A letter in which 56 US congress members call on the Department of State to join the congress members and human rights organizations “in standing against anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and all forms of intolerance by calling for the Ukrainian government to unequivocally reject Holocaust distortion and the honoring of Nazi collaborators and fully prosecute anti-Semitic crimes” has made quite a splash in the Ukrainian mass media. Many people are outraged with the letter’s drafters’ ignorance of the actual situation in Ukraine at the moment as well as historical context, including the formation and evolution of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) during World War II.
We asked member of the board of directors of the international organization Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter Initiative Adrian Karatnycky to comment on the allegations mentioned in this letter and explain why the Jewish community feels so strongly about some pages of our World War II-era history, as well as opine on how the issue of the establishment of the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center should be resolved, taking into account that a few Russian oligarchs are among its main sponsors.
“NO LEADING JEWISH U.S. CONGRESS MEMBER IS AMONG THE SIGNATORIES”
“First of all, no leading Jewish US congress member is among the signatories. The main moving force behind the letter was Ro Khanna, a congressman of Asian descent. I do not know what his motivation was, but he is not deeply involved with the life of the Jewish community. Our conversations with leading Jewish organizations have convinced us that they did not initiate the appearance of such a letter.
“Usually, such things do not occur spontaneously. Some lobbyists or NGOs are commonly behind such actions, as they draw congress members’ attention to some phenomena that require comment or condemnation.
“Secondly, the very arguments on which the letter is based are not entirely true, while its principal criticism citing the alleged significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents is based on a report by the Israeli Minister of Diaspora Affairs Naftali Bennett, who belongs to the right-wing nationalist spectrum in Israel. It was his ministry that released such a report, lacking any particular data enabling it to make such statements on the growth of anti-Semitic incidents.
“Vyacheslav Likhachev, representing a human rights group that conducts detailed monitoring on the issue, has argued that there were no cases of physical attacks against individuals of Jewish origin in Ukraine in 2017, and the level of anti-Semitic incidents was rather low as well.
“However, the abovementioned report cites hundreds of incidents, and we do not know what it means.
“And, by the way, an opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that among all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, Ukrainians are most open to Jews in various dimensions.
“And this fits reality very well. We also see that the letter does not take into account the fact that Ukraine has no government-promoted anti-Semitism. The policy of the Institute of National Remembrance is to a certain extent controversial, but this institution and its director cannot be portrayed as anti-Semitic.
“It is another matter altogether that the Jewish community sees praising the OUN as unacceptable, as it cooperated with the Wehrmacht and Abwehr until 1941.
“In addition, the Jewish press covered without regard to the context the de-Communization of tens of thousands of locality and street names. Consequently, the Jewish community perceived a proportionately small number of renaming actions as a great wave of renaming streets in honor of nationalists Stepan Bandera, Roman Shukhevych and others, as deliberate glorification of people whom the Jewish community regards as involved in collaboration and anti-Semitism.
“There are some very difficult historical issues here, but there was no special effort to rename streets after OUN members, there was no glorification of a single political current in the history of Ukraine.
“On the other hand, the Jewish community will never understand how an armed unit that was part of the Waffen SS can be celebrated on its 70th anniversary or have festive processions honoring it.”
“THE JEWISH COMMUNITY DOES NOT UNDERSTAND THE EVOLUTION OF THE OUN MOVEMENT”
But they list Stepan Bandera, among others. How can he be blamed for collaboration, if he himself was imprisoned in a German concentration camp and his family members died at the hands of the Nazis?
“The OUN was an independent organization, which was constantly trying to promote its main objective, namely the liberation of Ukraine. But it is a fact that from the 1930s through 1941, the OUN received financial assistance and cooperated with the armed forces and intelligence services of Nazi Germany. According to historian Timothy Snyder, the growth and instrumentalization of the Banderaite movement would not have been possible without such assistance from Germany. It conducted training and exercises for the Croatian Ustasha ultra-nationalists as well as for the Ukrainian nationalists. This is part of the Banderaite movement’s legacy, and therefore, I would say that the biggest problem for the modern Banderaite movement is its failure to recognize that such a policy was wrong at that time. However, such nationalistic currents were characteristic of various societies at the time, including in Europe and even in America.
“By the way, the Third Extraordinary Congress of the OUN saw a reorientation from racial approaches to attempting to unite the broader liberation movement and understanding that allies were to be found among various organizations and ethnic groups. And the OUN has abandoned those negative traits.
