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Holocaust Commemoration in Ukraine from Soviet Times to the Present Day

Interview with Anna Medvedovska, historian, Institute for Holocaust Studies in Dnipro

Bird's eye view of a city, in the foreground a modern building with many high towers.

The Jewish cultural center Menorah in Dnipro; LP inside, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Anna Medvedovska, a historian at the Institute for Holocaust Studies (Tkuma) in Dnipro, joined the Jewish Museum Berlin on 2 March 2023 as part of the panel discussion about Dnipro for the Ukraine in Context event series. In the interview, she talks about Soviet perspectives on the Holocaust, counter-narratives, competing memories during the post-Soviet period, and other obstacles for incorporating the history of the Holocaust into the Ukrainian national narrative. You can also watch a short video clip from the interview on this page.

What is your personal connection to Dnipro and its Jewish history and contemporary life?

I’m a historian. I research the Holocaust perception in Ukraine. And as for Dnipro, I consider the city my ancestral home because although I wasn’t born there, a few generations of my family before me lived in this city. Actually, my grandparents met and married in Dnipro as well, but later they had to move to a smaller town in the same region to get through the antisemitic campaign of the late Stalinist period.

I moved to Dnipro, studied at the Faculty of History, and have spent most of my life there. And just after the graduation, I was lucky enough to get a job at the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies in Dnipro, Tkuma Institute. I joined the team, which developed an exhibition for the Holocaust Museum, the first major Holocaust museum in Ukraine, which opened in Dnipro in 2012. That was really a very significant event for Jewish life, the Jewish community, and for me personally.

Woman with dark long hair looks friendly into the camera.

Anna Medvedovska; photo: private

Is there a specifically Soviet perspective on the Holocaust?

Yes, of course there is. Actually, to put it briefly, if we are talking about the official discourse in the Soviet Union, the Soviet authorities didn’t want to single out the Jews as a separate category of victims.

They did not deny the Holocaust, but they gave the Jewish victims a different identity, a euphemistic identity: as Soviet citizens, peaceful Soviet citizens.

The Holocaust never existed in the public discourse. Holocaust sites were mostly abandoned or built over without any mentioning that they were Holocaust site and without any memorialization.

Only after the Second World War became a part of a great Soviet historical mythology, in the late 1960s and 1970s, did Holocaust sites in majors cities become memorialized, although without mentioning Jewishness.

Plain gray upright stone with golden inscription in Cyrillic letters, in the background two trees.

Memorial with the inscription “To civilian victims of fascism, October 1941;” Dnipro, Gagarin Park; Sllqwk, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Has there been some kind of counter-narrative?

The scale of this tragedy is so huge that it was not possible to hide it even a few generations later. This memory was preserved in communication between people, both between Jewish people and between Jews and non-Jews. So everybody knew about it. They could even discuss it in private conversations, but not in public, not in books, not in newspapers.

The scale of this tragedy is so huge that it was not possible to hide it even a few generations later.

Soviet writers and the creative intelligentsia tried to bring the topic of the Holocaust into the public eye. But their pieces could not always reach the audience because of censorship. And anyone who tried to speak about it openly and directly, just to call a spade a spade, did not encounter understanding from Soviet censors and Soviet authorities. And all these discussions were nipped in the bud.

Did commemoration change during the post-Soviet period?

These restrictions on commemoration and open public discussion were lifted back in the late 1980s. Of course, in the 1990s, after independence, everybody could research, everybody could talk, and everybody could spread knowledge about the Holocaust in Ukraine. But at the same time, the state did not take any official position on this issue. And all the initiative in commemoration, memorialization, and simply learning about or studying the Holocaust was in the hands of Jewish communities and private interested groups who raised money for the monuments – just to do something at least to commemorate those small Jewish communities.

Video clip from the interview with Anna Medvedovska; Jewish Museum Berlin, 2023

It is also important to mention some NGOs that were founded in Ukraine in the late 1990s. My own institution, the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies (Tkuma) was founded in 1999, and a few years later, another similar institution, the Center of Holocaust Studies, was established in Kyiv. And both of these institutions were oriented toward publicizing the knowledge about the Holocaust. They collected memories from survivors. They worked with teachers.

Did the Maidan uprising bring along a new set of changes?

This progress is not linear. It is not always easy to attach it to some specific event. But after the course on European development shifted, which first happened during the Orange Revolution, we could already notice a difference in discussions about the Holocaust as well. Just after the Orange Revolution in 2005, one of the most progressive cultural studies journals published the first discussion of the Holocaust, and some liberal speakers also raised the issue that the Jewish past, the Jewish side of history, was underrepresented in Ukrainian narratives. And there were many unpleasant and complex issues in the Ukrainian–Jewish relationship that we had simply forgotten about. We had simply ignored them in our historical narratives, and it was very important for this topic simply to appear in public space. This discussion mostly went unnoticed and did not have a huge public resonance.

