In Denial, a recent film dealing with supposed “controversies” swirling around the Holocaust, American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt takes on conspiracy theorist David Irving. The latter moved to sue the American academic, who teaches at Emory University in Atlanta, after Lipstadt published an essay about Holocaust denial which touched on Irving’s many statements. Lipstadt ultimately won her libel suit in a British court, and later may have thought it unlikely that Holocaust denial would be embraced by U.S. policymakers, let alone reach into the upper echelons of the White House itself. Yet now, Irving may seem like a decidedly minor character in comparison to the likes of Steve Bannon and his boss, Donald Trump, who seem to be doing their utmost to court anti-Semitic elements which had formerly been relegated to the political fringe.
Bannon, an assistant to the president, has left his own distinct imprint on official government pronouncements. During Holocaust Remembrance Day, a White House statement omitted any mention of the wildly controversial claim that the Holocaust represented an organized campaign to get rid of Europe’s Jewish population. To Lipstadt, such utterances bear traces of so-called “softcore” denial, which doesn’t deny the Holocaust as much as it attempts to erase the memory of Jews in relation to organized genocide. As reported by Politico, the Remembrance Day imbroglio is hardly a benign mistake but rather represents a conscious move to blot out Jewish suffering. Indeed, though the State Department drafted its own statement which explicitly mentioned Jewish victims, Trump nixed such efforts in favor of his own declaration. Through their watered down statements, Lipstadt argues, Bannon and Trump are “flirting with Holocaust denial.” To be sure, the academic writes, the Nazis killed millions of people but none were targeted in such a precise and systematic way as the Jews.
Voyage to Kyiv
Whether the U.S. has historically deserved its reputation for being such a tolerant and forward-looking country in the first place is certainly debatable, yet through his “soft-core” Holocaust denial, Trump has hardly worked wonders for Washington’s international image. Indeed, halfway round the world the entire controversy may seem ironic for those countries which have sought to come to terms with the Holocaust. Take for example Ukraine, a nation which recently put on an impressive series of events in tandem with the 75th commemoration of the Babi Yar (or Ukrainian, Babyn Yar) massacre, in which the Nazis, assisted by Ukrainian collaborators, killed an estimated 33,771 Jews within a two day period at a ravine located just outside Kyiv. In total, over the course of the war around 100,000 people were murdered at Babi Yar, two thirds of whom were Jewish and the remainder Roma or Gypsies, Ukrainians, Russians and the mentally and physically disabled.
As a guest and member of the press corps, I had the opportunity to attend Babi Yar commemorative services in Kyiv. As I listened to keynote speakers, the not-so-subtle political message behind the proceedings quickly became clear to me. Ukraine, which finds itself in the midst of an increasingly more costly and escalating war with Russian-backed separatists, aspires to supposed Western values of tolerance and pluralism. By coming to terms with the humanitarian catastrophe of Babi Yar, Ukraine has certainly gone a long way toward demonstrating its commitment toward such values. That, at least, is the impression I get from speaking with Denis Pilash, a post-graduate student in political science at Kyiv National University and an activist on Ukraine’s independent left circuit. “Recognizing the plurality of different ethnic groups who suffered throughout Ukrainian history is of course a step forward,” he tells me. “It’s very important that we have the Babi Yar commemoration as well as memorials to the Roma and others.”
On the other hand, the picture isn’t as rosy as it may seem at first glance. That’s because when it comes to the politics of memory, Ukraine tends to get caught up in what Pilash terms “the conservative mythology of history.” The activist is particularly concerned about Volodymyr Viatrovych, a controversial historian who heads up the government-funded Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. The body is charged with shaping the nation’s perspective on historic events such as the Holocaust. Critics argue that Viatrovych has downplayed and even “whitewashed” the role of non-Jewish Ukrainians in anti-Semitic pogroms and atrocities which occurred during the Holocaust.
