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Features BOTH VICTIM AND PERPETRATOR Ukraine’s problematic relationship to the Holocaust

For various reasons, Ukraine’s relationship to the Holocaust and the Jews has been overshadowed by the similar, but more striking […]

Published on on August 1, 2011

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For various reasons, Ukraine’s relationship to the Holocaust and the Jews has been overshadowed by the similar, but more striking situation in Germany and Poland. The question deserves attention, however, because it is still a serious moral and political dilemma in Ukraine, closely related to the country’s endeavor to build a national identity. The dilemma is clearly reflected in Ukrainian historiography and current politics, though government museums and public memorials in Western Ukraine also bear witness to the vestiges of the Holocaust — or to the lack thereof.

These words are partly based on Western historical research about the Holocaust in Ukraine and how it has been treated1, and partly — mainly — on research material gathered during two dedicated visits to Kiev and Lviv in 2007 and 2010.2


According to some estimates, over 900,000 Jews died in Soviet Ukraine between 1941 and 1944 as a result of the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany and its Ukrainian henchmen. This figure actually represents the largest number of victims in any country other than Poland, where the number of victims is estimated at 3.3 million.3 Holocaust victims included the Jews of Eastern Galicia, which the Soviet Union seized from Poland under the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They comprised a relatively large minority (in 1931, 639,000, or 9.3 percent), and anti-Semitism was widespread.4 During the postwar period, particularly after 1991, many of the remaining Jews emigrated, primarily to Israel. According to the 2001 census, only about 80,000 Jews (0.2 percent of the total population) remained in all of Ukraine, and just 12,000—15,000 in what is now Western Ukraine.5 A rich culture, which through the centuries shaped parts of Ukraine and Poland, has almost entirely vanished or been forgotten.

Ukrainian historiography on the Holocaust

As Johan Dietsch demonstrated in a dissertation in 2006, the official history of postwar Soviet Ukraine was not particularly interested in the Jews as an ethnic group or in the terrible fate they suffered during the war. Rather, the remaining Jews were subjected to the Soviet campaigns against “Zionists” and “cosmopolitans” who were considered to be allies of Western imperialists, and historiography about the war primarily addressed the victory of the united Soviet people over German fascism, which served as a strong new basis to legitimize the socialist system. In the process the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its rebel army (UPA), which wanted an independent state, were attacked for helping the Nazi occupiers, and the anti-communist Ukrainian diaspora in North America, which defended the nationalists, was condemned.7

This diaspora sought to preserve its national identity by cherishing the Ukrainian Cossack tradition dating back to the seventeenth century, from Cossack leaders such as Bohdan Chmelnitsky, to leaders in the struggle for independence, such as Symon Petliura during World War I and the head of the UPA, Stepan Bandera, at the beginning of World War II. Their anti-Semitism, which led to repeated pogroms, was conveniently swept under the carpet. Instead of the Holocaust, the Ukrainian diaspora was particularly interested in the Holodomor, Stalin’s intentional famine policy in Ukraine (1932—1933), which was considered to be a genocide directed at the Ukrainian people. It was claimed that more Ukrainians died in the Holodomor than Jews in the Holocaust and that Jews as prominent representatives of the Soviet secret police service NKVD were complicit in the Holodomor. The diaspora praised the struggles of the UPA and OUN for freedom, and some even held that the Soviet repression before the war justified the collaboration of certain Ukrainians with Nazi Germany during the war.8

Parts of this historiography were adopted when Ukraine became independent in 1991. The quest to build a Ukrainian identity now emphasizes the national struggle for freedom since the 1600s and earlier. Lenin statues in the western parts of the country have been replaced by monuments of Cossack and nationalist leaders. Since the 1990s, Ukraine’s political leaders have tried on several occasions to gain international recognition for the Holodomor as genocide against Ukrainians, and the famine is treated as a Ukrainian equivalent of the Holocaust.9 Although the official history books do not often stress ‘ the responsibility of the Jewish communists for the Holodomor, anti-Semitic literature is published and sold everywhere in today’s Ukraine, including Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Ukraine’s largest private institution of higher education, MAUP, with 30,000 students, has published a series of such works.10

At the same time that the official interpretation of history in contemporary Ukraine highlights the national struggle against Soviet power, it has also stressed, as in Soviet times, Ukraine’s active struggle against Nazi Germany and Nazi atrocities. The enormous Rodina-Mat’ victory monument thus still stands in Kiev, and the 9th of May is still celebrated. Ukraine is therefore regarded as a victim of the two totalitarian regimes that entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. According to one textbook from 1994, although many people welcomed the Soviet occupation of eastern Galicia in 1939 as liberation from Poland, it also led to sovietization and deportations to the east, driving many people to welcome the subsequent German invasion. When the Nazi Germany occupation became even worse than the Soviet, Ukrainian partisans began to resist.11 It is rarely noted that Ukrainians could be found on both sides of the front lines.

