Israeli’s Visit to Ukraine Marred by Misunderstanding over a Speech
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Israeli’s Visit to Ukraine Marred by Misunderstanding over a Speech

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An interpreter’s mistake in translating a speech by Shevach Weiss, speaker of Israel’s Knesset, has prompted a protest by 18 members of Parliament here and marred an otherwise successful state visit by the Ukrainian-born Holocaust survivor.

Weiss’ speech, which he delivered in Hebrew in the Ukrainian Parliament last week, reflected on the common history of Jews and Ukrainians and, while condemning those who collaborated with Nazis, rejected the notion of collective guilt.

But the Ukrainian translation, prepared by the Israeli Embassy in Kiev and read out loud, changed the meaning of the speech into an indictment of all Ukrainians for collaboration with the Nazis.

The phrase in question spoke of Israel’s and Jewry’s ambivalent relationship toward the Ukrainians, who, like some other peoples, “in part went over to the Germans” and “willingly served their machines of destruction.”

The words “in part” were accidentally omitted in the Ukrainian translation and triggered the controversy. Though the Israeli Embassy later reissued a corrected version of the speech, the damage was already done.

The next day, 18 deputies from the Parliament printed and circulated an official protest of the speech and its accusation of collaboration.

The letter not only highlighted the heroic actions of such figures as Metropolitan Sheptitskovo of the Orthodox Church, who saved hundreds of Jewish lives in Lvov during the war, but also accused the Jewish police of collaboration with the Nazis.


Yet in other respects, Weiss’ visit was a success. Weiss became the highest Israeli official to visit Ukraine and, following on the heels of Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk’s visit to Israel earlier this year, the trip marked a new level of friendship between the two countries.

Though the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967, Ukraine began official contact with Israel shortly after it gained independence with the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Weiss, who was invited here by the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, met with Kravchuk, Prime Minister Leonid Kutchma and other leaders of the Ukrainian government.

After visiting Kiev and participating in wreath-laying ceremonies at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and at Babi Yar, the sight of the mass murder of Jews, Weiss traveled to Lvov (now known as Lviv) and Borislav, the western Ukrainian city where he was born.

In Borislav, Weiss met with the granddaughter of the Ukrainian woman who helped him during the war and returned to the cellar where he lived in hiding from the Nazis for two years.

The Western Ukrainian region became an especially bloody battlefield during World War II, and only a small percentage of the Jewish population managed to survive the war.

Part of Poland before the war, the region was conquered by the Red Army in September 1939. After the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans occupied the area until the Red Army reconquered the region and annexed it in 1945.

During the war, a Ukrainian partisan army, the UPA, emerged and fought for Ukrainian independence.

Under the Soviet regime, the UPA members were routinely denounced as collaborators with the Germans.

In recent years, historians have re-examined the role of the UPA, and many Ukrainians view them as nationalist heroes who resisted Soviet rule.

During the war, approximately 1 million Jews died in the area of modern-day Ukraine.

While Weiss was in Lviv meeting with the Jewish community, a group of Ukrainians staged a demonstration in support of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian-born American convicted in Israel for being the infamous Nazi war criminal “Ivan the Terrible.”

An Israeli court has sentenced Demjanjuk to death, and the Israeli Supreme Court is currently reviewing his appeal. The demonstration, described by an embassy official as “small but noisy,” remained peaceful.

Despite the Demjanjuk demonstration and the unrelated protest by members of Parliament, Ehud Eitam, the charge d’affairs of the Israeli Embassy here, said, “It was a very good trip, very interesting since it was so closely related to the personal experience of Mr. Weiss.

“It brought the relations between the two countries to another level,” Eitam said.

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