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The way to Ukrainian-Jewish understanding

Interview with Yosyf Zisels, a former dissident, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) in Ukraine and a board member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union. Interviewer: Kataryna Pryshchepa.

November 20, 2017 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Stories and ideas

Image by ScottyNolan

A number of Jewish organisations both inside and outside Ukraine have criticised the installation of a monument to Symon Petlura in Vinnytsia last week. Do you think this situation could have been avoided?

VAAD (the Association of Jewish Organisations and Communities of Ukraine, which represents 265 Jewish organizations in the country) has issued a statement regarding this event. The statement represents the opinion of the majority of Jewish organisations in Ukraine and it is rather a balanced one. The VAAD position is as follows: we understand the meaning of Symon Petlura’s figure in Ukraine’s history. However, the time when he was head of the Ukrainian state was also a time of great suffering of the Jewish people in Ukraine. We know that all the belligerents fighting in Ukraine at that time committed pogroms: the Reds, Whites, Blue-and-Yellows and the Greens, but the person who was the head of state at that period bears responsibility for the events which took place under his rule.

We know that Vinnytsia used to be the capital of the Ukrainian People’s Republic for a certain period of time. We have to acknowledge the fact that it was Petlura and his government who made a number of progressive steps towards Jews in Ukraine. He established the Ministry for Jewish Affairs, he was working on regulations regarding the personal autonomy of Jewish persons and he also issued an order in relation to punishing people involved in the pogroms. However, Petlura turned out to be a weak ruler and effects were tragic. With this in mind, the VAAD have asked to remove the monument from the place where it is located at present – which used to be the yard of a synagogue in the former Jewish part of the city.

Speaking for myself I would say that Petlura is not my hero, but I could accept his statues being erected in Ukraine, provided that they are not located in places which have symbolical importance in relation to Jewish history.

Do you think there should be some special procedures introduced which would regulate the installation of monuments within Ukraine?

Certainly. I believe such moves should be consulted with the ethnic, social religious communities, otherwise it would create frustration among different groups of the society. In the end, this frustration will cause troubles for Ukraine. You can see that the World Jewish Congress has strongly condemned the installation of the monument. The VAAD of Ukraine does not agree with the WJC statement and we will comment on that, however, the fact remains.

Do you think there is chance that there will be a monument to any historic personality installed in Ukraine which will not cause controversy?

I think there will always be a part of society which will not accept one monument or the other. There are three big groups in Ukraine at present: pro-Western, pro-Russian and undecided who could join either of the two, depending on who wins. Those groups are not equal in numbers but nevertheless all of them are quite significant. We still do not have a consensus inside the country with regards to Ukraine’s independence, and this is a big problem. Thus any hero may be controversial. If it was up to me, I would prefer to have the monuments to the heroes of the EuroMaidan. These were the pure people who died in front of our eyes. Unfortunately, many people in Donetsk or Kharkiv wouldn not agree with that. That also means that any controversy or discussion in Ukraine will be internationally politicised.

So perhaps we ought to abstain and put installations on hold?

Personally, I do not need any monuments. It is mostly the authorities, I think, who need them and maybe some social groups. I believe, that all the attempts to drag the history into the present day can end up badly. For instance, the VAAD and other organisations have not been consulted when a street in Kyiv was named after Roman Shukhevych. He might be an important person in the history of the Ukrainian independence fight, but for me as Jew, he is first and foremost a person who wore a German Nazi uniform. The history should be left to historians. We as society should concentrate on present day challenges.

So does the procedure in this regard (naming the streets) should be changed? At present it is the Institute of National Remembrance who deals with it. Maybe they should not be doing it?

The current procedure is more or less functional, so it may stay in place. It changes the names of the streets named after people who collaborated with the communist regime – something which in my opinion should have been done 25 years ago. It is not the Institute who decides on the names of the streets in the end. They only propose the new names and it is the local authorities who make the final decisions. But it has to be done with more attention to the context. Unfortunately, this is something which lacks in many actions in relation to the governance of Ukraine.

