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Erasing History: National Revival and Ukrainian Jews

On January 1st, 2019, marchers took to Khreshchatyk Street in the middle of Kiev. The wide boulevard forms an artery to Independence Square and is both the heart of the city and the site of the 2014 Euromaidan revolution. This year, the marchers were not protesting but celebrating. Carrying torches and banners of the Ukrainian flag displaying the insignia of the far-right Svoboda party, these Ukrainians were celebrating the memory of Stepan Bandera on the 110th anniversary of his birth. Bandera, the head of the militant wing of the Ukrainian Independence Movement who sided with the Nazis in fighting the USSR during World War Two, was recently proclaimed a “Hero of Ukraine” by President Petro Poroshenko. Resurrected in Ukraine’s current political memory as a nationalist who took a firm stance against Russian advances, he stands in commemoration alongside other Ukrainian resistance leaders of the 20th century who are guilty of the murder of Jewish Ukrainians. With this move, the Ukrainian government has strategically overlooked the Nazi allegiances of a so-called national hero for the sake of an ephemeral national reawakening that excludes Jews altogether.  

At the same time, and despite the revival of Bandera’s memory, memorialization of Holocaust victims is increasing in Ukraine as well. In a post on Facebook on January 27th, President Poroshenko stated, “Today, Ukraine together with all the civilized world honors the memory of the victims of the Holocaust — a horrible crime by the Nazis, which has become one of the biggest catastrophes in the history of humanity.” As he stood in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem that same week, Poroshenko paid tribute to the memory of Jews murdered in Europe. While surely a step in the right direction, Ukraine’s institutional memory of violence against Jews is often limited to the World War Two period. Until now, Ukraine has only been willing to honor Jewish history as long as violence is relegated to Nazis and Ukrainians are not culpable.

The rise in Ukrainian nationalism, as shown by a rehabilitation of the memory of figures like Bandera, directly affects Jews: It positions Ukraine on the Western side of a military and ideological fight against Russia that is in fact much more complex than a binary conflict. This effort to redefine history — evident in the tension between Holocaust Remembrance Day and Stepan Bandera’s birthday — exposes the way that Ukraine is using its past to define the political present, leaving Jews caught in a violent liminal space. By erasing centuries of persecution of Jews under Ukrainian and Russian governments that reached its zenith in the Holocaust and was followed by 70 years of state sponsored anti-Semitism in the USSR, Ukraine is validating contemporary violence against Jews.

Because Jewish trauma is often linked only to the Holocaust, Ukraine’s revival of anti-Jewish figures unrelated to the Holocaust is even easier to overlook. In October of 2017, the city of Rivne unveiled a monument dedicated to the President of the fleeting Ukrainian National Republic (1918-1921). Symon Petliura was a key figure in the fight for Ukrainian independence from the Russian empire, but during this time period, he also commanded a militia that carried out nearly 500 pogroms against Jews, and between 35,000 and 50,000 Jews were brutally murdered. The symbolism of Petliura’s monument within the context of the relationship between Jews, Ukraine and Russia, exposes links to contemporary politics. Ukraine is commemorating figures who fought for an independent Ukraine in the 20th century, often against Russia, evoking a sense timelessness of Ukrainian struggles against Russia. Thus, the renewed official fortification of Ukrainian national identity is not only contingent upon its opposition to Russia, but deeply implicated in glossing over the murder of Jews.

Ukraine’s desire to symbolically distance itself from Russia has caused tension between the country’s historical amnesia and a sense among Jews that they play a vital role in post-Soviet Ukraine. Eduard Dolinsky, director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee, wrote in an article for the New York Times about a 2014 incident where “Nadia Savchenko, a member of Parliament who became a national hero when she was a pilot captured by Russia, recently appeared on television and proclaimed, “I have nothing against Jews, I do not like ‘kikes.’” Taken in context with Petliura’s monument, it is easier to understand why Savchenko’s Jew hatred was overlooked. Ukrainian national revitalization against the spectral Russian enemy is willing at all costs to prioritize Ukrainian heroism over an acknowledgement of the needs of Ukrainian Jews.

While anti-Semitism has haunted the Ukrainian struggle for independence, Jews in Ukraine have experienced unprecedented levels of recognition in recent years. Building social institutions and community since the fall of the USSR has allowed Jewish people to embrace an identity that is both Ukrainian and Jewish. Dolinsky remarks that “the majority of Ukrainian Jews share the desire to build a modern, democratic state, free from the endemic corruption we have lived with for the past 25 years.” Despite this, Ukraine’s Jewish population remains marginalized by the contemporary and historical link between Ukraine’s struggle for independence and anti-Semitism.

Ukraine’s government has overstepped the dangerous line separating national resistance to Russian influence and the revival of anti-Semitic, albeit anti-Russian, figures. At the same time, Russia has attempted to paint Ukraine in wide strokes as a haven for vicious anti-Semitism and fascism. While this is not a complete lie, it shows the work that needs to be done by the Ukrainian government to give more than lip service to Jewish history. Honoring a Ukrainian national memory in a history independent from Russia must also include the sad history of continuous violence against Jews. At the moment, however, the reformatting of history into Russia versus Ukraine often ignores Jews altogether.

In this way, the flattening of Ukraine’s relationship to Russia into a monolithic narrative of opposition erases the complications of its history under both independent Ukrainian governments and under Russian rule, and the suppression of Jewish life before and after the Holocaust. Through its response to Russian advances (both physical and ideological) Ukraine is defining itself against this other while denying Ukrainian Jews access to being Ukrainian. Ukraine has yet been unable to find a way to oppose Russia without violently marginalizing its Jewish population and revitalizing a history that is intentionally blind to the history of Jews in Ukraine.

This tension makes it hard to be optimistic. As Lev Gringauz, reporter for the Jerusalem post, aptly commented, “This may be the natural limitation of Jewish journalism. There is almost no way to separate history, reputation and bitterness from reporting on Eastern Europe.” It seems that no matter where Jews exist in Eastern Europe, the rise in nationalism broadly defined has been synonymous with an erasure of violence and a flattening of national history. Governments are more than happy to play the Jewish card if it elevates an ideology of a heroic national character, but fail to recognize the crimes committed by so-called heroes of that nation. While Ukraine is certainly not a monolith and should not be written as one, it is both a country with thriving Jewish communal life and a dark history of anti-Semitism that is being reborn today. Jewish Ukrainians should be able to live in a Ukraine that is both independent from Russian domination and does not glorify the memory of the people who murdered their ancestors.

Photo: “Procession in Kiev