The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization

The Shoah in Ukraine: History, Testimony, Memorialization
Edited by Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower
Indiana University Press/ US Holocaust Memorial Museum
392 pages; $35

This extensive collection of studies on the Holocaust in Ukraine originated in the summer research workshop held at the US Holocaust Museum in 1999. Since then, the editors – Ray Brandon, a historian based in Berlin and the former editor of the English edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Wendy Lower, of the Ludwig Maximilian University at Munich and the author of Nazi Empire Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine – sought out additional contributions from international experts who were doing groundbreaking research on this subject.

They show how Hitler’s grandiose plan to settle 10 million Germans and establish his private paradise in Ukraine failed dismally, but more than 1.5 million Jews were robbed and murdered there.

Lower describes how the Nazis developed a sinister, utopian plan for exploiting Ukraine’s human and natural resources. They firmly believed that this was absolutely essential to secure the Reich’s future and the continued sustenance of the Wehrmacht, and since the largest population of Soviet Jews resided there, they had to be eliminated, and as fast as possible.

The plan put an end to Ukrainian hopes for independence, but this did not prevent them from cooperating with the regime, at least insofar as the robbery and the murder of Jews was concerned.

Hitler appointed the Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg to be the minister of the Reich Commissariat Ukraine. Accompanied by top Nazis, Rosenberg had brought in commissars, or “the torch bearers of the German nation,” especially educated for this purpose. They were no bureaucrats, but dictators who ruled with the gun and a whip, which they placed on their desk in office hours. When one became “too soft,” he was quickly sidelined by others. Social outcasts, amateurs, adventurers and careerists became the colonial-style governors and decided who shall live and who shall die.

The detailed history of the district of Zhytomir provides an example of such a “settlement.” Dieter Pohl, of Munich’s Institute of Contemporary History, describes how the first mass killings by the Einsatzgruppen and the Wehrmacht, accompanied by Ukrainian auxiliaries, were followed by a planned, systematic murder, robbery and destruction of Jewish communities.

The Jewish existence in Western Wolhynia from 1921 to 1945 in general, and in the typical village of Kolky in particular, is described in depth by Timothy Snydor of Yale. There was not much love lost between the local Jews, Ukrainians and Polish settlers. Each community lived more or less according to its own agenda. Poles sought to “polonize” the area; Ukrainians fought for their independence and were largely responsible for violence. The Soviet occupation of September 1939 offered Jews comparative safety and new opportunities, but the German invasion of June 1941 turned their lives into burning inferno.

Frank Golczewski, of Hamburg University, presents Galicia as an important case study of mutual German-Ukrainian relations. Ukrainians knew that they were cheated by Germans, but this did not stop them from serving in various German military detachments, robbing and killing Jews, and being described as “the worst” by Holocaust survivors. The Ukrainian auxiliaries were often assigned the bloodiest tasks and their collaboration made a significant contribution to the Jewish genocide.

Dennis Deletant, of London University College, examines the deportation of Jews from Bessarabia and Bukowina to Transnistria, which Romania occupied after the joint German-Romanian attack on the Soviet Union. Transnistria became the graveyard of more than 250,000 Jews, the principal victims of Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu and his deputy Mihai Antonescu. Both subscribed to the “ethnic purification” of Romania, free of Slavs and Jews, sharing a common border with Nazi Germany.

It was only after Stalingrad that Antonescu put a stop stop to the Jewish deportations and turned down the German request to send the remaining Romanian Jews to the extermination camps in Poland.

Andrei Angric, of the Hamburg Foundation for the Promotion of Science and Culture, writes about the Thoroughfare IV, Hitler’s grandiose plan to build a highway across Ukraine, which was expected to support both the conquest and the German settlement. Soon, however, the Germans realized that the anticipated large numbers of Jews and Soviet POWs needed for the heavy labor had already been murdered. German civilian authorities, who badly needed slave labor, often vainly tried to persuade the SS that it would be more convenient to murder Jews by hard labor, hunger and exhaustion.

Martin Dean, a scholar from the US Holocaust Museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, describes how the ethnic Germans settled in Russia before the October Revolution served Hitler rather well, with few exceptions.

Alexander Kruglov, a writer from Kharkov, provides us with detailed statistics of the Jewish losses during those crucial years of 1941-1944.

Karel Berkhoff, of the Center for Holocaust Studies of the University of Amsterdam, comments on the story of Dina Pronicheva, one of the few survivors of the Babi Yar massacre.

Omer Bartov, of Brown University in his “White Spaces and Black Holes” describes Galicia’s past and present. The “white spaces” illustrate the omissions and poverty of the Ukrainian Holocaust memory, while the “black holes” note the selective marginalization of the past.

An extensive index accompanies this well-edited, printed and bound volume. Ukraine has almost completely erased its Jewish past. In the town of Kosiv, for instance, where once 2,400 Jews lived, the house which belonged to a local rabbi was turned into a museum in memory of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which murdered Jews. We find almost no traces of shame or regret.

Bitter memories and the specter of the Holocaust continue to haunt Jewish-Ukrainian relations. However the fact that 1,200 Ukrainians were awarded the title of Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem testifies that there must have been many more Ukrainians who helped Jews in hiding. But only a full admission of the disturbing facts of the past and a full respect for the perpetuation of the memory of the former Jewish communities may at least partly exorcise the guilt and open a new page of the mutual relations. Perhaps this book may serve as one of the guiding lights in this direction.