The truth about the Nazi mass murder of Jews in Ukraine is no longer suppressed, but is mainly associated with Babi Yar in 1941 (see below). The Nazi racial ideology is not explained and the tragedy of the Jews is still overshadowed by the suffering of Ukrainians. For example, another textbook from 2004 admitted that Jews in particular suffered at the massacre at Babi Yar and added that each city had its own Babi Yar. The Nazis pressured the Ukrainians not to help the Jews, but many are claimed to have done so anyway and were executed and therefore honored posthumously by Israel. The Uniate (Greek Catholic) Metropolitan Sheptytsky was mentioned in particular.12 It is hardly made clear that Ukrainian nationalists helped with the extermination of the Jews.13 Viktor Yushchenko, who as Prime Minister participated at the Holocaust Conference in Stockholm in 2000, declared that the experience of millions of Ukrainians as victims of a Holocaust of their own meant that the Ukrainians well understand the ordeal of the Jews.14 When Yushchenko was elected president in 2004 after the so-called Orange Revolution, he was mainly supported by nationalist and Western-oriented groups in western and central Ukraine.

Johan Dietsch concludes that the official image of Ukrainians as both heroes and victims does not allow other people to have suffered more than the Ukrain-ians or that the Ukrainians were accomplices in the extermination of the Jews in Ukraine. However,
Ukrainian history books, which address other countries, depict the Holocaust more objectively as genocide specifically directed against the Jews and label it a purely European trauma. It should also be mentioned that during a state visit to Germany in 2007, Yushchenko deviated from protocol by visiting a concentration camp, where his father had been a prisoner. In such a way the Ukrainians circumvent the problem of their participation in the Holocaust on their home turf and present an impression that Ukraine shares European values and fits in with the European community.15

The babi yar massacre and its memory

The Ukrainian view of the extermination of the Jews can be illustrated by the case of Babi Yar, considered the single largest massacre in the history of the Holocaust and which became a symbol of its early, non-industrial phase.16 After the Nazi German invasion, an Einsatzgruppe executed over 33,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in two days in late September 1941. The executions then continued and were expanded to include communists, Roma, mental patients, and Ukrainian nationalists interned in the concentration camp set up at nearby Syrets. The perpetrators included Ukrainian policemen. In all, between 70,000 and 120,000 people were murdered.

When the Soviet Army approached in 1943, the Nazis tried to cover their tracks by ordering the concentration camp prisoners to dig up the corpses and burn them, after which the prisoners were killed. When the Soviet army arrived in November 1943, a concentration camp was transformed into an internment camp for German prisoners of war until 1946, when it was demolished. In the 1950s, a residential complex and a stadium were built in the area, as well as a dam in the ravine, a dam which then burst with hundreds of deaths as a result. When Nikita Khrushchev was head of the Communist Party in Ukraine, he opposed a proposal from the Jewish author Ilya Ehrenburg to erect a monument to the victims, but internal and external pressure to do so increased over time. A breakthrough occurred with the publication of Yevgeny Yevtu-

shenko’s famous poem of 1961, which began with the words “No monument stands over Babi Yar.” Shortly thereafter, Dmitri Shostakovich set the poem to music in his thirteenth symphony. 17

In 1966, the authorities set up a small memorial, and a decade later a typically pompous Soviet monument was erected at an incorrect location with the following text in Russian, Ukrainian, and Hebrew: “Here in 1941—1943 the German fascist invaders shot more than one hundred thousand Kiev citizens and military captives.” The Jews were not specifically mentioned. Not until fifty years after the massacre was a menorah monument erected at the correct place by the ravine, with the participation of Western organizations, in memory of the Jewish victims.18

However, the impact of this monument was diluted, when several other memorials were erected in various locations in the area: to the executed Ukrain-ian nationalists (1992), two Orthodox priests (2000), murdered children (without nationality, text only in Ukrainian) and — with German involvement — a monument in memory of the Ukrainian Ostarbeiter and concentration camp prisoners in Nazi Germany (2005).19 It may be added that it is difficult to find the monument because the Ukrainian brochures lack maps of the area, no signs are posted, and the local population is unable to answer questions. Although President Kuchma laid the cornerstone for a Jewish memorial and meeting center at Babi Yar in 2001, funded by U.S. organizations, it was never built, and after long debate, in 2009 the Jewish congregation decided instead to build its own memorial center.20 In the run-up to the 2012 European Football Championships, a plan was launched that included building a new hotel next to the monument, but it was vetoed by Kiev’s mayor in response to intense criticism from Jewish groups around the world.21 In short, the Ukrainian treatment is both depressing and outrageous.

