I recently attended a conference in New York city that focused on the state of journalism in Ukraine during the current time of war. Aside from the Ukrainian delegates, participating in the conference were a number of non-Ukrainian scholars, activists and interested parties – Americans, Russians, Jews and others. Although most of the presentations and discussions were both interesting and constructive, I was also party during the conference as well as afterward, to several side discussions that ventured into the controversial and sometimes heated realm of historical Ukrainian – Jewish conflicts. In particular, one young Jewish activist who is otherwise a strong supporter of Ukraine’s current struggle against the Russians, was rather vocal in her disappointment that most Ukrainian media, scholars and organizations continue to “distort and falsify” Ukrainian participation in the Jewish Holocaust of World War II and are unwilling to acknowledge their culpability in the Shoah.
This issue has been around ever since the Nazis were defeated some 75 years ago, and unfortunately most dialogue on the matter continues to be dominated by emotion, passion, propaganda and opinion rather than hard facts and verifiable scholarship. That too is understandable, as both Ukrainians and Jews suffered unimaginable trauma during the war. Both ethnic groups have been suffering a form of cultural and political PTSD ever since, and that tends to inhibit rational discourse on this sensitive topic. On the one side, many Jews, particularly of the older generation, tend to believe that most Ukrainians were and are antisemitic, and that war-time organizations such as the OUN and the UPA willingly participated in the extermination of Jews. On the other side, many of the older generation of Ukrainians feel that many Jews were prominent in the Bolshevik leadership and security organs that committed genocide on millions of Ukrainians during the 20th century. This is tacked onto a long-held historical narrative that the Jews were the intermediaries for Polish and Russian Tsarist oppression of Ukrainians for centuries. In addition, this unfortunate cultural divide has been actively fueled by the Russian propaganda and disinformation machine that seeks to prevent the Jews and Ukrainians from becoming the natural allies that they should be.
I have delved deeply into Ukrainian and European history over the decades, and I am distressed that too many people involved in this debate on both sides continue to propagate entrenched views that distort history, or at the very least, ignore the broader context of what happened during those fateful decades of the last century.
One accusation that keeps cropping up was that the Ukrainian underground during World War II, in the form of the OUN and UPA, was fascist, antisemitic, and actively participated in the liquidation of Jews. It is true that there is historical evidence that certain individuals, units and formations of the OUN and UPA did engage in anti-Jewish pogroms as well as ethnic cleansing of Poles. Most reputable Ukrainian historians have no issue with acknowledging that such acts happened. However, it would be both unfair and inaccurate to condemn all OUN and UPA fighters of taking part in such activities. I have personally known and talked to many Ukrainian veterans of those organizations, and I know that most of them joined only because they wanted to defend Ukraine from Russian, German and Polish oppression. No doubt, amongst their ranks there likely were ultra-nationalists with a fascist bent who used the opportunity to seek vengeance on Jews and others, but they cannot be seen as representative of the whole underground movement or of the Ukrainian population in general.
During that brutal war, there were those in almost every European country that the Germans overran that collaborated with the Nazis, either by coercion or because they shared the perverted Nazi ideology. I do not think that the Ukrainians were much different than any other nation or ethnic group in terms of their behaviour towards Jews, yet they seem to be vilified much more by many members of the Jewish community. I would guess that this is due to the fact that a very large number of Jews were killed on the territory of Ukraine, as opposed to other European countries where the Jews were shipped far away to death camps in Germany and Poland.
It has only been in recent decades that efforts have been initiated, particularly among scholars and academic circles, to find a mutual understanding of what happened, with a view to finding a way forward towards reconciliation and cooperation. The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (https://ukrainianjewishencounter.org/en/) is one such Canadian initiative that has made inroads at establishing a mutually acceptable historical narrative.
As Ukrainians, we need to stop being overly defensive and acknowledge that there were elements of the Ukrainian underground during World War II that did engage in ethnic cleansing of Jews and Poles. No doubt it will take a fair bit of time to establish a meaningful rapprochement between the Ukrainian and Jewish diasporas on this issue, as there are a lot of deeply entrenched biases and prejudices on both sides. Hopefully, there are enough people of good will and reason on both sides to ensure that this does happen.