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Ukrainian past and Ukrainian future

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Sept. 20, 2010, 1:06 p.m. | Op-ed — by John-Paul Himka
Askold S. Lozynskyj’s “Rewriting History: An Evidentiary Perspective” (Kyiv Post, Feb. 16) criticizes my historical research, but also raises the important question of how should we deal with the negative aspects of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN-UPA) heritage. Some years back, there was a lively interchange between Polish and Ukrainian historians over the massacres that occurred in Volhynia and Galicia in 1943-44.

Yaroslav Hrytsak characterizes it as the Ukrainian Historikerstreit, referring to an important debate among German historians over the place of the Holocaust in German history. He meant that it was a coming to terms with the dark aspects of the past.

One of the things that emerged clearly from this discussion was that UPA and OUN were responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Poles in western Ukraine. (Another was that, when possible, armed Poles took a ferocious revenge.)

Although the facts as established would seem to me to have meant that one could not make heroes out of OUN, UPA or their leaders, this did not seem so to ex-President Viktor Yushchenko or to many in western Ukraine or to many in the overseas Ukrainian diaspora.
My main evidence is that many Jewish testimonies, taken in different places, in different languages, and over a span of 60 years tell the same basic story: that UPA killed Jews at the same time as they killed Poles.

I was never a participant in the Polish-Ukrainian debate, but a few years ago I began to work on the role of Ukrainian nationalists in the destruction of Ukraine’s Jewish population, i.e., in the Holocaust. This is what Lozynskyj responded to so vehemently in his article.

He misrepresents my research on UPA and the Holocaust in fundamental ways. He says that “without exception” the eyewitness accounts I cite are hearsay on the order of “my friend told me that in the village the UPA murdered Jews, etc.”

It is true that I do include such accounts, because every large historical action leaves waves of evidence in its wake, some closer to the action, some more distant, but all reflecting the action itself.

I also, however, cited a number of more direct cases, such as the ten-year-old boy whose father had been killed by Banderites just two months before he testified to the Jewish Historical Commission.

He also says that my paper on UPA “relies strictly on eyewitness testimony. No documentation is offered.”

This is also untrue. I quote from the book of reports of UPA’s Kolodzinsky division, for example, about how they stumbled upon twelve Hungarian Jews hiding in the forest in Volhynia and “dispatched them to the bosom of Abraham.” I quote a German report about how their own forces could not reach a gang of a hundred Jews near Stryi, but fortunately UPA was on the spot killing them.

The axe and the flail have gone into motion. Whole families are butchered and hanged, and Polish settlements are set on fire. The ‘hatchet men,’ to their shame, butcher and hang defenseless women and children....By such work Ukrainians not only do a favor for the SD [German security service], but also present themselves in the eyes of the world as barbarians.

Taras Bulba-Borovets, original founder of OUN
My main evidence, however, is that many Jewish testimonies, taken in different places, in different languages, and over a span of 60 years tell the same basic story: that UPA killed Jews at the same time as they killed Poles and that in the winter of 1943-44, as the Red Army approached Volhynia, UPA lured survivors out of hiding in the forests, enrolled them in labor camps and then killed them. If all this eyewitness testimony is false, then it is incumbent upon those who claim this to explain how all this false testimony came into being.


Lozynskyj also misrepresents another of my works, an article about the Lviv pogrom in which I tested a piece of oral testimony from 1945 against photographs from 1941.

It was an exploration of the validity and limits of testimony, but Lozynskyj characterizes it as “written for the purpose of showing that...the OUN spearheaded” the Lviv pogrom.


It is an undeniable fact, though, that OUN organized pogroms and mass violence against Jews and others throughout western Ukraine in July 1941. German documentation and Jewish testimony are unanimous that Ukrainians were the pogromists. The pattern of the violence exhibits many features of coordination over the whole territory. For example, in many localities in Galicia during the first few days the pogromists threw their victims into rivers. This was an error, since the stink of decomposing bodies soon became unbearable. How did so many dispersed groups do the same wrong thing at once? Who was coordinating this?

