Fragments of Ukrainian Nationalism

On the Jewish history of 20th century Ukraine

There is, of course, also a Jewish history of Ukrainian nationalism which, rather surprisingly, argues that we – the West – should defend Ukraine. This is the conviction of Israeli historian – who has Galician, i.e. Ukrainian roots – Omer Bartov, who is a professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Brown University.

In a recent interview given to a German daily, Omer Bartov was asked about war and peace in the Ukraine, to whom does the country belong, and who should be allowed to live there? To that, Bartov said that Putin cannot stand the fact that Ukraine is culturally and linguistically very close to Russia, and – at the same time – a democratic state. Omer Bartov’s ancestors came from that part of Europe that is now known as the Ukraine.

He has written a book about the place where his family originated from. When asked what he feels when seeing pictures of the war? Bartov noted, the last few months have been hard for all of us. I always watch TV news since it’s very hard to do anything else. Many cities that you see now that are bombed and completely ruined – I know quite well. I feel like old stories are returning. This is a disaster. And, we have no idea what’s going to happen. But it’s very, very sad. Bartov was born in Israel while his mother came from the Ukrainian city of Buczacz – a small town in former Galicia which used to be a part of Eastern Europe.

The town has a vivid history. Historically, Buczacz belonged to the Habsburg Empire, later it was inside the Ukraine and after that, inside Poland, and finally it became what we understand the Ukraine to be. Still, between 1919 and 1991, it was the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

Unsurprisingly, the historical reality of the Ukraine and Ukrainian nationalism is a rather complicated story. Not too long after the rise of Ukrainian – but of course, never really independent from nationalism – the family resided in Israel where Bartov’s father was born. His father’s parents came from Poland – actually, from the western part of Poland. This enticed Bartov to write down the history of the place of his forefathers even though Omer Bartov himself was also born in Israel – in the year 1954.

Today, he lives in the USA (and teaches at Brown University). Omer Bartov is one of the world’s leading Holocaust researchers. One of his latest books – Tales from the Borderlands – has been published this summer.

Among his many articles that have been cited 5,000 times, is one book called Anatomie eines Genozids (2021) or Anatomy of a Genocide in English. He has also published in German language – home of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.

As so much of his work, both books are about the life and death and this book is about a Ukrainian city called Buczacz telling a rather similar story to Jan Gross’ 2001 seminal study called Neighbors – a massacre that took place in the town of Jedwabne in Poland.

Analogous to Jedwabne and even before Gross’ work was published in the mid-nineties, Bartov started to wonder how it was possible that in small towns like Buczacz, neighbors killed each other during the German occupation, as three groups collided: Jews, Poles, Ukrainians. Within these three ethnic and religious groups: the Ruthenians or Ukrainians were Greek Catholics; the Poles were Roman Catholics; and there were Jews. All three – more or less – had lived together for 400 years – largely peacefully except for the occasional pogrom.

Yet, Ukrainian nationalism hasn’t been free of anti-Semitism and the truth remains that there have always been tensions between the three groups. For a long time, they had developed a way of life that was not pluralistic. Yet, most people knew each other well. And this was despite the fact that they didn’t speak the language of the other perfectly – like Omer Bartov’s knowledge of the German language, as he freely admitted. Wrong, his German is perfect.

Yet, for a very long time, the three groups – Jews, Poles, Ukrainians – were dependent on each other. On the whole, Galician culture is a mixture par excellence – perhaps even reminiscence of what we call multiculturalism today. The majority of people couldn’t imagine anything else. It was what they knew. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there was no major war and no violence. Yet, by the end of the 19th century, Ukrainian nationalism started to grow. Eventually, it manifested itself in the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Despite all this, the one nagging question for Poles and Ukrainians was, who owns the country, is it the Polish or Ruthenian, that is, Ukrainian? Interestingly, both saw the Jews as strangers. The Jews had no part in the new nationalist thinking – framed as the outsider, the out-group, the alien. Apart from other reasons, this was one of the key reasons why Zionism – seeking to establish a Jewish homeland – was born. Beyond that, there wasn’t even a language in the 19th century vocabulary that expresses the idea of a modern, democratic, pluralistic society that we have today.

