The Magazine

Out of Mind

In search of Ukraine's victims of the Holocaust.

Mar 17, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 26 • By ABBY WISSE SCHACHTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

What happened to the Jews of Stryi also serves Bartov as an example of the problem of historical memory currently plaguing modern Ukraine. The town of Stryi boasts several war memorials. There is the obligatory Soviet monument, "one of innumerable similar memorials erected all over Soviet Russia and its postwar East European Empire," Bartov writes. A huge Soviet soldier holds a baby alongside an even bigger stone column inscribed with the names of all the important battles of the Great Patriotic War (the Soviet era moniker for World War II). According to Bartov, the townspeople are ambivalent about the massive structure in the middle of their main square. They may have hated 60 years of Soviet control, but more than a decade after the fall of communism, they haven't torn it down.

In the meantime, they've erected a new monument to the "Freedom Fighters of Ukraine," which is "geared exclusively to commemorating the Ukrainian nationalist victims of Soviet Communism," Bartov writes. The memorial depicts themes of Christian martyrdom and national resurrection, and by erecting it, "the city has established its link to a past of martyrdom and heroism, even as it has cleansed itself in a religious rite both of its Communist legacy and of its Jewish inhabitants' mass murder."

There is a memorial to the Jews of Stryi, but it couldn't be more different from the city's other two monuments. A modest stone was erected six miles outside the city and was paid for by a former resident of a nearby town who now lives in Vienna.

"This single indication of the fate of Stryi's Jewish community, located in a distant open field," declares Bartov, "consigns the memory of Jewish life and death to a site outside the perimeter of modern Stryi; it is meant not for the current inhabitants, but for the Jewish survivors and for family members of the victims." Most city residents have no idea that this memorial even exists.

Continuing on his tour, Bartov finds towns where the Jewish cemetery is used for herding goats. In Ivano-Frankivs'k he finds a memorial to the Ukrainian victims of German aggression that stands in front of what was the synagogue. The memorial makes no reference to Jewish victims. In Buchach, forested Fedir Hill is the site of Jewish mass graves but the monument to the victims, again, misses the point. It reads in Ukrainian: "Here rest 450 people slain by the German executioners on Aug. 27, 1941." No mention that the victims were Jews, and certainly not an accurate count of how many Jews were murdered there. To add insult to genocide, there is another monument on Fedir Hill consisting of a mound of earth with a large cross on top. As Bartov explains, "It is dedicated to the [Ukrainian] freedom fighters who had first helped the Germans murder the Jews and then resisted the reoccupation of the region by the Red Army."

Bartov's message is clear: As long as Ukraine denies, hides, or locks away the past, a dark shadow is cast on the present. "And today," he writes, "as independent Ukraine struggles to reassert its still intensely disputed national identity, this known, familiar, but deeply buried secret, emerges once more from the burial pits and ruins--not as an event to be remembered but as one to be cast away or rewritten in a manner that will serve the goals of those who inherited the land."

Today, it seems that, instead of Ukrainians taking ownership of their history, someone else is trying to unearth their dark past for them. Recent news stories have described the work of a French Catholic priest, Patrick Desbois, who, with a team of researchers and assistants, is traveling around the country in search of Jewish killing fields. Father Desbois has no plan for how to commemorate his findings; his goal is simply to mark the places of Jewish slaughter.

Bartov, no doubt, would favor Ukrainians taking up the challenge of properly memorializing the destruction of their nation's Jewish population (including their own role in it). But I doubt he's holding his breath.

Abby Wisse Schachter is an editor at the New York Post.