine. All of this, although Ukraine signed the Stockholm Declaration in 2000.
The numerous existing monuments and memorial plaques that indicate where there ghettos or mass shootings took place can all be traced back to Jewish communities, non-state entities, and individual persons and donors. However, these memorials, according to Omer Bartov, are located on the periphery of public memory. To date, the state has shown no willingness at least to maintain these memorials. The overview of research and education policy has already demonstrated that the Ukrainian government has no interest in promoting a discussion of Jewish life and the Holocaust in Ukraine.
After 1991, monuments and museums were established for the Organi-sation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Ar-my. It is as if national monuments were being built on top of the history of the Jews during the war, in order to make it easier to forget the “other victimnation”. Like the Soviet government before it, the Ukrainian government is obscuring the fact that the Holocaust’s victims were Jews.
Most politicians do not see the Holocaust as a part of Ukrainian history, but as a tragedy of another people, which is also responsible for commemorating it.
In public, the topic of the Holocaust is hardly discussed. Instead of re-membrance of the Holocaust, there is a looming “competition among victims”.Some “researchers” weigh the number of dead from the Great Famine against the number of dead in the Holocaust and have coined the incorrect designation “Ukrainian Holo-caust”.It is thoroughly justifiable to analyse the mechanisms and basic features of the Great Famine and the Holocaust in comparative manner, but an equation of the two is fully inappropriate.
The omission of the Holocaust in Ukraine leads back to the fact that Ukraine does not accept any responsibility for the past, because neither the National-Socialist, nor the Stalinist crimes have been legally or historically assessed in full. Thus, a usable model for remembering the history of the twentieth century and the Second World War remains absent.
German historian Wilfried Jilge believes that the shortage of information on the Holocaust and on Ukrainian-Jewish relations during the German occupation prevents Ukrainians from seeing not only the “dark side” of national Ukrainian history but also the courage and selflessness of those Ukrainians who rescued Jews. The way Ukrainian historiography concentrates on the nation-state and the mono-ethnic concept of history is preventing the rest of the world from overcoming stereo-types and prejudices concerning the “anti-Semitic Ukrainians”.
A way out of a dead end
Remembrance culture in Ukraine has reached a dead end. The only way out is not through continued adherence to totalitarian models of remembrance that allow only black and white but no grey tones. What is needed is an open discussion led by the desire to accept the “other” as well. Perhaps Wilfried Jilge is right to assume that the sum of the different wartime experiences – those of the Ukrainians, Jews, the Crimean Tatars, Poles, and others – would serve national consolidation in Ukraine more than official declarations that allow for only one reading of history. Unconnected, isolated histories lead to the expression of memories that are isolated from one another. Each is in and of itself biased. The risk that aggression and intolerance in Ukrainian society will increase is considerable. The only solution is to accept history responsibly and to promote the exchange and reconciliation of competing narratives. The German historian Guido Knopp has written that the Holocaust is a part of German history and a part of his personal history, and that every person bears responsibility for remembering the past. Ukrainian historiography still faces the task of assuming this responsibility.