Today, we live in a pluralistic – and in some cases a multicultural – society in which we appreciate to have different people from different cultures living together. For East-European Jews, the fantasized land of Zionism wasn’t in Galicia, but in Palestine. Then Germany started the First World War. As so often, when Germany enters the mix, it came with very strong violence. That is exactly how the First World War began. After the war, Poland was back and wanted the territory where the majority of the population were Ukrainians.

Many civilians – including Jews – were murdered in the wake of nationalistic upheavals. Worse, in 1929, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded – a prime organization of Ukrainian nationalism. Of course, the OUN sought to change the state of affairs. As a right-wing extremists’ terrorist organization, it later became a very important player in the murder of Jews between 1941 and 1944 – signified by Babyn Yar – a ravine just outside of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv: a site of Holocaust massacres. (note of Cross-border Talks: In fact, the OUN members did not take part in Babyn Yar massacre or other Nazi-perpetrated mass killings of Jews as an organized force. The organization was outlawed by the end of June 1941 after it tried to proclaim independence of Ukraine in occupied Lviv. However, the Ukrainian nationalists did join collaborating formations, such as the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police, and participated in war crimes. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, armed force of the OUN, had often an antisemite attitude, too.)

Certainly, historical Buczacz wasn’t an idyll place. Instead, there were forces that opposed the growing Ukrainian nationalism. One can say that the people who lived in and around Buczacz before the rise of Ukrainian nationalism never actively pursue the idea that everyone lives together. Instead, each group remained largely separate – if not segregated – while developing their own narrative about their culture and those seen as outsiders.

The stories they told themselves differed greatly within each of the three different groups: Jews, Poles, Ukrainians. What started at the end of the 19th century was that these stories were no longer focused on questions like: why are we here? But increasingly also: why are the others here? And worse: they don’t belong here! The majority of them was religious and they wanted to have the life they always had.

However, the problem was that one could no longer continue to live like this – modernity had arrived and with it – Ukrainian nationalism. During the nineteen twenties and thirties, anti-Semitism was growing. For Jews, it increasingly meant that they couldn’t find jobs and they could no longer go to high school. Increasingly, many doors were locked up as access to public and private institutions was made impossible and rendered off limits to Jewish people.

As a consequence, many Jews started to argue that they have to get out of here, i.e. leaving the Ukraine. Yet, for many Jews it proved rather hard – if not impossible – to get out of the Ukraine. One of the first questions they asked themselves was, where to go? Not much later, the Évian Conference (July 1938) of 32 countries and 24 voluntary organizations signified the global unwillingness to open doors to European Jews.

Just two years before that – in the year 1936 – migration to Palestine had become harder and harder, if not impossible. Yet, Omer Bartov’s parents managed to emigrate. His mother came to Palestine in 1935, with her parents and two brothers. The rest of his big family stayed in Buczacz – all were murdered. Bartov said, no one got out.

Omer is one of the first generation of children born in the new state of Israel. For many of them, there were two things they never talked about: firstly, diaspora. It simply didn’t exist. There is such a good phrase in the Hebrew language, shelilat hagalut – the negation of the diaspora. Secondly, many people never talked about the countries in Europe they had to leave behind. The new generation was born in Israel. To many of them, the story started with them in Israel.

The Europe of yesterday and what happened in Palestine just before they arrived, were never talked about. Yet, Bartov notes that Palestine was a real country and the majority of its people were Arabs. When Omer Bartov was born, almost all of the Palestinians were no longer there. But they never asked, Why? Where did they go? Why aren’t they there? Perhaps because children never ask these kinds of questions.

When Omer Bartov and his sister were young, they sometimes stayed with their grandparents. Their grandfather told them fairytales and stories from the Ukraine. But they didn’t literally say Ukraine. Instead, they were stories of bears, wolves, forests, and dwarfs. They weren’t Jewish stories. Omer Bartov’s grandfather had worked with Ukrainians. He even spoke the language. Interestingly, to the young child, the Ukraine was not a geographical place. It was not Ukraine. Instead, they were stories for children told by a grandfather.

In his forties, Omer Bartov began to develop an interest in the Ukraine. He started to explore a city to see how the Holocaust happened in that city. Omer Bartov said to himself, maybe I can do research on my mother’s hometown. His mother had told him about her childhood in Buczacz. Yet, she didn’t tell him about a foreign land, about anti-Semitism, or about fear. Instead, she emphasized her beautiful childhood recalling how she went to the forest with her Ukrainian friends in search of mushrooms.