The Holocaust in Lviv and its aftermath

Similar observations apply to Lviv, the current regional capital of Western Ukraine, a beautiful city with a rich multicultural history. As American Holocaust scholar Omer Bartov points out in a book on traces of the Holocaust in Western Ukraine, during the interwar period the Jews were a prominent ethnic group in Polish Galicia (639,000, or 9.3 percent in 1931, in Lviv 120,000 in 1939). Although their numbers steadily decreased due to a process of Polonization, secularization and modernization, they still suffered at the hands of rival anti-Semitic Polish and Ukrainian nationalists in the country and two murderous totalitarian regimes from outside it, while emigration to the United States and Palestine was made impossible.22

After the Nazi German occupation of Poland in September 1939, 130,000 Jews fled to the Soviet Western Ukraine, most of them to Lviv, where they encountered communist oppression and class warfare instead. The NKVD actually deported a proportionately higher percentage of Jews than Poles to the east of the Soviet Union, because many were businessmen, craftsmen, or intellectuals. But even if 25—30 percent of them died during deportation, many lives were still saved. When Hitler’s armies rolled into Galicia in the summer of 1941, they immediately instigated the genocide of the remaining Jews.

After the war, the Ukrainians soon became the predominant group in the city, while the Russians were second largest. Not many Jews returned, and only a single small synagogue still holds services in Lviv.23 As Bartov shows in many photos, almost all traces of Jews in the former Galicia are now destroyed or in ruins, desecrated by contemporary anti-Semites. Lviv also provides scant information in the form of brochures or maps.24 Streets have been renamed and only Vulitsa Staroyevreyska (Old Jewish Street) reveals that there was once a large Jewish settlement and ghetto within the walls of the center. All that remains of the great synagogue from the 1580s is the foundation and an empty vault behind an ugly metal fence. A small plaque in Ukrainian and English states that the synagogue was destroyed by German soldiers. In the spring of 2007, passers-by could see graffiti on a wall nearby, urging “smert zhidam” (death to the Jews) which no one had bothered to remove.25

Proposals to rebuild the synagogue and create a Jewish museum and cultural center on the site have not been realized.26 Instead, a restaurant was built next door which bears the synagogue’s beautiful name: the Golden Rose.

It also bears mentioning that the Lviv Historical Museum’s department on the Ukrainian liberation movement during World War II depicts this struggle as directed against both Hitler and Stalin. It is not pointed out that the Ukrainians also therefore collaborated with either Hitler or Stalin, and the extermination of the Jews is not mentioned at all.

Nevertheless, some monuments related to the Holocaust have been erected in recent years. Beyond the railway line that separated the city from the ghetto established by the Nazis, a Holocaust Monument in typical Soviet style was erected in 1993 with a plaque in English, Ukrainian, and Hebrew stating “‘through this road of death’ in 1941—1943 were passing 136,800 Jewish victims martyred by German Nazi-Fascist occupiers in Lviv Geto [sic].” Several individual memorials also bear witness to shocking fates.27 But it should be noted that the monument was funded by the city’s Jewish congregation and is not well kept by the local authorities.

Another example is a monument at a former prison in the middle of the city, commemorating victims of the NKVD between 1939 and 1941 — after the Soviet conquest. The inscription on the monument specifically states that in the Lviv area more than 3,000 Ukrainians, Poles, and Jews were shot, and is illustrated by the national symbols: the trident, the eagle, and the Star of David.28 It may be noticed, however, that the paint on the Star of David has been allowed to flake while the symbols of the other nationalities are touched up.29 It is difficult not to suspect that the reason is related to the fact that Ukrainian nationalists saw and see the NKVD as dominated by Jews and believe that the killings mainly affected Ukrainians.

What happened after Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union is also controversial. According to Jewish scholars and organizations, the Ukrainian Nachtigall battalion, together with German troops and local Ukrainians, massacred Jews in the first days of July before continuing their march. At the end of the month a new pogrom was carried out in the city, known as the “Petliura Days”, named for the Ukrainian leader who instigated pogroms during the 1919 struggle for independence.30 Even after Nazi troops retreated toward the end of the war, incidents of persecution by the Ukrainians against the remaining Jews occurred throughout Galicia.