“Still, the Jewish community and Israeli citizens do not understand all the nuances as well as the evolution of the OUN movement. They have a rather simplified and sometimes distorted idea of various Ukrainian forces and currents that were both anti-communist and non-communist in their approaches. The main thing is that they do not understand that Ukraine is quite unique in that during World War II, the mortality among the Ukrainian population was almost the highest in the whole of Europe. Not only 2 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust in the territory of modern Ukraine, but at least 5 million ethnic Ukrainians died in the course of that war as civilian victims of the war and occupation as well as in the OUN underground movement, Red Army or Soviet partisan movement, or as prisoners of war. All these phenomena are not well understood. Also, the effective absence of pro-Nazi currents in modern Ukraine is due to the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian population has an understanding of the true meaning of Nazi occupation entrenched in its historical memory.
“The most important point is for both sides to understand each other while discussing things. And such a distortion, namely the statement about the existence of supposedly Nazi tendencies in Ukraine, is simply absurd. This is simply impossible.”
“MOST SOLDIERS WHO DIED FIGHTING THE NAZIS IN UKRAINE WERE UKRAINIANS”
I was at Yad Vashem, and there were several photos there showing how Ukrainians, together with German soldiers, took part in Jewish pogroms during World War II. Has the issue of whether the participation of Ukrainians was voluntary or compulsory been really researched?
“There are various issues with Yad Vashem. The first is the non-recognition of Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky as a righteous among the nations, despite the fact that he contributed to saving more than one hundred Jews during the occupation. Also, the Jewish community has shown no understanding in this discussion that the largest armed force that fought together with the Nazi troops was the Russian Liberation Army of General Andrey Vlasov, numbering almost one million soldiers. Despite the fact that most soldiers who died fighting the Nazis in Ukraine were Ukrainians, the myth that Russians allegedly liberated the Jews, while Ukrainians were collaborators, has survived. But it was quite the opposite, in fact. Obviously, this does not whitewash the dark pages of Ukrainian history, because there were Ukrainian collaborators. Collaboration existed at a level that was not very different from what was happening in Poland, while it was a much larger phenomenon, say, in Romania. The main difference is that there was no Ukrainian state, and an attempt to create it was stopped by the Nazis.
“And here, I think, we approach the crucial issue. If there was no stable and powerful, well-established administration and armed forces, then no incident of anti-Semitism may be attributed to the state.
“It should also be remembered that, in fact, from 1932 to the end of World War II and Stalinist terror, the society was in an ongoing post-traumatic stress situation, as Snyder notes in the book Bloodlands. One should not expect totally humane behavior from people living through most terrible trials and horrors.
“I believe it took decades to heal these wounds in the Ukrainian society. The collapse of the Soviet Union was a signal that the society had recovered from all these misfortunes. It is very important for the Jewish community to understand how the restored state of Ukraine honors its past, including the tragedy in Babi Yar as well as various events of the Holocaust.
“It is not always done properly, but the general trend is that Ukrainians approve of the leading role of Jews in the nation’s economic and political life. Jews are well-represented in Ukrainian culture. Ukraine is one of the very few countries where the prime minister is of Jewish ancestry. I think that ordinary American or Israeli Jews do not realize this phenomenon.”
“JEWS DO NOT KNOW HOW MANY UKRAINIANS BECAME VICTIMS OF THE NAZI OCCUPATION, NOR DO THEY KNOW THAT ALMOST 40,000 JEWS DIED DURING THE HOLODOMOR”
And what conclusion should we draw from all this, should we follow the example of the French and Germans who have created a joint textbook on history?
“We try to do this during various discussions at Ukrainian-Jewish meetings. Over the past seven years, I participated in four such conferences organized by our Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter Initiative. And obviously, we find some events where there is room for a better understanding. But the Ukrainian side sees some things differently. For example, many Ukrainians believe a myth that Jews were sympathizers of communism and made up the core of Stalinism. This is partly true, but Ukrainians were in the core of that totalitarian system of Stalinism as well. Most importantly, Stalinism targeted culturally and nationalistically conscious and religious Jews.
“They were carriers of this traditional identity and were considered enemies of the Soviet system just as much as religious Ukrainians – Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics or Orthodox – who refused to accept subjection to the regime.
“By the way, Jews do not know how many Ukrainians became victims of the Nazi occupation, nor do they know that almost 40,000 Jews died during the Holodomor.
“Therefore, we can say that the Holodomor was a common woe that affected Ukrainians of different faiths, including Jews. It must also be understood that although the Holocaust is unique because of the intentions of its initiators to exterminate all Jews and people of Romani origin, the number of victims among non-Jewish Ukrainians was proportionally the largest, along with the Belarusian people, in all of Europe. And this must be understood by both sides.