But a few years later, in 2009, one of the most popular books in Ukraine was translated into Ukrainian, the US historian Omer Bartov’s book Erased, about the vanishing traces of the Jewish past in western Ukraine.

Most people had not encountered this idea of Ukrainian participation in anti-Jewish violence.

Then, in 2012, a Canadian historian of Ukrainian descent published an article, which was translated from English to Ukrainian, and published on a very popular historical online platform with a huge audience, triggering immense discussion. The article was about the Lviv pogrom against Jews that took place in the beginning of the Nazi occupation in 1941. It is just one example among many, many pogroms that happened in the different cities and towns of western Ukraine. And it was like a blank spot in Ukrainian historiography. Most people had not encountered this idea of Ukrainian participation in anti-Jewish violence, not simply because of antisemitic or nationalist views as it could be perceived from the West, given that Western scholars and historians always write about this. They were simply unaware of it because this topic was not on their radar. Nobody knew about the pogroms, nobody spoke about the pogroms, and nobody wanted to speak about the pogroms. I would say that from following the discussion in the years after 2014, nobody seriously denied the pogroms and the participation of Ukrainians to some extent in anti-Jewish violence.

Were there conflicts over competing memories?

If you maybe remember, it was a very, very loud and I would say even scandalous event when the president awarded a nationalist leader, Stepan Bandera, the title of Ukrainian national hero. Of course, this very much triggered the Polish and Jewish communities because this was a conflict of memory. The Ukrainians perceived the nationalist movement as liberators who heroically fought for independence during a period that was very difficult for Ukrainian soldiers, when the Ukrainian territory was divided between two regimes: the Soviet regime, which orchestrated the Holodomor in the early 1930s, and the Polish state, which had some practices not so far off from those of Soviet Union. And that is what pushed Ukrainian nationalists to seek allies abroad to organize the fight for independence and to gain it during the Second World War. And they began cooperating with Germany long before the Second World War started. They continually looked for different options but unfortunately, neither the UK, nor France, nor the United States wanted to consider this Ukrainian project as such, and that pushed these nationalist political leaders into the arms of Germans.

Stepan Bandera

More on Wikipedia


A man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians.
More on Wikipedia

Are there other obstacles getting in the way of incorporating the history of the Holocaust in the Ukrainian national narrative?

That’s a very good question because there are many obstacles, frankly. But one of the most general obstacles I can extract directly from your question is a Ukrainian national narrative. What do we mean by this notion of a Ukrainian national narrative? That is something that after the Soviet Union collapsed, we had to invent from scratch. We had to rewrite Ukrainian history completely and change the focuses in order to understand. What do we mean by this notion of a Ukrainian national-historical narrative? What do we need to include in it? What is it? What do we call the Ukrainian political nation? And answering that is not easy. It doesn’t happen immediately.

As a part of the legacy of the Soviet Union, we inherited post-Soviet bureaucracy and post-Soviet historians.

And it is also important to note that as a part of the legacy of the Soviet Union, we inherited post-Soviet bureaucracy and post-Soviet historians who were trained and ready to fulfill the state’s orders. The paradigm cannot be changed immediately at once. It can take years, even decades. And schoolchildren and university students needed the textbook immediately. Like these changes between 1990 and 1991: one year you’re in the Soviet Union, the next year you’re already in independent Ukraine. How will you teach this history and how will you learn it? So, to incorporate the Holocaust into the Ukrainian national narrative, we first need to create this narrative and to understand the methodological foundation and approaches when creating this narrative. That is the main obstacle.

Are the discussions about competing memory narratives still ongoing despite the current war?

Right now we have such an agenda … it’s very difficult to compete. That is why I’m afraid not so many people are thinking and talking about the Holocaust now. But I noticed a step forward in the progress of perceiving and discussing this topic in 2021, when one of the most critical biographies of Stepan Bandera was translated from German and published in Ukrainian.

Especially now, more and more Ukrainians are taking an interest in their own history. Because we can’t expect Ukrainian society to perceive the Holocaust as a part of its own history when there are so many chapters of Ukrainian history that are not perceived objectively, I would say.

There are many ethnicities in the Ukrainian army now and in Ukraine overall. There are Ukrainian people, Jewish people, Romanian people, Crimean Tatars, and many, many other peoples. And I’m convinced that after this war, it won’t be possible to write the history of Ukraine as only the history of ethnic Ukrainians.

The interview was conducted by Mirjam Bitter, Jewish Museum Berlin, in March 2023.

Citation recommendation:

Mirjam Bitter (2023), Holocaust Commemoration in Ukraine from Soviet Times to the Present Day. Interview with Anna Medvedovska, historian, Institute for Holocaust Studies in Dnipro.

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