Israel’s President Confronts Ukrainians With Their Past

Many in Ukraine don't want to hear about their heroes' participation in the Holocaust. But Israel's President Rivlin didn't shy away from the truth.


Earlier this week, the president of Israel gave a speech in Kiev that discussed Ukrainians’ participation in the Holocaust. Ukrainian nationalists were not amused.

Reuven Rivlin made his remarks at a session of the Ukrainian parliament commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, when Nazi invaders slaughtered 33,771 Jews in a Kiev ravine from September 29-30, 1941. The lawmakers who invited him to speak may have expected him to dwell on the crimes committed against Ukrainian Jews by Germans. But Rivlin chose to also address the actions of Ukrainian collaborators who assisted the Nazis in mass murder.

Rivlin’s remarks came at a moment when Ukrainians are engaged in intense reflection about their national identity. The Euromaidan revolution of two years ago, the loss of Crimea, and the continuing war with Russia have heightened nationalist feelings, leading to a renewed veneration of twentieth-century nationalist groups. Rivlin’s clear association of these groups with the Holocaust clearly struck a nerve. But without the kind of confrontation he sparked, it would impossible to frankly discuss this darker side of Ukrainian history. And if it doesn’t honestly reckon with its past, Ukraine is in danger of enshrining a mirror image of the history-blind chauvinism that predominates in neighboring Russia.

The Israeli head of state began his remarks with what could be seen as an attempt to build a rapport with his Ukrainian audience though shared pain. He told the story of his wife’s family of Ukrainian Jews, murdered by the Germans a year after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.

He likened the fate of his doomed relatives — some whose names we will never learn — to the fates of the victims at Babi Yar. “Many thousands of Jews who were shot, tormented, burned, and buried alive in Babi Yar also have no name,” Rivlin said. “They were exterminated under the open sky — without anyone bothering to register their names. They are nameless.” Rivlin noted that the people killed “at the hands of the Nazis and their Ukrainian collaborators” were forgotten intentionally — not only by the Nazis, but under Soviet rule, when commemoration of the massacre was forbidden.

In contrast to the anonymity of the victims, Rivlin was clear in identifying the guilty. Noting that about 1.5 million Jews were killed in Ukraine during the Second World War, he was unflinching in confronting his hosts with the full scope of the truth: “Many collaborators to the crimes were Ukrainians. And among them, the fighters of the OUN — who mocked the Jews, killed them, and in many cases handed them over to the Germans — particularly distinguished themselves.” It was his specific mention of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) that prompted some of his listeners to later denounce Rivlin. Formed in 1929, the OUN was a nationalist group that sought to establish an independent Ukrainian state and often employed violence against its enemies, including Poles and supporters of the Soviet regime.

The role of the OUN in the Ukrainian national consciousness has increased as Ukraine has asserted its identity in the face of Russian aggression. The group is an integral part of the country’s history of struggle for independence from the Soviet Union, and is particularly resonant today as the Kremlin continues to delegitimize the Ukrainian state and assert its supremacy over its neighbor. This year, the Kiev city government voted to rename a major street after Stepan Bandera, the group’s leader. That’s why, though Ukrainian-Jewish relations have noticeably improved since the collapse of the Soviet Union (Volodymyr Hroysman became the country’s first Jewish Prime Minister in April), Rivlin’s speech hit such a raw nerve.

Bogdan Chervak, current leader of the OUN — which still exists as a political interest group — reacted sharply. “What the President of the State of Israel did in Parliament today can be unambiguously interpreted as a spit in the soul of Ukrainians,” he wrote on Facebook. “To accuse the OUN of [taking part in] the Holocaust, and during parliamentary hearings for the 75th anniversary of Babi Yar, no less, is to disrespect the Ukrainian nation.”

While it is undoubtedly false to say that every member of the OUN committed crimes against Jews during the Holocaust, it is simply untrue to claim they played no role at all. Involvement of certain units of the group in the murder of Jews is well documented, including units loyal to Bandera. In Ukraine’s struggle against Soviet colonialism, some nationalist rebels saw aligning with the Nazis as a matter of survival. Yet that choice often entailed participation in Nazi atrocities.

Volodymyr Viatrovych, the controversial leader of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, who has made a career out of minimizing the negative image of Ukrainian nationalists, similarly reacted negatively to Rivlin’s speech. “Unfortunately, the president of Israel repeated the Soviet myth about the OUN’s participation in the Holocaust,” Viatrovych wrote on Facebook. “Honoring the memory of the Babi Yar victims would be more sincere without employing the myths of those who erased their memory.”

Another factor that complicates the legacy of the OUN is that it’s regularly portrayed as a dangerous fascist group by Russian propaganda, always in search of ways to delegitimize Ukraine. Conversely, Ukraine has been implementing a process of decommunization, its controversial effort to do away with the legacy of the Soviet past by shedding Soviet names and symbols from Ukrainian territory. It is through this very process that the Kiev City Council voted to name a street after Stepan Bandera, the OUN leader. But exalting the OUN as only good, in opposition to its Russian portrayal as evil, is simply a mirror image, and no nearer to the historical truth. Any gray area is lost — the very area that Ukraine must focus on to grow its newfound democratic civic identity.

Intriguingly, Rivlin’s comments also divided Ukraine’s Jewish leaders. Josef Zissels, head of Ukraine’s leading Jewish association, accused Rivlin of perpetuating Soviet-era stereotypes. “He was raised on Soviet historiography,” Zissels said in an interview on Ukrainian radio. “Israel, at least the older generation, still lives under its influence. He doesn’t reflect the views of the young. After all, young, religious Israelis stood on the Maidan. Such views as he expressed today are yesterday’s.” Many Jewish community leaders like Zissels view Jewish participation in the revolution as another sign that Jews now consider themselves as full members of a unified Ukrainian nation.

This week’s series of commemorative events, including a conference organized by a Canadian organization where the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations was openly discussed, show just how far Ukraine has come in reckoning with its history.

Just as some Ukrainians collaborated with Nazis, over 2,500 others are among the Righteous Among the Nations — those whom Israel credits with saving Jews during the Holocaust. Rivlin’s words may have stung or even seemed tactless to those who are committed to presenting only the most positive images of Ukrainian history, especially at a time when Ukraine is doing so much to honor the victims of wartime atrocities. But if Ukraine is to continue on in its struggle to become a democratic society, it must face up to all sides of its history: positive, negative, and everything in between.

In the photo, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Parliament Speaker Andriy Parubiy, and European leaders place candles at the memorial to the victims of the Babi Yar massacre near Kiev on September 29.

Photo Credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

Benjamin Cohen is currently living in Kiev and researching contemporary Jewish identity in Ukraine on a Fulbright grant. Follow him on Twitter at @Ben_Ezra_Cohen.