Across the Former Soviet Union in Ukraine, Wwii Anniversary Conjures Up Some Bad Memories

The upcoming celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II is bringing issues that long have roiled Ukrainian-Jewish relations to the surface. In the center of the controversy are two wartime combat groups — the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. Both fought for Ukrainian independence against both the Soviet Red Army and the Nazis during World War II.

According to many reports, these units also were responsible for killing Jews associated with the Bolshevik administration in Ukraine, although it is not believed that they specifically targeted Jews.

Earlier this year, Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko proposed a reconciliation between the members of those two groups and the Ukrainians who fought in the Red Army.

The idea was supported by some political parties in Ukraine. Backers included the moderate nationalist Ukrainian People’s Party, which earlier had urged Yuschenko and Prime Minster Yulia Timoshenko to recognize the fighters from the two anti-Red Army groups as World War II veterans. That’s the status already held by Red Army fighters.

The party, and some Ukrainian intellectuals who share this view, argue that this year in particular should be marked as well by what supporters call historical justice toward all Ukrainians who fought in World War II.

Yuschenko’s idea was to have a street festival on Kiev’s main avenue celebrating both the veterans of the Soviet army and their one-time enemies on May 9. That’s Victory Day, which marks the German capitulation at the end of the war. The proposal met with fierce opposition from Red Army veterans, including Jews.

“The attempts to reconcile the veterans who fought for the Soviet army with UPA fighters is unreal, because we remember what the UPA did during the war,” said Semyon Nezhensky, a retired Soviet army colonel and the leader of the Ukrainian Association of Jewish War Veterans. UPA are the Ukrainian-language initials of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

Red Army veterans’ organizations still wield considerable clout in Ukraine, and many expected Yuschenko to trade in his original plan for a Victory Day military parade in Kiev commemorating the Red Army. That parade was supported by all the country’s veterans’ groups.

But last week Ukrainian officials said instead that there would be no military parade in Kiev this year.

In the meantime, a former UPA leader told a national television channel last month that his fellow veterans were not eager to celebrate Victory Day together with the Soviet veterans.

This problem — a heated issue in Ukraine generally — appears to be even more controversial for Jewish war veterans here.

Many elderly Jews have strong memories of what happened during and after World War II, when Ukrainian anti-Bolshevik forces formed during the Nazi occupation of 1941 to 1944 wreaked violence on Russians and Jews in Ukraine’s western regions. Many Ukrainians blamed non-Ukrainians, including Jews, for what they saw as their role in bringing communism to this part of Ukraine, which was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939.

For many Jews, distinctions between those who collaborated with the Nazis and those who fought for an independent Ukraine are beside the point.

“I cannot support the idea of reconciliation with UPA fighters,” said Evadiy Rubalsky, 87, who was a Red Army soldier during World War II.

“Collaborationists killed 11 members of my own family in Babi Yar: my mother, sister and other relatives,” the pensioner from Kiev said, referring to the site of a Nazi massacre in the Ukrainian capital.

Some experts agree that the scale of mass killings of Jews could have been smaller had the Nazis not been helped by local collaborators, many of whom filled the ranks of Nazi-subordinated auxiliary units.

Another Jewish war veteran was similarly outraged by the idea of reconciliation.

“Now they want us, Soviet veterans, to apologize for what they consider as a fight against independent Ukraine. But they do not want to apologize themselves for their crimes against the people of different nationalities during and after the war,” Boris Komsky said. Komsky, another Red Army veteran, is now editor of Shofar, a Jewish magazine in Lvov in western Ukraine.

But some Jewish veterans say a distinction should be made between those Ukrainians who fought for nationalist combat organizations and those who fought alongside the Germans, most notably in the SS division called Galicina and in two Nazi-subordinated combat units, Roland and Nachtigal, that filled its ranks with Ukrainians.

These latter forces are believed to have taken part in special operations against Ukrainian civil population, including Jews.

Giliary Lapitzky, a veteran Jewish activist, said that though “it would be impossible for Soviet veterans to shake hands with OUN-UPA veterans,” they could still be given veteran status. They did not fight on the side of the Nazis, and they did not participate in Nazi-led killing of civilians to the same extent as the Ukrainian SS men.

At least one local government has joined the fray.

Recently the Lvov regional council asked Yuschenko to recognize UPA as a legitimate World War II army. “UPA is the only army in the world that fought during World War II against the two occupation forces simultaneously, against the [German] fascists and the Bolsheviks,” the statement by the council reads.

In parts of western Ukraine, the anti-Bolshevik nationalist combat units continued their guerilla warfare, including the killing of Jewish Bolsheviks, until 1953.

The Lvov council also sent an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting that it speed up the revision of the bill that provides social service benefits to displaced rehabilitated Ukrainians. Under the council’s proposal, OUN and UPA fighters, many of whom were tried in Stalin’s USSR after the war and served sentences for their wartime activities, would qualify.

A leading lawmaker told JTA that the bill is being debated in Parliament. “Common language” on that matter should be found, Gennady Udovenko, head of the parliament Committee on Human Rights and National Minorities, said.

But many people disagree with Udovenko, saying that such a law would betray the memory of those who gave their lives to liberate Ukraine from the Nazis.

“Despite a few conflicts” with the Nazis, “Ukrainian nationalists sided with the Nazis during World War II, and were supporting Hitler again by 1944,” a Jewish lawyer, Grigory Ginzburg, said.

A compromise may be in the works that would allow some pro-Ukrainian fighters — those who didn’t wear the German army uniform and who never took part in any of the German-led punitive expeditions against civilians — to be rehabilitated. But, some say, time may provide a better solution.

“I disapprove the possibility of rehabilitation of UPA fighters in general but I’m ready to recognize some of them,” said Yona Elkind, 81, a retired Soviet navy colonel.

He added, “Theoretically a peace is better than war, but the idea of making peace between UPA fighters and Soviet veterans is simply unreal, because we were enemies.

“Better leave it as it is. In two generations the problem will be resolved by itself.”

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