Ukraine May Finally Be Coming to Terms with Its Jewish Past

October 27, 2021 | David Lepeska
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From the 17th century onward, Ukraine—first as part of Poland, then as part of Russia—had one of the world’s largest Jewish populations, peaking at 2.7 million on the eve of the Holocaust, and remaining around 250,000 even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also a country whose national movement has been inextricably tied up with anti-Semitism, and none of the past four centuries has gone by without vicious outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence. Yet things seem at last to be changing, writes David Lepeska:

In 2015, Ukraine’s president participated in the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and a Jewish politician, Volodomyr Groysman, was named speaker of Parliament. The next year Groysman became Ukraine’s first Jewish prime minister. A 2018 study by Pew Research Center found just 5 percent of Ukrainians would prefer not to have Jews as fellow citizens, the lowest among all 18 countries surveyed. A Pew study the next year found that 83 percent of Ukrainians had a favorable opinion of Jews, again better than any other country in the region and a 15-percent increase from 2009.

Anti-Semitic attacks and acts of vandalism have been in steady decline in Ukraine for more than a decade. When in 2019 [the current president, who is also Jewish], announced his campaign for the presidency, . . . religion played no part in the campaign, and two years into his term Ukraine has instead accelerated [away from anti-Semitism].

The qualifier is that fewer Jews in Ukraine means they are less noticeable, and that, given recent political developments, Ukrainians now tend to blame many of their problems on Russia. Also, while attacks on Jews are rare, anti-Semitic attitudes and stereotypes persist. . . . Artem Ryzhykov, an award-winning, Kyiv-based visual artist and cinematographer [put it thus]: “Go to the market and ask people, ‘What do you think about Jews?’ . . . They will tell you dirty jokes about Jews and money.”

Still, the war with Russia in eastern Ukraine seems to have spurred a shift in national identity, from stressing Ukrainian ethnicity to stressing Ukrainian citizenship. “Thanks to Putin, there are now Ukrainian Jews,” is how the chief rabbi of Kyiv put it in 2016.

The challenge that remains, embodied in a government effort to create a memorial to the Jews murdered by the Nazis—and their Ukrainian helpers—at Babi Yar, is to acknowledge and accept the historical reality of local collaboration with the Third Reich, especially when it came to carrying out the Final Solution.

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