Viatrovych also sits on a national organizing committee which backed an architectural design competition for Babi Yar. The competition was necessary, officials claimed, so as to resolve the fundamental “problem” between the “world’s view” of Babi Yar and “Jewry’s exclusive view of Babi Yar as a symbol of the Holocaust.” After howls of protest from the Jewish community, which claimed Kyiv was trying to water down the true anti-Semitic nature of the Holocaust, authorities agreed to revise contest guidelines. In the new rewritten text, officials noted Babi Yar’s central importance within the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s relentless ambition to rid Europe of its Jews, a “unique atrocity in human history.”
“Alley of the Righteous”
The story didn’t end there, however: representatives of a committee in charge of arranging the Babi Yar commemoration proposed setting up a so-called “Alley of the Righteous Among the Nations” at Babi Yar so as to honor the memory of those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. Boris Zabarko, who heads the Ukrainian Association of Jews, Former Prisoners of Ghettos and Nazi Concentration Camps, favors the initiative. Speaking with Jewish News, he remarked “This must be done as quickly as possible. People who risked their lives to save the Jews, like the victims of the Holocaust themselves, are fewer and fewer. I would very much like to see that this alley is built during their lifetimes.” Zabarko adds that Babi Yar was a national tragedy and while some Ukrainian collaborationists killed Jews, others demonstrated great heroism in saving their neighbors lives. Therefore, the state and “all Ukrainian society” should build a museum to commemorate Babi Yar.
Once again, however, the notion of an Alley of the Righteous hasn’t gone without controversy. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center located in Israel, is involved in commemorations at Babi Yar and reportedly has considered partnering with Kyiv Municipality to build a Holocaust museum on site. The center has recognized 100 people from Kyiv worthy of recognition at the “Alley of the Righteous.” Apparently, however, that number wasn’t to the liking of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who reportedly told Viatrovych to “create our own Ukrainian standards [and] criteria for righteous of the world in order to enlarge this number.”
Debating Role of Ukrainian Collaborators
Kyiv undoubtedly deserves praise for holding the Babi Yar commemorations, yet the cumulative effect of all these controversies raises the disturbing question of whether powerful elements in government are interested in merely airbrushing Jewish suffering out of the picture, much as Donald Trump and the White House managed to omit reference to the Jews in their own Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. In this high stakes political battle over history and victimhood, the Ukrainian right wing seeks to minimize Jewish suffering while placing nationalists on a saintly pedestal beyond reproach.
Recently, Viatrovych helped pass a series of highly controversial laws which criminalize the denial of nationalist groups, including the UPA or Ukrainian Insurgent Army which conducted atrocities during World War II including anti-Jewish pogroms. Another group, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists or OUN also carried out pogroms during the war which resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews. Muddying the waters, Viatrovych has admitted that some UPA activists were involved in the pogroms “since Jews were blamed for helping Bolsheviks.” Unwilling to condemn the UPA as a whole, however, Viatrovych claims some Ukrainian nationalists saved Jews during the war.
If Viatrovych and his political allies had their way, Ukraine would elevate nationalists’ struggle against the Soviets while ignoring or downplaying historic collaboration with the Germans. In 1941, the OUN and its controversial leader Stepan Bandera welcomed Nazi invasion as a step toward Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union. Germany wasn’t interested in Ukrainian independence in the slightest, however. In 1943, the OUN, or OUN-B named after its leader Bandera, took control of the UPA and declared its opposition to both the Nazis and the Soviets, but not before the latter had come to the aid of the Nazis. Indeed, throughout 1941-42, UPA troops worked in the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police and assisted the Germans in carrying out the extermination of hundreds of thousands of Jews in western Ukraine.
Eduard Dolinsky, who heads up Kyiv’s Ukrainian Jewish Committee, says the government has sought to obscure unpleasant historical truths. Speaking with Jerusalem Post, he remarked “In recent years, Viatrovych has been trying to whitewash the UPA by providing fake stories of Jews fighting for the UPA.” Sounding the alarm, Pilash declares “the law clearly states that you cannot oppose rightwing nationalist struggles. So, everything is done to whitewash the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and its various factions under Bandera and Malnyk [for more on the latter, see below]. When you speak about the role of Ukrainian nationalists, or almost any nationalist in Eastern Europe that played a role in ethnic cleansing in the Holocaust, this is met with total rejection. Everything which contradicts the underlying nationalist narrative is proclaimed as ‘Soviet propaganda.’”