“I can say that Ukrainians themselves do not know that Jews became victims of the Holodomor in such numbers. Therefore, there is a great opportunity here for educational work, fruitful research work, dialog between these communities.
“I want to draw your attention to another phenomenon. The Ukrainian public considers Israel to be a very good example of successful patriotic nation- and state-building and looks at it with great respect, while searching for some kind of development model for our society.
“Therefore, I can tell you that on June 12-13, our organization, together with the New Europe Center, will organize a conference themed ‘State-Building: Lessons from Israel’ in connection with the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel. The event will be attended by legislators as well as a former deputy prime minister, defense minister, secretary of the National Security Council, MPs and leading politicians from various fields who will discuss Israel’s cooperation with its diaspora, public diplomacy, organization of its defense complex, and its efforts to protect democratic values in conditions of constant tension and constant dangers. This will be a workshop for Ukrainian politicians.”
“THE AMERICAN HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MAY SERVE AS A MODEL FOR THE BABI YAR MEMORIAL”
You probably know that in the Ukrainian expert milieu, there are conflicting views on the activities of the Babi Yar Holodomor Memorial Center formerly led by Marek Siwiec as general director. I would like to hear your opinion on this issue.
“Now it is former Comfy company director Hennadii Verbylenko who plays the main role there. I think that the narrative, which a group of scholars under the leadership of Karel Berkhoff is working on, develops in a more or less correct direction. But there is some anxiety about whether such a direction will be implemented. This is due to the fact that it is not known how they make decisions. And worse still, the main shareholders of this project are businessmen with deep roots in Russia, and this causes some skepticism.
“Another issue is that in the context of the Holocaust, the context of occupation must be explained as well. The population of Ukraine is different from the population of America, which did not have to live through the Nazi occupation and suffer casualties numbering in the millions, with the exception of the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who participated in the war in Europe.
“It would be a big mistake to fail to reflect not only the Jewish experience in Kyiv or Ukraine, but also that of the entire population, or misinterpret it.
“But the main issue is that we see no proper management model here. The foundation is not transparent. There are very good advisory and research councils under it. But these councils do not make fundamental decisions and, in particular, they had no input to the decision to replace the project manager. As far as I understand, there was no discussion, as this was done by the main shareholders on their own.
“I believe that the American Holocaust Memorial may serve as a model for the creation of the Babi Yar Memorial, where one-third of the board of directors represent the government that has created certain preconditions, including the provision of land, another third is made up of donors, and the final third includes experts, leading voices of civil society, both Jewish and gentile American.
“Were such a council to be created, following the example of the American Holocaust Memorial, it would eliminate all major concerns about decision-making and the search for some sort of adequate, balanced interpretation of these events. Because if there are businessmen on the board who have assets in Russia, they, as we know, can be subjected to great pressure by Vladimir Putin, who uses any means to conduct his hybrid warfare. It is especially important that this museum-memorial does not become a tool of Russian hybrid or propagandistic warfare.
“I would say that such an improvement effort, where all these societal actors – experts, donors and patrons, and the state – would be represented, would ensure the right balance. It would also improve the project and give us an opportunity to build a worthy and righteous monument to the victims of Babi Yar and the Holocaust in this area.”
“THE BABI YAR HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL CENTER MUST BE A UKRAINIAN PROJECT”
What should be done to implement this balance, which experts told me about in interviews, in particular, stressing that the state should be involved in this project?
“What is really interesting here is the total absence of prominent Jewish community leaders from around the world in this structure’s management. We have not seen them taking part, but we do need to attract these people. I do not know why they are still not involved in a project that has existed for a long time.
“This should not be a state project, probably, but the voice of the state should be heard in it. And we need to involve the world Jewry, world and Ukrainian experts in this project.
“I think there is still time to get things fixed. We still have a chance to reformat the management structure of this very necessary project.
“Because the issues of history, memory, and historical nuances are intertwined there, I do not understand why such a complex project should be managed by a former Comfy director. And this reflects the influence of some very powerful individual patrons, and not the wider circle of experts that was gathered for it at first.
“Summing up, I want to emphasize that the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center should be a Ukrainian project and be approved with the active expert participation. And since it is of international importance, it is necessary to involve international representatives in its execution. Also, the participation of international moral authorities and experts, respected representatives of the Jewish diaspora, as well as representatives of the Ukrainian public, including historians, is imperative.”