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History has made Ukraine one of the most complex European nations when it comes to defining its relations with the Jewish community. Occupation by foreign powers and territorial divisions often resulted in outbreaks of violence, some of it state sponsored, against Jews living in the affected areas.
If established, the international commission will look not only into the Jewish aspect of Ukraine’s 20th-century history, but also at the country’s relations with Poland and Russia, at its nationalist movement and at the events of the Stalinist era.
Taken together, all these aspects make the task of launching a national inquiry ever more difficult.
“It should be done, but it cannot be done now,” said Zvi Gitelman, professor of political science and the Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. He explained that Ukraine’s World War II history is “deeply intertwined” with Ukrainian nationalism. Given the critical situation Ukraine is in now, he said, “raising this issue would further complicate an already tenuous situation.”
Attempts to produce a historic narrative of Ukraine’s past during the Holocaust are already taking place outside the country. The Holocaust museum recently hired staffers to work on the issue. A Canadian-based initiative, the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, has also been bringing together historians and scholars for a decade for the purpose of producing a written history of the country’s 20th-century experience with its Jewish population.
Among the most important tools for examining Ukraine’s past are the KGB archives containing endless documents from the Communist era. Researchers trying to learn about the Holocaust in Ukraine are interested especially in the trove of trial records contained in the archives. Most are of Ukrainians who were alleged to have collaborated with the Nazis and were persecuted by the Communists after the war. So far, the Holocaust museum has digitized some 200,000 documents, which still make up only about 1% of the entire collection. Altskan estimated that once launched in full speed, the process would take five years.
Holocaust museum officials have been in touch with the Ukrainian government for more than a decade in an attempt to reach an agreement that would speed up the process and allow private contractors to carry out the digitization work. But previous governments in Kiev have shown little willingness to help. “It was pure business, not ideology,” said Altskan, who explained that the ousted government of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych “was very reluctant to work with us, because it was a very corrupt government and they had nothing to profit from working with us.”
Besides the trial records, the Ukrainian archives also contain operational records of surveillance and investigations conducted by the Communists, as well as German documents that fell into the hands of the Soviet forces as the Nazis retreated.