I also think, that in 30 years’ time we will forget or overcome the mistakes which we are making now. At the same time, there is still a lot of moderation in Ukraine. This is an attitude which has been caused by the country’s history. For me, the decommunisation process was important 25 years ago. I was an anti-communist and for me this was of a very big importance when the USSR just collapsed, but not now. Still, if decommunisation was delayed for 25 years, maybe it is good that it is done now.

You said many times that inside the dissident movement in the USSR, people of Jewish and Ukrainian dissent managed to overcome the historical grievances and unite in the face of a common enemy – the repressive state. You said there was a real understanding back then. However, the majority of society did not share that experience and it seems there is still some issues which will have to be discussed…

There are still mutual stereotypes functioning in the society which should be overcome. There is only one way to achieve this – education. I do not mean the formal education. At present civil society does much more than the government. So this will be the task for the civil society, as we have to know and understand our history.

If we speak of the history, the memorial in Babyn Yar is supposed to be the most important institution dedicated to the Jewish history in Ukraine. But we have seen so many proposals which cannot be agreed on by all the interested parties. You have criticised some proposals made by Jewish organisations form outside Ukraine. Are we any closer to agreement?

The existing projects or concepts of the memorial in Babyn Yar reflect the positions the proposing party takes on Ukraine as a country. There are three main projects being discussed at present. There is a Russian backed oligarchic project, which is supported by people who think in terms of the “Russian world”, there is a Ukrainian project proposed by the Ministry of Culture, and there is a Canadian project of the memorial park which has received mostly a positive feedback. These three are broad concepts, which still need to be developed into projects. It will take some time before the memorial is created. I think an institution similar to the POLIN (POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews) museum in Poland could be developed in Ukraine.  And when it comes to POLIN, it took 20 years for it to materialise.  

Do you think there is a need for such museums in Ukraine?

Firstly, POLIN is not a memorial museum although it is located on the territory of the Warsaw ghetto. POLIN is a very good museum for general public. It presents a thousand years of Jewish history in Poland. Ironically, it is a history of something which does not exist anymore. There are almost no Jews left in Poland at present. Unlike in Ukraine, where there are still dozens of thousands of Jews.

Could you tell more about the Canadian project?

The Canadian foundation Ukrainian Jewish Encounter held a public competition of the projects of concept of memorials in Babyn Yar. I support the idea of the memorial park. Babyn Yar has a big territory and it should be organised adequately.

So in your view, the memorial in Babyn Yar should be in a form of a memorial park and the museum itself should be located elsewhere?

No. I think the museum itself – the idea proposed by the Ministry of Culture – should be located in the Babyn Yar on the territory of the memorial park, in the building which used to be the office of the Jewish cemetery.

And this should be a museum of Jewish history or a museum of the Holocaust?

This should be a museum of the Babyn Yar. The Holocaust and the Babyn Yar are related but they are not the same thing. Holocaust took place not only in Babyn Yar and not only Jews had been killed in Babyn Yar. Two thirds of the people killed there were Jews, and the rest were Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, patients of the Kyiv psychiatric hospital, Ukrainian nationalists and others. And the memorial park itself should reflect all of these.

Of course, the Russian oligarchs will put pressure to undermine all the concepts which do not fit their purposes, that is, to build the museum stating that Ukraine is just a fascist state. Why else would Vladimir Putin allow them to spend 100 million US dollars in Ukraine at a time when he is at war with the country? He wants to demonstrate to the world that Ukraine is a nationalistic, fascist, anti-Semitic state. And the museum in Babyn Yar may become part of this propaganda. Therefore we oppose this project. Unfortunately, there are two Poles in the management of this initiative which we were surprised to learn. I hope that the Russian project is not realised, as for the two others, I think they both should and could be done.

Yosyf Zisels is a former dissident, chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) in Ukraine and a board member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

Kataryna Pryshchepa is a PhD student at Graduate School for Social Research, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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