Historically Challenged

This past weekend’s Toronto Star newspaper had an interesting story by one of their writers, Martin Cohn, about how his Jewish mother, who was born in the Ukrainian town of Rava Ruska on the border with Poland, managed to miraculously survive the Holocaust and find her way to Canada after the war. She was one of only a handful of the towns’ 6,000 Jews that survived. Cohn writes of his recent trip this past year to attend the dedication of a monument erected on the site of one of the killing fields near the town where an estimated 4,000 Jews are buried in unmarked mass graves. He relates how even now, locals are still reluctant to discuss or even remember what took place here some 70 years ago. He notes that though the Nazis were the primary perpetrators of this genocidal act, there was no shortage of local collaborators that aided in the process.

Aside from the moving content of the story, I was touched also by the fact that my mother’s family comes from the towns of Potelych and Devyatyr that are just a few kilometres down the road from Rava Ruska. I have been to Rava Ruska many times over the past several decades. I have talked at length with my elderly relatives there who lived through the horrors of the Second World War. I have heard their stories of suffering, pain, destruction and death. Interestingly enough, I never heard of anyone ever speak of what happened to the Jews at that time. Considering that they formed over half of the town’s population, it is more than curious that so little memory of their existence, either in tangible form or in historical recollections survives. I have walked the streets of Rava Ruska and have seen nothing to suggest that a once vibrant Jewish society and culture once thrived here.

In this, Rava Ruska is not an exception. Over a hundred kilometres to the east, near the town of Brody, sits my father’s village of Sokoliwka. Prior to the war, it was a bustling village of some 3,000 souls, of whom some 600 were Jewish. I have spent a lot of time in Sokoliwka and am familiar with almost every street, laneway, house and field. Nowhere there will you find the slightest sign that a thriving Jewish community once existed here. There is no synagogue, no Jewish cemetery or headstones, no sign that Jews had lived here for centuries prior to their sudden demise. In 2011, a detailed history of Sokoliwka was published thanks to the efforts of some local historians and scholars. It consists of some 900 pages, most of which cover the past hundred years or so of the town’s history. I am proud to say that even I am mentioned in its pages.

Regrettably, there is almost no mention of the Jewish presence, and what there is, basically deals with the statistics of their extermination. I have asked my relatives there about this discrepancy and, by and large, they either claim no knowledge of what happened or avoid the subject altogether, claiming the brutality of war causes people to do things they would not even consider in normal peaceful times. I have heard rumours and vague references though to local partisans being involved in the execution of the town’s Polish overlords and upper class, as well as abetting in the Nazi roundup and killing of the local Jewish population. There is a lot of history that happened in those times that people would rather not remember or see the light of day.

Herein lies one of the main issues that Ukraine is facing and must resolve as it seeks to establish itself in the western community of nations. We need to understand our true history and come to terms with the implications and consequences. The stark reality is that neither we Ukrainians, nor most of the world really knows the full and unvarnished history of Ukraine, particularly in the past century. On the one hand, Ukraine’s oppressors over the past few centuries, namely Poland and Russia, have promulgated histories that are obviously biased, selective and self-serving, painting a mostly negative picture of Ukraine and its people, even questioning their validity as a distinct ethnicity or nationality. On the other hand, most of the histories that the Ukrainian diaspora and the Ukrainian nationalist movement in Ukraine have put out, have had their own biases and political slants, that have emphasized Ukrainians’ heroic struggles and sacrifice, while downplaying or ignoring some of the more questionable actions and strategies that have also characterized our troubled history.

What is encouraging, is that in recent decades, several initiatives have sprung up to address this unfortunate state of affairs. In Canada, an organization known as the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter has brought together Ukrainian and Jewish scholars and community leaders in an effort to encourage unbiased scholarly research and dialogue aimed at developing a rational understanding of the relations between these two peoples with so much shared history. Similarly, a Polish – Ukrainian forum of historians is continuing work on clarifying the often troubled and disputed history between these two neighbouring states. Despite a significant amount of residual mistrust and painfully remembered recent history, scholars of both nations are striving to build a bridge of understanding and reconciliation based on fact and documented research.
It is only when we have a true picture and understanding of our past, will we be able to confidently and effectively deal with our fellow neighbours and nations in building a more prosperous and peaceful future together.