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Anxiety over far-right role in Ukraine's plans to mark Babi Yar anniversary

Bohdan Chervak publicly championed the group that killed tens of thousands of Jews

    A man lays flowers in front of the Menorah-shaped memorial in Kiev dedicated to the victims of the Babi Yar massacre
    A man lays flowers in front of the Menorah-shaped memorial in Kiev dedicated to the victims of the Babi Yar massacre (Photo: Getty Images)

    Jewish leaders in Ukraine have criticised President Petro Poroshenko’s decision to involve two supporters of a wartime Nazi collaborationist group in plans to commemorate the Babi Yar massacre.

    Bohdan Chervak and Volodymyr Viatrovych have both publicly championed the rehabilitation of the OUN, a far-right organisation whose fighters were responsible for killing tens of thousands of Jews and ethnic Poles during the Second World War.

    The two men were appointed by the Ukrainian president late last year to a special committee tasked with planning for the long-term development at Babi Yar, in Kiev.

    The ravine is the site of a notorious wartime massacre in September 1941, where 33,000 Jews were killed over two days. Following the atrocity, OUN newspaper Ukrainske Slovo ran an article complaining there were still Jews in hiding in Kiev.

    Mr Chervak, a senior official in Ukraine’s state-run broadcast regulator and head of the OUN’s modern incarnation, has been a vocal critic of plans to build a Holocaust museum at Babi Yar, saying there was inadequate recognition of OUN members who were killed after their movement fell out with the Nazis.

    He has previously argued that the OUN’s wartime actions were justified because they “brought Poles to their senses” and has called for the arrest of anyone who opposes his campaign to rehabilitate Ukrainian nationalists involved in pogroms in the region a century ago.

    Joining him on the Babi Yar special committee will be Mr Viatrovych, who is not an OUN member but has run government-sponsored campaigns to rehabilitate it and its historic military wing, the UPA.

    Bohdan Chervak
    Bohdan Chervak

    Several Ukrainian Jewish leaders are members of the special committee, including Kiev Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, Reform rabbi Alexander Dukhovny and World Jewish Congress chief executive Robert Singer.

    The JC understands that there is significant unease at the inclusion of Ukrainians with a far-right background and that Marek Siwiec, the former chief executive for the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) fund, has written to Mr Poroshenko to voice his concerns.

    “The proper commemoration of the massacre at Babi Yar is of paramount importance to the Jewish people as a whole,” Mr Singer said.

    “The WJC has no knowledge of the committee ever having met, and we certainly have not taken part in any of its deliberations.”

    Several members said the special committee had not yet gathered in full and held only two smaller sub-committee meetings, which neither Mr Chervak nor Mr Viatrovych attended.

    Eduard Dolinsky, who leads the Ukrainian Jewish Committee advocacy group, said the two far-right members’ inclusion had created “a very awkward situation where Jewish leaders have to sit together in the Babi Yar committee with those who praise and glorify antisemites and murderers of Jews”.

    The BYHMC is a separate public-private project that aims to build a Holocaust museum in time for the 80th anniversary of the massacre in 2021.

    Its director, Yana Barinova, who also sits on the special committee, said it was “a unique chance to combine both state and private efforts”.

    “And we should try to do it,” she continued. Everyone has a choice — either to join the common cause and strive to make it better, or to stay aloof.

    “What one shouldn’t do, however, is [create] obstacles, the artificiality of which can’t be hidden behind the national patriotic slogans.”

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