Role of Ukrainian Police
The contentious political debate over Ukrainian World War II history and the precise role of collaborators has direct bearing on Babi Yar. It is widely known that German Sonderkommando 4A, a subdivision of Einsatzgruppe C, was directly responsible for the massacre and worked in tandem with the 45th Hamburg Reserve Battalion and 303rd Bremen Police Battalion. However, German units were assisted by local interpreters and the Auxiliary Ukrainian Police, all of which begs further scrutiny.
To get a clearer sense of the historical background, I catch up with Kirill Danilchenko of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. German troops entered Kyiv on September 19, 1941, he explains, and occupying forces promptly provided jobs to local policemen. Mass murder at Babi Yar commenced shortly thereafter. The actual killing, Danilchekno adds, was performed by German death squads. Local police collaborators were only in service for ten days, though they helped in rounding up the victims.
According to Polish magazine New Eastern Europe, “there is no doubt that the auxiliary parts of the Ukrainian police were present, which was recruiting not only the OUN members, but also former Soviet prisoners of war and civilians.” Other scholars report that there were more Ukrainian police units operating in the Babi Yar area than German units, though the locals solely acted as guards while collecting victims’ belongings.
Babi Yar and the “Malnyk Faction”
Whatever the case, getting to the bottom of local Ukrainian collaboration at Babi Yar can get a little tricky. “The Melnyk faction was loyal to Nazi Germany,” says Pilash, “and some members actually collaborated with the Third Reich.” Pilash is referring to the so-called OUN-M, a faction of the Ukrainian nationalist right which split and grew at odds with the OUN-B allied to Bandera. Under the leadership of Colonel Andriy Melnyk, the OUN-M petitioned the Nazis for permission to create Ukrainian military units which could assist Berlin in its eastern campaign.
Two OUN-M units were in Kyiv during the Babi Yar massacre, though it’s unclear whether Melnyk’s faction was physically present during shootings. And even if they were there, remarks New Eastern Europe, “the question of the functions they performed also remains open.” Nevertheless, it is known that in one case at least, an OUN-M member served as an interpreter for Sondercommando 4A, participated in arrests and patrolled the road leading to Babi Yar during the actual shooting.
Even if conclusive proof is lacking that OUN-M helped commit atrocities at Babi Yar en masse, the faction certainly contributed to an overall climate of malaise. Indeed, members of the unit cooperated with the Germans for several months after the Babi Yar massacre. For a closer view on the matter, I catch with up Jewish expert Dolinsky at a local Kiev café. According to him, the OUN-M published a newspaper called Ukrainske Slovo (Ukrainian Word) in Kyiv which contained anti-Semitic articles. In their writings, OUN-M members tied the Jews to Bolshevism and accused them of “oppressing” the Ukrainian people. The paper was hardly insignificant at the time, reaching a daily circulation of some 60,000 copies.
Rabid Anti-Semitic Paper
Dolinsky remarks that in the midst of the Babi Yar massacre, on October 2nd 1941, Ukrainske Slovo published an article under the headline, “The Main Enemy of the People Are Kikes.” Seven days later, the paper followed up with another hysterical piece informing local Ukrainians that unfortunately, one could still spot Jews in Kyiv. The article claimed that Jews were trying to conceal themselves in the city by paying bribes and misrepresented themselves as Bulgarians, Iranians or Azeris. Ukrainske Slovo vowed that true Ukrainian patriots wouldn’t let Jews get away with such treachery, and locals should be honor-bound to report their neighbors in hiding.
The OUN-M back story doesn’t end there, however, but rather takes some unexpected twists and turns. In November 1941, shortly after the Babi Yar massacre, the Germans grew alarmed at growing Ukrainian nationalism and cracked down on the Melnyk faction by closing Ukrainske Slovo and shooting or hanging militants. Three months later, the Germans arrested all OUN-members who hadn’t already gone underground. The Nazis then brought prominent figures associated with Ukrainske Slovo to Babi Yar, including the paper’s editor Ivan Rohach, and killed them, too. In total, the Germans are said to have killed 621 OUN-M members at the ravine (Melnyk himself was kept under house arrest in Berlin until January 1944, when he and other OUN-M figures were taken to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp).
