With the media pushing out hours upon hours of footage, analysis, and speculation on the situation in the Ukraine, I felt that it was finally time to dispel some of the myths that are being presented as fact. As a Jewish-American with Eastern European heritage and fluency in Russian and the history of the region, I’ve been deeply disturbed. And you should be too. In fact, anyone with passing familiarity of the history of the Ukraine is generally disturbed and concerned, and there’s a good reason for it. But since historical education is largely limited to major world wars and American events, I wanted to break things down for the average news watcher. I’ll be looking at the situation in the Ukraine through my lens: A Jewish Slav in the United States.
Let’s take a step back in time for a minute. The Ukraine has been struggling for sovereignty for hundreds of years, from Poland, Russia, and more. But let’s focus in on the more relative facts. One might say the contemporary nationalist movement has its roots in the early 19th century. Poet turned nationalist Taras Shevchenko was one of the leaders of the early movement for Ukrainian independence and nationalism, and is still celebrated today by Ukrainians. In fact, his recent birthday was celebrated by rebels in Kiev.
Following World War I and Stalin’s reign of terror over the new USSR, the Ukraine experienced hardship on an epic scale. The industrialization and collectivization of Ukrainian farms under Stalin caused a famine that resulted in millions of Ukrainians dying, with additional artists and intellectuals “disappearing” during Stalin’s purge. The famine became known as the Holodomor, and is commemorated throughout the Ukraine for its mass destruction of human life in the name of industrializing the new Soviet Union. Thus, by the 1930s, Ukrainians were angry.
World War II placed the Ukraine in a unique position; previously scattered and divided Ukraine became largely reunited thanks to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and other back door deals that put it under Soviet control. Previously autonomous regions became forcefully communized, much to the dismay of citizens. Property was seized and redistributed, and commodities became scarce. As such, the occupation of the Ukraine by Nazis was not entirely unwelcome.
It is important to note that the Ukraine, up to World War II, contained a very significant Jewish population. And, as the history of anti-Semitism dictates, these Jews were subject to frequent brutality, especially following the communist takeover of the Ukraine. Jews were (and are) bizarrely conscripted as co-conspirators of communism, regardless of their political views. Resentment over famines and worsening economic conditions stirred up tensions between Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews in the first 40 years of the 20th century, dividing neighborhoods and businesses along ethnoreligious lines. However, preceding World War II, these lines did not prevent all Jews from living relatively peaceful lives next to their Ukrainian neighbors. In fact, many Jewish children attended schools with Ukrainian children, built businesses together, and became prosperous. But not for long.
The Nazis occupied Kiev following the First Battle of Kiev in 1941. Many Ukrainians, eager to push Soviet forces out in favor of fascism and the embracing of ultra nationalist ideas, went along with it. As the Nazis began herding Jews out of their homes and into Ukrainian ghettos, it was most often Ukrainians themselves that administered the hunt. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police joined forces with Nazi divisions and began to solve “the Jewish Problem”.
In September of 1941, Ukrainian forces assisted the Nazis in carrying out the Massacre at Babi Yar, in which 33,771 Jews were herded into the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev, shot, and dumped in a mass grave.
In October of 1941, the Ukrainian city of Odessa, approximately 44,000 Jews were burned alive. The remaining 40,000 were herded into the ghetto and left with no shelter, with most dying within days from exposure to the cold.
Tens of thousands more (estimated at 50,000) died at the Bogdanovka concentration camp following deportation from Odessa and the surrounding towns.
Over one million Ukrainian Jews are accounted for as massacred in the aktions of the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police and Nazi forces during World War II. Between the 1941 and 1959 censuses of Ukrainian Jewry, there was a decrease of 70%. The Ukrainian Partisan Army (OUN – Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) was responsible for helping to carry out the liquidation of 200,000+ Jews in Volyn in the second half of 1942. Ukrainian Jews that managed to somehow evade the Nazis and the collaborating Ukrainian Auxiliary Police were often killed soon after by the opposing OUN, or at best, were left on their own, or at times reported to Nazi authorities in exchange for money. There are a few cases of Ukrainian partisans working with Jews; this was not a broad based attitude, however.
These are just a few examples.
The current situation in the Ukraine stands as painted in the West: Putin Bad, Rebels Good. Yay Ukrainian independence!
Not so fast.
Before jumping to the conclusion that the Ukrainian independence movement is chronologically and historically removed from the same nationalist movement that spawned the anti-Semitic attitudes that slaughtered millions of Jews in the Holocaust, it is important to look closer.
The Ukrainian protests we have seen in 2014 have been organized and led primarily by the Svoboda, or “Freedom” party of the Ukraine. The party’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, called actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess”, claimed that the Ukrainian parliament is run by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia”, and that “organized Jewry” dominated the Ukrainian media. And that’s not even the worst of it. The party—Tyahnybok included—is well known to frequently quote Nazi leaders such as Joseph Goebbels and Ernst Rohm. Thirty members of the Israeli parliament or Knesset have sent a letter to the president of the European Parliament, warning of Svoboda’s “open glorification of Nazi war criminals and murders”. It is also interesting to note that the party requires a birth certificate and verification of ethnicity to join—a condition which no Jews may pass.
It should not be a great surprise, then, that Tyahnybok’s frequent speeches rallying the Ukrainian resistance generates alarm among global Jewry with a knowledge of Svoboda and its history. The recent rise of nationalist anti-communist movements in Europe have created increasing anti-Semitism and fear among the few remaining members of European Jewry. Another ignored situation has been that of Hungary, whose anti-communist response has included the creation of the Jobbik party, an offshoot of the Nazi collaborating Iron Cross nationalist party of World War II. Jobbik has been making moves over the past couple years to do everything within its power to strip Jews and Rromani, as well as gays, mentally ill, and the homeless (all groups persecuted by Nazis) of rights. The ruling party, Fidesz, as led by Viktor Orbahn, is a diluted version of Jobbik, holding likewise nationalistic views. But this has gone largely unnoticed in America, where, as in the Ukraine it’s presented as “Putin bad, rebels good”, Hungary is a similar case of, “Communism bad, Fidesz good”!
On the whole, the situation in the Ukraine is merely another symptom of a bigger problem: The whitewashing of European nationalist movements by the Western media.
Before you decide that the Ukrainian rebellion is great, take another look—one from the country itself, and not Western media. You’ll see men with black hoods and swastikas tattooed on their chests frequently among the crowds. Putin and his government have certainly not been a boon to any people. However, with the sentiment of Svoboda becoming the new government of the Ukraine, it’s no big shock to me that Jews in Crimea are praying to be excluded from it.