BERLIN (JTA) — Was the Soviet Union a force for good or ill during the Nazi years?
That question is at the core of a controversy between and among some Jewish groups and former Soviet republics over the issue of Holocaust revisionism, and it erupted last week at a conference in Berlin organized by the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jews on “The Legacy of World War II and the Holocaust.”
Some former Soviet republics view Stalin’s Soviet regime as evil and laud those who fought it as nationalist heroes. The problem, many Jewish groups say, is that some of those nationalists were Nazi collaborators and vicious anti-Semites.
In their bid to condemn these nationalists and their murder of Jews, some Jewish groups are trying to promote the image of Stalin’s Red Army as liberator, not occupier, of Eastern Europe. It’s a hard sell in countries such as Ukraine and Moldova, and in the Baltic states, where many say glorification of the nationalists is on the rise.
Others say, however, that the problem of nationalist extremism is exaggerated, and a Ukrainian diplomat and some Ukrainian Jewish leaders denounced the conference as an exercise in propaganda.
“From the very beginning it was obvious that the conference was not aimed at a constructive approach but at politicizing this issue and extremely over-exaggerating,” charged Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Natalia Zarudna, who spoke at the conference.
“Russia never misses an opportunity to bash Ukraine,” concurred Rabbi Yaakov Bleich, a chief rabbi of Ukraine. Bleich said he was invited to the conference but “did not come because I think it was orchestrated by a Russian propaganda machine.”
Boris Shpigel, president of the World Congress of Russian-Speaking Jewry, insisted that his concerns about nationalism in Ukraine and elsewhere were genuine, and that he wants to spur a new movement to combat revisionism in former Soviet bloc countries.
“At a time when a new generation doesn’t know about the history of World War II, about the Holocaust, we will be a foundation for consolidating all civilizations to fight against new forms of revisionism,” said Shpigel, who is also a senator in the Russian parliament. “We are not going to fight with these countries. Ninety percent of the people in these countries are good. It is the other 10 percent who are lying, and it is our goal” to reach them.
The conference passed resolutions to establish an international, anti-fascist umbrella organization to monitor historical revisionism and resurgent neo-fascism; called on the people of Ukraine not to cooperate with fascist and Nazi groups, and to stop glorifying wartime nationalists such as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, who helped Nazis kill Jews; and demanded that the international community decry the Iranian regime’s Holocaust denial and verbal threats against Israel.
Among the some 500 people from 28 countries attending the conference were many Soviet World War II veterans, who came with medals pinned to their jackets.
Zarudna said groups like Shpigel’s exaggerate the degree of neo-fascism in Ukraine, and the envoy condemned what she described as attempts by conference organizers to interfere in the country’s upcoming presidential elections next month.
Joseph Zissels, the head of Ukraine’s Jewish umbrella group, the Vaad, said the conference “can be seen as an indirect attempt to have an impact on the election.”
In a telephone interview from Ukraine, Zissels also said ultranationalists were not as big a problem in Ukraine as described, and that it is Russia that is attempting to portray Ukraine as extremist in order to weaken Ukraine’s ties with the West.
“Ultranationalists in Ukraine have the support of less than 1 percent of the population,” Zissels said. “Russia’s concern is European integration of Ukraine, and that is why they play with the impression that Ukraine is very nationalistic, which it is not.”
Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, told JTA that any country that ignores the war crimes of nationalist figures encourages extremists.
“There is a need for an organization that will monitor these issues,” Zuroff said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry declined to send representatives to the conference because “We don’t want to get into internal politics in this regard,” said Aviva Raz Schechter, head of the ministry’s Department for Anti-Semitism and Holocaust Issues.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said there has been “genuine progress” on issues of anti-Semitism in the former Soviet bloc countries.