Remembering the Holocaust in Ukraine

(L-R) German President Joachim Gauck, Hungarian President Janos Ader, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko with his wife Maryna, European Council President Donald Tusk, Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman attend a ceremony commemorating the victims of Babyn Yar (Babi Yar), one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust, in Kiev, Ukraine, September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

Some countries in Eastern Europe, like Ukraine, remain reluctant to fully confront the darker aspects of their nation's World War II history.

With Holocaust Remembrance Day dawning last Saturday, it’s important to remember that the Nazis could not have implemented the Shoah without widespread assistance from local collaborators. While Western European nations have largely come to grips with the fact that some of their citizens collaborated with the Nazis, some countries in Eastern Europe remain reluctant to fully confront the darker aspects of their nation's World War II history.

One country struggling with this is Ukraine, a nation seeking to create a new national narrative while simultaneously fighting an existential war against a Russian enemy seeking to block Kyiv’s desire to join the West.

It’s been a bumpy ride so far. As part of a series of “decommunization” laws passed in 2015, the country’s complete set of archives from the “Soviet organs of repression” were transferred to Ukrainian Institute of National Memory (UINP), a government entity tasked with the “implementation of state policy in the field of restoration and preservation of national memory of the Ukrainian people.” Central to this has been a campaign by UINP to depict the World War II-era nationalist groups, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), as multi-ethnic and democratic organizations while whitewashing their involvement in the Holocaust and mass ethnic cleansing of Poles during World War II.

As Ukraine recently prepared to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of the creation of the UPA’s founding, President Petro Poroshenko became directly involved in UINP’s mission. In a directive sent to regional governments, Poroshenko's office instructed officials on how to “provide citizens with objective information” on the UPA’s history. Attached to the instructions circulated by Poroshenko’s Office was a historical addendum prepared by UINP:

There is evidence that Jews fought in the UPA. They considered their stay in this army as real salvation from physical extermination by the Nazis. That's why so many Jews moved there after escaping from the ghetto, others were released from there by Ukrainian insurgents.

They positively proved themselves not only as ordinary soldiers, but also as qualified doctors. The volumes “Chronicles of the UPA” contain information about the heroics of Jews who fought in the ranks of the UPA both against Nazism and against communism, and many of them died in the fight for the will of Ukraine and the honor of the Jewish people.

UINP’s addendum represents the exact opposite of the truth. Many UPA cadres came from the ranks of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police—an organization deeply complicit in collaborating with the Nazis to implement the Final Solution in Ukraine. Perhaps not surprisingly then, while focusing its killing machine largely against Polish civilians, the UPA also frequently hunted down the few surviving Jews still alive in western Ukraine in 1943–1944.

In sum, the office of Ukraine's head of state is peddling Holocaust revisionism—something we should all be disturbed by. To be clear, there's no evidence that Poroshenko supports UINP’s views or holds any anti-Semitic beliefs himself—indeed his Prime Minister and many of his acquaintances are Jewish—but by outsourcing the “management” of Ukraine's memory to UINP he must be considered at least indirectly responsible for helping whitewash his nation's complicated Holocaust history.

Kyiv's state-sponsored memory campaign represents a betrayal of the democratic ideals Euromaidan's brave protesters fought for. While demonstrators did include a sprinkling of far right ultranationalist organizations, the overwhelming numbers of protesters were driven by their desire for Ukraine to become a fully European state. Moreover—unlike in many other European countries—far-right parties like Svoboda draw little electoral support and there’s no evidence Ukraine’s citizens possess widespread anti-Semitic attitudes.

Even aside from the ethical problems intrinsic to Holocaust obfuscation, UINP’s memory politics also negatively impact Ukraine's in its ongoing information war with Russia. Russian trolls and state-owned media such as RT and Sputnik love falsely depicting post-revolutionary Ukraine as overrun by anti-Semitic fascists and Nazi sympathizers. For the Kremlin’s propaganda apparatus, UINP is a gift that keeps on giving.