Last week, a statue went up in Kiev. Such an occurrence would not normally be worth noting but, in this case, the statue was a state memorial to Olena Teliha and the site of its erection was at Babi Yar, the ravine in which more than 33,000 Jews were shot dead in 1941.
Little known outside of Ukraine, Teliha was a poet, a newspaper editor and a fighter for Ukrainian independence who is widely admired in the post-Soviet state.
Killed by the Germans, she has become an icon for a Ukrainian people searching for national heroes during a time of renewed conflict.
There is a problem with that narrative, however: Teliha was a member of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), an extreme nationalist movement known for its collaboration with the Nazis and complicity in the murder of thousands of Jews and Poles during the Second World War.
It is true that not long after the killings of Jews began, members of the OUN were also killed at Babi Yar, including Ivan Rohach, Teliha’s colleague and editor of the radical newspaper Ukrainske Slovo. He was memorialised with a sign at the site last September during the government’s official commemoration of the massacre.
Context, however, is critical.
The glorification of the OUN and its offshoot, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), has been gathering steam since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution and subsequent war with Russian-backed separatists. This effort, however, seems more connected to creating a national mythology than antisemitism, and its proponents have made efforts to falsely portray Ukrainian wartime nationalism as divorced from antipathy towards Jews.
Responding to a rise in antisemitic vandalism and, quite likely, to largely baseless Russian propaganda portraying the country as overrun by neo-Nazis, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry last April announced the appointment of Borys Zakharchuk, a career diplomat, as its first Special Representative for preventing and combating antisemitism, racism and xenophobia.
Speaking to the JC, Mr Zakharchuk said his job was to coordinate Ukraine’s fight against antisemitism at home and abroad.
However, several officials who figure prominently in governmental and civil society efforts to combat antisemitism have said that they have not been contacted by Mr Zakharchuk and, in some cases, had never heard of him.
Ira Forman, who until recent served as the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, said he had never spoken to his Ukrainian counterpart, as did both European Commission Coordinator on Combating Antisemitism Katharina von Schnurbein and OSCE antisemitism point-man Rabbi Andrew Baker.
And while Akiva Tor, who works on antisemitism issues for the Israeli Foreign Ministry told the JC that he had “never heard of this guy”, Israeli Ambassador to Kiev Eli Belotserkovsky said he had met Mr Zakharchuk on several occasions. However, he did not recall anything substantive coming out of their interactions.
Mr Zakharchuk said that despite declining to join the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, Ukraine “cooperate[s] very closely” with the organisation. However, sources close to the body, speaking on condition of anonymity, said “there have been no official attempts by the Ukrainian government to work more closely with IHRA”.
Likewise, responses by representatives of the local Jewish community were mixed, with Eduard Dolinsky of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and local Chabad Rabbi Moshe Azman stating that they were unfamiliar with Mr Zakharchuk but Josef Zissels of the Vaad of Ukraine and Arkadiy Monastirsky of the Jewish Fund of Ukraine saying that they had met him. However, like Belotserkovsky, neither Mr Zissels nor Mr Monastirsky recalled any significant discussions that led to concrete action on antisemitism related issues.
Despite stating that he was in touch with police regarding the investigation of a recent antisemitic incident in Uman, Mr Zakharchuk seemed generally unfamiliar with antisemitism in his country, stating, based on what he said were police sources, that there had only been four cases of vandalism at Babi Yar in 2015 and one in 2016. According to the local Jewish community, however, the numbers are six and three.
Turning back to the issue of historical memory and Olena Teliha, Mr Zakharchuk made an assertion that is strongly rejected by historians of the period, telling the Chronicle that he could provide a examples “of the Jewish people from Western Ukraine [who] also participate[d] in UPA”.This is a controversial claim, said Dr Jared McBride, a history lecturer at UCLA specializing in the period.
“Jews were not a part of the movement — there is no evidence to support that point and that is a long-standing myth,” he said, adding: “Rather, they actively hunted down, tortured, and murdered Jews.”
“UPA’s Army North systematically killed Jews,” agreed Professor John-Paul Himka, one of the foremost scholars of the role of Ukrainian nationalists in the Holocaust.
Mr Himka has written that while some Jewish doctors did serve with Ukrainian partisan units, there are “few indications that Jewish medics survived their service with UPA”.
Such contrarian sentiments are unpopular in Ukraine and are frequently derided by government-employed historians such as Volodymyr Viatrovych of the Institute for National Memory. Maintaining the party line, Mr Zakharchuk said Ukrainian nationalists “did not have an aim to eliminate Jews.”
However, an OUN manifesto published in 1941 explicitly stated that “During the time of chaos and confusion, we should take the opportunity to liquidate undesirable Poles, Muscovites and Jews, especially the supporters of Bolshevik-Muscovite imperialism.”
Coming back to a contemporary controversy, Mr Zakharchuk asserted that Teliha and other editors of Ukrainske Slovo were murdered by the Nazis because they had “helped some Jews to avoid to be victims of the Nazi regime.”
“I have never once seen any evidence Teliha was shot at Babi Yar,” noted Per Anders Rudling, Associate Professor at Lund University, and a Senior Visiting Fellow at the National University of Singapore. “[This] story appears to have emerged in the 1970s at the earliest.”
Slovo, he pointed out, “published some explicit, and very strong antisemitic material in September-October 1941, as 33,000 Jews were being murdered in the city.”
Mr Zakharchuk stated, correctly, that “far-right organisations in Ukraine haven’t the influence that some people claim,” and that electorally, the nationalist right was a minor player.
This is true. Groups like the neo-Nazi Svoboda party, which once controlled about ten per cent of the seats in parliament, have lost most of their support. But it raises the question, if Kiev abhors the nationalist fringe, why does it, and those it tasks with stamping out antisemitism, celebrate their forbears?