Carl Gershman is president of the National Endowment for Democracy.
The May 20 inauguration of Volodymyr Zelensky, a newcomer from outside the political establishment who campaigned on a program of bold reform, shows how far Ukraine has come in consolidating democracy since the Maidan revolution in 2014. The country still faces many formidable challenges, the most urgent being combating poverty and endemic corruption, and defending itself against Russia’s continued armed aggression. But this is a new and hopeful moment for Ukraine, and it may offer an opportunity to address another issue that, though less urgent, is nonetheless profoundly significant for Ukraine’s future: the traumatic legacy of the Nazi Holocaust.
Ukraine is where the Holocaust began, well before the Nazis established mass extermination camps such as Auschwitz for the mechanized slaughter of the Jews. As the German army moved east in the summer of 1941 following the invasion of the Soviet Union, its mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, began rounding up the Jewish men, women and children in every town and village, shooting them and burying them in mass graves. All told, some 1.5 million Jews were murdered in territories that are now part of Ukraine.
While this was done in full view of the local villagers and townspeople, many of whom were requisitioned to assist in the gruesome process, the genocide was hidden from the outside world. It remained hidden even after World War II had ended, when it was “obscured by clouds of Soviet secrecy and anti-Semitism,” in the words of Paul A. Shapiro, the director of the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The wall of silence in the Soviet Union was the reason Yevgeny Yevtushenko in 1961 wrote his famous poem “Babi Yar,” protesting the Soviet regime’s refusal to identify the ravine by that name in the suburbs of Kiev as the site where nearly 34,000 Jews were murdered on Sept. 29-30, 1941.
A turning point came in 2002 when a French priest, Father Patrick Desbois, visited the town of Rava-Ruska in western Ukraine, where his grandfather had been held in a Nazi prison camp during the war. Desbois’s grandfather never spoke about what had happened to the Jews in Rava-Ruska, except once when he cryptically said to his then-7-year-old grandson, “For us, the camp was difficult; there was nothing to eat, we had no water. . . . But it was worse for the others!”
The “others,” Desbois later learned, were the Jews. He became so obsessed with finding the truth that he began to search out and interview elderly villagers in western Ukraine who, as teenagers, had witnessed the mass slaughter. In 2008, on the basis of these eyewitness accounts, Desbois published “The Holocaust by Bullets,” a pathbreaking book that documents in excruciating detail how the killings occurred, the location of hundreds of gravesites and the extremely fraught issue of Ukrainian participation in the genocide, most often under compulsion in Desbois’s view, though that is a subject on which there is great debate and disagreement.
Ukraine continues to be faced with the challenge of how to address its Holocaust-era past. There are some 2,000 mass graves of Holocaust victims in the country, ranging in size from a few dozen victims to tens of thousands. Babi Yar is the most well-known, but the vast majority are unmarked and unprotected.
A decade ago, the American Jewish Committee, with funding from the German government, initiated the Protecting Memory project, which has protected and properly memorialized several dozen mass gravesites in western Ukraine. The Ukrainian Center for Holocaust Studies in Kiev has worked with local authorities to develop educational materials and pedagogical programs, involving teachers and their students, to make the gravesites a visible and meaningful part of the local geography and cultural memory. It is especially gratifying that the dedication ceremonies of these memorial sites regularly include teachers and schoolchildren, as well as local officials and church leaders. These programs need to be expanded and deserve support from the United States and other countries.
The new government in Ukraine should also play a more expansive role in acknowledging the Holocaust as part of its national history. An important first step was the recent announcement by the Foreign Ministry that Ukraine intends to join the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. The Culture Ministry also should take the gravesites under its active protection and regulate the juridical questions related to land use. This should be done as soon as possible, before the land is offered to private investors. In addition, criminal proceedings should be initiated against those who are destroying gravesites — occurrences which are, unfortunately, not uncommon.
If Ukraine can take these steps toward properly memorializing victims of the Holocaust, it will become a stronger and more unified country, and it will contribute to the moral renewal of our troubled world.