Omer Bartov’s mother grew up in Buczacz and left before the Holocaust. Shortly after Omer’s birth, her mother died. When asked about how he feels about the Ukraine, Bartov said, when I first came to Ukraine, I had very mixed feelings. This is a very beautiful country. And I felt almost at home, because I remembered all these stories from my grandfather and what my mother had told me.

On the other hand, in cities like Buczacz there was nothing left of what was before the war. No synagogues, no Jewish cemeteries, and if there were, these were destroyed. Today, we know that in all these cities and towns – including Buczacz – there were mass graves. Of the 8,000 Jews before the war – about half of the population in Buczacz/Buchach were Jews – 7,000 were killed and buried in mass graves.

It was hard to find them as there were no signs. The first time Bartov went to the Ukraine was during a bitter cold and muddy early spring day on which he noted, the whole experience was depressing. After that initial misfortune however, he went back many times. Yet, for him it is still different, even today.

Bartov said, I was not so popular in Ukraine for many years. It is largely because he wrote about issues on Ukrainian nationalism which the Ukrainians find extremely uncomfortable. Right-wing nationalists do not like truth-telling books like the Anatomy of a Genocide detailing the murder of Jews.

The killings included many Ukrainian nationalists, as well as ordinary Ukrainians. They did not want to remember the truth about their collaboration with the German Nazis as they murder the Jews. But this is important.

In 1991, Ukraine declared itself to be an own country – independent from Russia. Before that, there was only the Soviet narrative history where Jews and the Holocaust simply did not exist. After 1991, Ukrainians wanted to present heroes – national heroes. Some of them include people like Stepan Bandera – a leader of Ukrainian nationalism and friend to the German Nazis, even though the Nazis – most likely – saw him as a useful idiot – no more.

When the SS sees Bandera in a Cossack uniform, they know he is expendable. Yet, one might also note that the anti-Semitic, the Führerprinzip follower and keen adopter of fascist greetings – the infamous Hitler salute – Bandera, was (in January 1942) transferred to Sachsenhausen concentration camp but kept in special, comparatively comfortable detention.

Even until today, Bandera is held up as a great hero – especially in western Ukraine. The glorification of a tremendously violent right-wing extremists is still part of today’s reality. On the other hand, Ukraine has changed a lot. We know from Germany, France, and many other countries that the acknowledgement of party crimes is a very long process. Ukraine today – is a very diverse country. Still, what is amazing is the fact that in the last election, a presidential candidate who won, is a Jew.

Rather – and this is what really matters – Volodymyr Zelensky’s personal identity is known. He won more than half of all Ukrainian votes – that means something. Today, the Ukraine has developed some sort of self-awareness as a diverse country.

Today, religion and ethnic origins are no longer of great importance. Yet, one cannot claim that there are no right-wing extremist groups in the Ukraine. There are more of them in western Ukraine than in eastern Ukraine, for example.

Bartov is keenly aware that solidarity with Ukraine is certainly painful for Jews. It is a story full of contradictions. 100,000 Jews were killed in pogroms on the territory of present-day Ukraine in 1919.

Yet, the Ukraine represents a counter-example for Putin – it stands for what Putin does not want. He cannot stand the fact that Ukraine has a culture and language that are very close to Russia, but is a democratic state. He must destroy that. And we have to defend that.

Putin spoke about denazification of Ukraine. That is nonsense, Bartov says. The Ukraine isn’t ruled by Nazis. Bartov believes, that it is necessary to defend the Ukraine now because if the Ukraine has disappeared – as an independent state – Putin will go after other states: Moldova, the Baltic States … no, we have to stop him!

Understandably and sensibly, Omer Bartov cannot bring himself to bellow Slava Ukraini – glory to the Ukraine. Instead, Bartov notes, no, I would like to point out that although I strongly support Ukraine, I cannot approve the catchphrase, Slava Ukraini. This is due to the fact that during the German occupation in the forties, this slogan was often used by Ukrainian nationalists assisting German Nazis during the Holocaust.

This article was originally published on BuzzFeed.

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