Though perhaps somewhat obscure, the debate surrounding the OUN-M and its role has assumed larger than life importance in present day Ukraine. As he was walking toward commemoration services being held at Babi Yar, Dolinsky was surprised and dismayed to come across an informational board which discussed the fate of Ukrainian nationalists at the site. Not surprisingly perhaps, the stand had been erected and sponsored by none other than Viatrovych’s state-run Institute of National Memory. The board mentioned the plight of Ivan Rohach, the same aforementioned editor of Ukrainske Slovo.
Politics of Victimhood
It felt jarring, Dolinksy says, to see Viatrovych’s board sitting right alongside other panels which recounted the story of Jewish victims. Speaking with Jerusalem Post, Dolinksy has also remarked that “we are against Babi Yar being turned into another pit, just a simple pit where everyone was killed and thrown into it. First of all it was a place of the Holocaust.” Activist Pilash says Babi Yar commemorations underscore Ukraine’s fraught political landscape. “Nationalists justify their own struggle,” the activist remarks, “by saying they were killed just like the Jews and Roma.”
And even more outlandish, just as the old Soviet Union sought to airbrush inconvenient truths out of the history books, so too does newly-independent Ukraine gloss over certain narratives which it sees as undesirable. Take, for example, the Syrets concentration camp located near Babi Yar. There, the Nazis killed thousands of Soviet P.O.W.’s, as well as members of the Young Communist League. “Basically,” Pilash relates, “it was a place for exterminating Communists, but no one talks about that now because it contradicts the standard view of history.” Bizarrely, in discussing Ukraine’s war-torn past one “can lose sight of the fact that the Soviet Union represented the main opposition to the Nazis and not the UPA” [such trends ironically bring us full circle, as they go against prevailing notions during the Soviet Union which held its own specific views on Babi Yar].
But is it fair, amidst all the commemorations at Babi Yar, to specifically single out “Ukrainian” conduct during the war? At the time, modern Ukraine did not even exist as an independent country but rather formed an integral part of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Ukrainians were just one more ethnic group living amongst many within Soviet Ukraine. And yet, some contemporary observers paint an unflattering picture. Take, for example, Ukrainian Jewish poet Sava Holovanivs'kyi. In his poem “Avraam,” Holovanivs'kyi laments the lonely procession of elderly Jews passing through Kyiv streets while locals look on indifferently.
Political Undertones at Auschwitz
Needless to say, fellow Ukrainian writers reacted furiously to such charges after the war. More recently, French philosopher and Ukraine booster Bernard-Henri Levy, who was also present at Babi Yar commemorations, has taken to defending Ukraine’s historical reputation. In Kyiv Post, he notes “Everyone agrees that Auschwitz was liberated on Jan. 27, 1945, by the 100th Division of the 60th Army of the ‘First Ukrainian Front,’ or, more precisely, by an army corps that was then called the ‘First Ukrainian Front.’” To be sure, Henri Levy concedes, it would be more accurate to say that Auschwitz was liberated by a Red Army corps which “called itself Ukrainian because it had operated in Ukraine and not because it was composed solely of Ukrainians.”
In normal times, such matters would be considered historically abstruse. Yet once again, the controversy over Auschwitz has assumed larger than life political significance in the context of Ukraine’s struggle against Russian military aggression. “Kremlin propaganda,” Henri Levy writes, has sought to obscure Ukrainian heroism in World War II. The “Ukrainian Front,” he declares, was “not entirely Ukrainian by any means, but half.” According to Henri Levy, the unit was made up of “1,000 Byelorussians; a few hundred Chechens; a few hundred ‘Jews,’ identified as such; and approximately 40,000 Russians and a like number of Ukrainians, so that it is indeed a fact that the liberation of Auschwitz was carried out by an army in which Ukrainians were overrepresented.”