The massacres later gained broader political implications. In 1959 a campaign was launched in the GDR and Soviet Union against Theodore Oberländer, who had commanded Nachtigall and now happened to be West German interior minister, for his participation in the first massacre in Lviv. Oberländer was forced to resign, but he and the battalion were acquitted in 1960 by an international commission of inquiry and the German courts.31 The issue was raised again in 2007, when President Yushchenko named Roman Shukhevych, who had led the battalion along with Oberländer, a “Hero of Ukraine” and dismissed accusations that he participated in the pogroms. Before his retirement in 2010 Yushchenko also awarded the same title to Stepan Bandera, who had been chairman of the Ukrainian independence movement until he was seized by the Nazis, but is also associated with anti-Semitic pogroms during World War I.32

A few conclusions

It can thus be noted that since independence, the Ukrainian authorities have not conducted any real Vergangenheitsbewältigung — struggle to come to terms with the past—in relation to the Holocaust as Germany and to a lesser extent Poland have done. The rich Jewish culture in Western Ukraine was nearly wiped out during and after the war. Desecration of Jewish monuments and cemeteries testifies to the fact that anti-Semitism is alive and well in western Ukraine. Today’s young Ukrainians know very little about the country’s Jewish history or the crimes that Ukrainians committed or participated in.33

To a small extent, however, this relationship is offset by a new factor: namely Ukraine’s growing contacts with Western countries. Among other things, the number of Jewish tourists, mainly from Israel and the United States, who visit areas where they or (mainly) their ancestors lived, has swelled since the 1990s. Direct flights now connect Lviv and Tel Aviv. This tourism contributes a little to the economy in the area and reminds the residents of the part Jews played in the country’s history.

Furthermore, one could expect that the desire of many Ukrainians to join the affluent and well-organized EU would contribute to a growing acceptance of the Western European view of human rights and democracy. Thus, after 2004, President Yushchenko conducted a clearly Western-oriented policy. On the other hand, as mentioned above, he derived most support from the nationalists in western Ukraine with their anti-Semitic elements.

Yushchenko was succeeded in 2010 by the Russian-oriented Viktor Yanukovych, who is mainly supported by eastern and southern Ukraine. Like Russia and the Jewish organizations, he has criticized the glorification of OUN, UPA, and their leaders. Yanukovych promised during a visit to Moscow to repeal the hero status of Bandera and Shukhevych (which later occurred) and did not wish to call the Holodomor a genocide solely against the Ukrainians when he spoke at the Council of Europe.34 Yanukovych then took part in the 60th anniversary celebration of Russia’s victory in World War II. A museum director, who had played down the participation of Ukrainians in pogroms in Lviv, was fired.35

The questions surrounding the resistance struggles of Ukrainian nationalists and the 1932 famine disaster thus remain hot political issues that engage not only historians, but also contribute to regional tensions in Ukraine and affect the country’s foreign policy. However, the Holocaust of the Jews and Ukrainian complicity are still rarely addressed in this context. The world is still waiting for Ukrainian historians in general to admit that Ukrainians were not only victims, but also executioners. The Jews are waiting for their rightful place in Ukraine’s history and contemporary life. ≈


