This week’s state-sanctioned commemoration of a World War II-era Ukrainian military leader is stirring up considerable controversy and alarming many in this country’s Jewish community.
At issue are celebrations planned for June 30, the 100th birthday of General Roman Shukhevych of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, which fought for Ukrainian independence during World War II alongside the occupying German forces.
Although Shukhevych and veterans of his army have been honored as freedom fighters by individual cities throughout Ukraine since its independence from the Soviet Union, this marks the first time it is happening on a national scale.
Earlier this year Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko urged Ukrainian lawmakers to recognize Shukhevych and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army as fighters for the country’s independence, and to accord its veterans the same honors and benefits as those currently received by Red Army veterans.
But Jews say Shukhevych and his fellow fighters were not only struggling for Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union, but also collaborating with Nazi Germany during the wartime occupation of Ukraine.
“General Shukhevych was the commander of the Nazi-formed Nachtigal battalion,” said Mikhail Frenkel, head of the Association of Jewish Media in Ukraine. “President Yushchenko and his advisors should be telling the whole truth about World War II.”
In the center of the controversy are two Nazi-subordinated combat units, Nachtigal and Roland, manned by Ukrainians. These groups are believed to have taken part in special operations against Ukrainian and Belarusian civilians while fighting against Soviet rule. Most of their victims were ethnic Slavs suspected of collaboration with the Communist regime, but Jews were also targeted.
It was these Ukrainian nationalist fighters who “killed six members of my family in the Vinnitsa region, my grandparents and other relatives,” said Lidia G! erasko o f the Ukrainian Association of Former Prisoners of Ghetto and Concentration Camps. Gerasko said that she only survived because Ukrainian neighbors helped her escape.
Shukhevych and his fighters continued their resistance to the Soviets even after the war. The Ukrainian general was killed in 1950 in a special operation by Soviet troops.
For years after Ukrainian independence in 1991, those who fought under Shukhevych’s command have been demanding official veteran status similar to that of Soviet Red Army veterans. Yushchenko recently spoke out in favor of the idea, and also welcomed the upcoming state commemoration of Shukhevych.
Recently, regional councils in four of Ukraine’s western regions asked Yushchenko to give Shukhevych the Hero of Ukraine medal, the nation’s highest award. The idea then received an endorsement from Vyacheslav Kirilenko, a leader of the pro-Yushchenko party Our Ukraine.
The June 30 commemoration will include exhibitions, film screenings and public gatherings in Kiev and other parts of Ukraine. What most concerns the Jewish community is that public funds are being used, and public officials will attend many of the events.
Some leading Jewish organizations condemned Yushchenko’s decision to support this public honoring of Shukhevych. Yakov Dov Bleich, the country’s chief rabbi, called it “a dark day for Ukraine.”
“Honoring Shukhevych is irresponsible and dangerous because anti-Semitic organizations would interpret this as public recognition of Nazism,” said Rabbi Meir Stambler, a leader of the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the country’s largest Jewish group.
Some Jewish leaders say they want to research the issue more before forming an opinion. “I don’t have enough information about Shukhevych’s activities,” said Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, head of the Ukrainian Reform movement.
But most say they do not agree with honoring people responsible for killing Jews and others su! spected of supporting communism.
“We live in a society of distorted mirrors,” said Anatoly Gendin, leader of the Jewish community in the Crimean Peninsula. “But we shouldn’t permit the whitewashing of those who collaborated with the Nazis.”
“General Shukhevych was on Hitler’s side and he is responsible for Hitler’s crimes,” said political expert Vladimir Malinkovich.
Bleich said Ukraine should come clean with its past, including the history of its Nazi collaborators. “It is necessary to commemorate the real heroes instead of those who collaborated with the Nazis and fought against their own people,” he said.