Absurdist New Heights
Splitting hairs somewhat, the Frenchman continues, “Fifty percent of the corps—that’s impressive. Ukrainians did not make up the whole corps, but it’s still impressive. And I do not believe that similar proportions were found in any other Red Army unit.” To this day, Ukrainians believe their contribution to the liberation of Europe has been disregarded. In light of the startling casualties --- more than one million Ukrainians died fighting for the Soviet Union against Nazi oppression --- such sentiments are somewhat justified. At Auschwitz, a Ukrainian Jew, Major Anatoly Shapiro, led a battalion which fought its way into the concentration camp. On the other hand, several other Auschwitz liberators hailed from other Russian regions which encompassed the Soviet Union at the time. During the battle, the Soviet army lost more than 200 Russian and Ukrainian troops.
Recently, the Auschwitz controversy reached somewhat absurdist new heights during commemorations honoring the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp. Poland, which is a strategic ally of Ukraine, snubbed Russia by declaring that Ukrainian soldiers, rather than the Soviet Red Army, had liberated Auschwitz. In response, Russia accused Poland of engaging in a “mockery of history.” For good measure, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Poland’s stance “sacrilegious and cynical,” adding that “Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, which included Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens, Tatars and Georgians, among others.” The Polish Foreign Minister retorted that his country was in the right, since it had been a Ukrainian officer whose tank first broke through the camp’s gates. Leaping into the fray, deputy head of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration Valeriy Chaliy remarked, “Ukrainians made up the majority of those who freed Auschwitz -- the Ukrainian Front.” Chaliy added that Ukrainians played the most significant role in liberating other concentration camps and “Europe overall.”
“Ukrainian” Wartime Conduct
To get more of a personal take on such fiery controversies, I catch up with Josef Zissels, Danilchenko’s boss and Chairman of the General Council at Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. After a conference held in tandem with Babi Yar commemorations in Kyiv, Zissels told me that much of the discussion around World War II and Ukraine had become misplaced. “Bandera is definitely not my hero,” he says, but then asks rhetorically “What is a collaborator? At that time, everyone was a Soviet citizen and there were no ‘Ukrainians.’”
Tim Snyder, a level-headed and measured historian from Yale University, also seeks to get away from all-encompassing, over-generalizations about the “Ukrainian war-time role.” I meet Snyder, the author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, during Babi Yar commemorations for a brief interview. “Of course Ukraine should commemorate Babi Yar,” he explains, “and of course Ukrainians should try to understand why people in Kiev took part in the massacre.” Hardly one to shy away from controversy, Snyder remarks that Ukrainians as well as Russians hung signs around Kyiv and told Jews to assemble and gather. After the massacre took place, locals seized the apartments of neighbors who had been killed. In some cases, people even stole the belongings of those Jews who were too old or infirm to march off to Babi Yar.
“All those things happened,” Snyder says, “and it’s very appropriate for Ukrainian society to try to come to terms with that.” On the other hand, Snyder adds, before we start talking about “Ukrainians, Ukrainians, Ukrainians,” we should remember that some Russians, Latvians, Crimean Tatars, Belarussians and others collaborated too so in the end there’s no “ethnic differentiation.”
Role of Nationalists
Recently, Snyder adds, Russia has been talking about how “Ukrainians” collaborated, but the entire issue has become politicized. People basically reacted the same way within the entire German wartime zone of occupation, the historian says, with the exception of local ethnic Germans who collaborated to a greater extent with the Nazis. “I say this,” Snyder declares, “because you can’t understand the Holocaust by saying ‘Ukrainians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Russians.’ Everyone says that because we live in a rather nationalized world. The historical question of who collaborates is important, but I don’t think we’re going to get at it through ethnic descriptions.”
But, what about the particular wartime role of OUN nationalists whose members collaborated? The OUN didn’t start the war and the group didn’t spearhead the conflict, Snyder says, but nevertheless the organization was “far right, integral nationalist, and in my view fascist.” The OUN’s ideas “required the creation of a unified and homogeneous Ukrainian state, in which Ukrainians were going to be at the top of some kind of totalitarian, mono- party and the minorities would all be somehow at the margins.” During the war, some nationalists took part in organizing pogroms, especially in western Ukraine.