  1. For contemporary overviews of both Hitler’s and Stalin’s genocides, see Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, London 2010, and Kristian Gerner and Klas-Göran Karlsson, Folkmordens historia [The history of genocide], Stockholm 2005.
  2. A previous version of this article was published in Swedish in Inblick Östeuropa 1—2:2010.
  3. Lucy Dawidowich, The War Against the Jews, Middlesex & New York 1975, pp. 477—480. Betsy Gidwitz cites 1,850,000 victims in Ukraine; see “Jewish Life in Ukraine at the Dawn of the Twenty-first Century: Part One”, Jerusalem Letter no. 451, April 2001, (accessed 2010-09-01), p. 4
  4. For regional distribution, see Father Patrick Desbois, The Holocaust by Bullets, New York 2008, pp. 234 f. 
  5. John Grabowski, “Antisemitism i det oranga Ukraina”, [Antisemitism in Orange Ukraine] SKMA newsletter (Swedish Committee Against Anti-Semitism) newsletter, November 2005, (accessed 2010-05-19).
  6. Making Sense Of Suffering: Holocaust and Holodomor in Ukrainian Historical Culture, Lund 2006.
  7. Dietsch, pp. 69, 97—110.
  8. Dietsch, op. cit., pp. 122—136. See also Taras Hunczak, “Ukrainian-Jewish Relations During the Soviet and Nazi Occupations”, in Yury Boshyk (ed.), Ukraine during World War II, Edmonton 1986, pp. 40—45.
  9. Dietsch, op. cit., pp. 216—226.
  10. Grabowski, op. cit., p. 4.
  11. Dietsch, op. cit., pp. 155 f.
  12. V. A. Smolij (ed.), Istorija Ukrainy XX-pochatku XXI stolittja, Kyiv 2004, pp. 115 f. See also Hunczak, pp. 49—51.
  13. It can be added that Father Patrick Desbois and those whom he interviews in The Holocaust by Bullets clearly ascribe the guilt to the Nazis, without any mention of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.
  14. Dietsch, op. cit., pp. 160 f.
  15. Ibid., pp. 227—234.
  16. Dietsch, op. cit., pp. 236 ff. 
  17. Shmuel Specter, “Babi Yar”, in Israel Gitman (ed.), Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, London 1990; (accessed 2007-09-05), pp. 2—5.
  18. Ruth Helen Gruber, Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe, Washington D.C. 2007, pp. 106 f; Michael Berenbaum, “Baby Yar”, in “Britannica Concise Dictionary”, (accessed 2007-09-05); “Babi Yar”, Wikipedia (article with footnotes, text excerpts and photos), (accessed 2007-09-05).
  19. For photos, see “Museum of Family History”, The Cemetery Project, Babi Yar, (accessed 2010-05-19).
  20. Vladimir Matveyev, “Plan to Build Memorial at Site of Massacre in Ukraine Stirs Debate”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2007-07-24, (accessed 2010-05-19); Lev Krichevsky, “To Build or Not — New Babi Yar Center Stirs Hot Debate”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, (accessed 2007-09-05); “Design Sought for Jewish Babi Yar Memorial”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 2010-04-29, (accessed 2010-05-19).
  21. “Babij Jar-hotell förbjuds” [Babi Yar Hotel prohibited], Allt om historia [All about history], (accessed 2010-05-19).
  22. Omer Bartov, Erased: Vanishing Traces of Jewish Galicia in Present-Day Ukraine, Princeton 2007, pp. 18 f, 32 f; United States Holocaust Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia, “Lvov”,, April 2010 (accessed 2010-04-13).
  23. Bartov, op. cit., pp. 36—39.
  24. A brochure in Russian about Jewish heritage in Lviv only mentions German Nazi perpetrators during the war: Yuriy Biryulev, Evreyskoe nazledie L’vova. Putevoditel’, L’vov 2002, pp. 18—23.
  25. Author’s photos, April 2010.
  26. Gruber, op. cit., p. 111.
  27. Bartov, op. cit., pp. 28 f; Gruber, op. cit., pp. 111 f.
  28. Bartov, op. cit., p. 34.
  29. Author’s photo, May 2007, unchanged in April 2010.
  30. US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust encyclopedia, “Lvov”, (accessed 2010-04-13).
  31. Wikipedia, “Lviv pogroms”, pp. 1—4, “The Lviv Pogroms Controversy (1941)”, pp. 1—10, (accessed 2010-04-13), “Nachtigall Battalion” (accessed 2010-09-01). According to American researcher Alfred M. de Zayas, the first pogrom was carried out by Ukrainian and Polish civilians alone before the arrival of the Nazi troops on June 29 in response to the Jewish-dominated NKVD massacres, and the Nazi German authorities even tried, he argues, to protect the Jews from the local population. De Zayas, The Wehrmacht War Crimes Bureau, Chapter 20, pp. 1-9, (accessed 2010-04-13).
  32. Clifford J. Levy, “‘Hero of Ukraine’ splits nation, inside and out”, The New York Times, 2010-03-01, (accessed March 3, 2010); Pavel Korduban, “Leftish, pro-Russian extremists defy Yushchenko over history”, Eurasia Daily Monitor, no. 197, 2007, (accessed 2007-10-25). Shukhevych was also honored with a Ukrainian stamp (“The Nachtigall Battalion”, p. 3).
  33. Bartov, pp. 9, 201—210.
  34. “Ukraine’s Yanukovich to repeal Bandera hero decree”, 2010-03-19, (accessed 2010-05-25); The Voice of Russia, Yanukovich’s Holodomor statements forged on PACE site, 2010-04-28, http://englisch,ruvr,ru/print/7025535.html (accessed 2010-05-25).
  35. “Historian hopes Harper’s visit to Ukraine museum will help shed light on war atrocities”, (accessed February 14, 2011).
  • by Ingmar Oldberg

    Research associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) since 2009, member of its Russia and Eurasia programme, formerly Deputy Director of Research at the Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI).

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