Many of the German documents and Jewish testimonies indicate that OUN militias were behind the violence. OUN leaders in July communicated among themselves and to the Ukrainian public about the need to exterminate the Jews. Postwar Soviet trials of policemen in German service contain a number of eyewitness testimonies from 1944 that identify OUN militias and Sich organizations as perpetrators of the mass violence. What historical circumstances could have produced this particular historical record if OUN was not behind the pogroms?

For political reasons, the Soviets decided in 1959-60 to blame the Lviv pogrom on the nationalist battalion Nachtigall. This deception left a huge paper trail which the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) revealed in early 2008. Why is there no paper trail showing similar falsification of evidence about OUN militias?

Actually, there was a falsification, but not by the KGB. Shortly after SBU disclosed the documentation on Nachtigall, it published part of what it presented to the public as an OUN chronicle of events from July 1941. The document related that the Germans invited OUN leaders to stage a pogrom in Lviv, which they refused. But this document had the dates of the pogrom wrong. Moreover, examining portions sent to me by the Canadian embassy in Canada, I found that it had been written after the war. Marco Carynnyk later found even more evidence that this was a postwar fabrication produced by OUN itself. Why would Yushchenko’s SBU resort to propagating this falsification if it had anything in its archives that truly exculpated OUN from the pogroms?

Lozynskyj also tries to discredit my research by stating that my award of a fellowship from the US Holocaust Memorial Museum shows that I am working for the Jews. But it’s not about Jews. There are plenty of Ukrainian Jews who are quite happy with the legend of the heroic and democratic OUN-UPA, friends of the Jews – Moisei Fishbein, Vitalii Nakhmanovych, and Yosyf Zisels, for example.

This debate is not about Jews at all, it is about Ukrainians. It is about who Ukrainians imagine they are, how they evaluate their past, and who they want to be in the future.

There were Ukrainian spokesmen during the war who were deeply concerned about the impact of OUN’s war crimes.

Just as soon as OUN began murdering Poles in Volhynia, the original founder of OUN, Taras Bulba-Borovets wrote: “The axe and the flail have gone into motion. Whole families are butchered and hanged, and Polish settlements are set on fire. The ‘hatchet men,’ to their shame, butcher and hang defenseless women and children....By such work Ukrainians not only do a favor for the SD [German security service], but also present themselves in the eyes of the world as barbarians. We must take into account that England will surely win this war, and it will treat these ‘hatchet men’ and lynchers and incendiaries as agents in the service of Hitlerite cannibalism, not as honest fighters for their freedom, not as state-builders.”

Five months later, after the murder of Poles spread to Galicia, the head of the Greek Catholic church, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, appealed to the elders of communities to save those in danger of death.

He addressed himself as follows to the nationalist youth: “Do not let yourselves be provoked to commit any iniquitous acts. It is only, after all, in the interests of our enemies to urge our people to take unwise steps that could in the future bring, and even must bring, great damage to our people. Do not let yourselves be deceived by people who present as a necessity acts against God’s law. Remember that you will achieve nothing good through actions that are opposed to God’s law.”

Ukrainians need not adopt the heritage of OUN as the basis of their identity. There are other strands also in the legacy that our ancestors bequeathed to us.

This is also a question of what kind of intellect and morality we want to be characteristic of the nation. Do we want to examine the complexity of the Ukrainian past, or do we want to live the unexamined national life? Do we want to begin the deconstruction of myths that divide us east and west, or would we prefer to continue to battle over events that occurred nearly seventy years ago? Do we want to work out a historical discourse that serves all Ukrainian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, or do we want to hunker down in our nationalism? Do we value sophistication and tolerance, or are we happy with antisemitism and xenophobia?

It is difficult to rethink our history when it has become such a battleground between Orangists and Regionists and when critical thinking has to take place against the background noise of hostile, anti-Ukrainian polemics.

But regional differences and an uncomfortable neighborhood are going to be with Ukraine for a long, long time yet. We cannot let these circumstances stifle our development into the kind of people we deserve and want to be.


John-Paul Himka is the author of “Ukrainians, Jews and the Holocaust: Divergent Memories” (Saskatoon: Heritage Press, 2009).
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