On the other hand, Snyder argues that “if you want to understand collaboration, it’s important not to say like ‘Ok, it was the nationalists,’ because the nationalists were a very small percentage of the collaborators in Ukraine and anywhere.” Though many Communists were victimized and killed by the Nazis at the aforementioned Syrets concentration camp outside Kyiv, other Communists collaborated. Indeed, Snyder adds, there were more Communists than nationalists who collaborated simply because the latter weren’t as numerous at that particular time. In Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kharkiv and Donetsk (which was then called Stalino), card-carrying Communists within the municipal government collaborated. In other words, “If you want to get our minds around collaboration, it’s important to avoid what I call ‘standardization;’ in other words, ‘it was just those guys, so those nationalists came in and it was them.’”
Ironies of Western Modernity
In the midst of wartime hostilities between Ukraine and Russia, the notion of sparking even a semi-rational conversation about the wartime historical record seems challenging and that is putting it mildly. Rather than ratchet back the increasingly volatile and inflammatory war of words, the Kremlin has demonized Ukraine as fascistic. To its great credit, Kyiv has sought to come to terms with some of its own questionable history through events at Babi Yar, for example. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian government has not done enough to challenge right wing partisans within its midst who would politicize historical debates.
It is to be hoped that Jewish suffering and historical struggle will not be obscured, marred or minimized within this rapidly unraveling and polarizing milieu, though recent developments leave something to be desired. In a recent piece, I reflected upon Ukraine’s peripatetic high stakes bid to join the ranks of ostensibly modern and westernized countries. Through its commemorative services at Babi Yar, Kyiv has no doubt assuaged many in the liberal west that Ukraine has turned the page and seeks to promote a more tolerant vision of society. Ironically, however, even as Ukraine strives for modernity the west seems to be slipping backwards on many fronts, including protection of minority civil liberties and even Jews.
Just a few short months ago, there was no mistaking U.S. support for Kyiv through high profile events such as the Babi Yar commemoration. Indeed, during services U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker no less delivered a poignant speech which honored the memory of Jews who had perished during the massacre. A few scant months later, however, and the U.S. attitude towards the Holocaust has apparently undergone a sea change with Donald Trump’s startling omission of Jews from his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech. The commemoration, which falls on January 27th, marks the historic liberation of Auschwitz, the largest Nazi death camp. Yet if Auschwitz has already become a political football in Eastern Europe and Russia, the site seems to have now become something of a flashpoint in the U.S. itself.
In a development which harks back to historian Lipstadt’s warnings over Holocaust denial, leading rightwing figures have hailed Trump’s omission. Take, for example, Richard Spencer, a chief ideologue on the “alt-right” circuit, who lauded Trump for promoting so-called “de-Judaification” of the Holocaust. According to Spencer, Jewish activists have exploited the Holocaust as a means of pushing their own “meta-narrative of suffering” and thereby reinforcing their “peculiar position in American society.” Far from repudiating Trump’s statement, fellow Republicans have done their utmost to back the president. Take, for example, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who said he “didn’t regret the words,” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who insisted that Trump didn’t mean anything “bad” when he made his statement. Even worse, when House Democrats tried to force a vote “to affirm that the Nazi regime targeted the Jewish people in its perpetration of the Holocaust,” Republicans defeated the effort via procedural maneuvers.
In a foreboding twist, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to rebuke anti-Semitism on multiple fronts. Last year, the institution criticized Kyiv for its handling of the past. “As Ukraine advances on the difficult road to full democracy,” the museum stated, “we strongly urge the nation’s government to refrain from any measure that preempts or censors discussion or politicizes the study of history.” More recently, the museum came full circle by addressing matters closer to home. “Millions of other innocent civilians were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis,” the museum declared, “but the elimination of Jews was central to Nazi policy.” Perhaps what is most startling is that the museum felt compelled to reinforce such established historical facts in the first place.