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Vasco Kretschmann

No Integration without Reconciliation?

Do Ukraine and Ukrainians need to apologize for the Shoah? It is a constant, if not frequent, question that nevertheless does good for a public debate. Recently, the subject has been raised by Vakhtang Kipiani, a well-known Ukrainian journalist and editor of an e-paper Istorychna Pravda. And despite the fact that his article is in no way a breakthrough, it is still facing a highly sensitive and serious issue concerning relations between Jews and Ukrainians.

Żydowscy muzycy z Rohatynii, 1912; autor: nieznany; źródło:

Jewish musicians in Rohatyn in 1912, author: unknown, source:

Sadly, the debates on relations between Ukrainians and Jews, including an apology from the former, are usually full of mutual accusations of anti-Semitism or phobia towards Ukraine, which frequently just end the talks. Pity, for the subject is of fundamental importance while defining values and national identities in Europe. And also the roots of its crisis.

The history of Jews in Ukraine tells not only about pogroms that were taking place since the Khmelnytsky Uprising (also events of 1881 and incidents during the first and second world wars in the territory of central and eastern Ukraine, and Galicia), but it also includes the necessity for facing one’s own past and for asking what values one wants to keep. Certainly, we must remember the context of the past events: the war, the terror, ideologies that many Ukrainians allowed themselves to be deceived with. But foremost, Ukraine was a witness of the anti-Semitism spreading on a global scale.

The apology already given

For a start, let’s talk about the forgiveness itself. Leonid Kravchuk, the first Ukrainian President, did apologize to the Jewish people in 1991, as he recently reminded in a popular TV programme Shuster Show. At the time, as the Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian SSR, he attended the solemn ceremony commemorating the tragedy which took place in Babi Yar. Kravchuk has also referred to his visit in Israel, while holding the post of the Ukrainian president. In Knesset, he had issued an official apology.

Leonid Kravchuk in Shuster Show [ua]:

Yes, he seemingly had, but few people are aware of it. Here we have Yaroslav Hrycak, a well-known historian, also in Poland, who in his book on Ukraine published several years ago does not mention Kravchuk’s words from the ’90. We can hardly suspect Hrycak of ignorance, for he deems an apology indispensable: ”Those among us who believe in mission and responsibility of intellectuals, ought to ask the Jewish people forgiveness on behalf of the Ukrainian nation.” Hrycak is clear: collective responsibility is the axiom, and the complex context and specific conditions shaping the Jewish-Ukrainian relations come second. Moreover, the author levels accusations against President Yushchenko whose official visit to Israel held in 2007 did not include an apology.

Being aware of forgiveness granted; the future

As a matter of fact, gestures or words are not the issue – Kravchuk has already apologized. The core subject concerns working out the past and becoming aware of its complexity. It is interesting that the programme with Kravchuk started with a simple question. “Should Ukraine apologize to Jews for its complicity in the Holocaust?” – “Yes,” answered 75 percent of respondents. Continuing the subject, Kipiani asked: who shall do it? “Not discredited President Yanukovych, I presume. Such a gesture wouldn’t be of much worth”. The Ukrainian journalist, writing about forgiveness, is citing the notable letter of Polish bishops sent to their German colleagues, and is asking whether the task belongs to hierarchs of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Ukraine – Patriarch Filaret, Metropolitan Volodymyr, Archbishop Svatoslav or Archbishop Huzar.

Żydowski cmentarz w Buczaczu; autor: Roman Zacharij; źródło:

Jewish cemetery in Buchach, author: Roman Zacharij, source:

Speaking of relations between Ukrainians and Jews, we must remember how much is still to do. For years no one seemed to care that once Eastern Europe was home of two huge Jewish communities – in Poland and in Ukraine. During the Soviet period, except for 20 years in-between, the Jews were a taboo subject. Only a few historians and activist of the Ukrainian diaspora were doing their research on it. But at last, the ‘90. of the last century brought a change, although the most significant work on this matter is still being done outside Ukraine. It is worthwhile to describe Father Patrick Desbois, a French “priest of Jews”, and his institute Yahad – In Unum, documenting lives of the Jewish citizens in East- Central Europe. When he came to Ukraine at the end of the last decade of the 20th century, looking for Jewish mass graves, it occurred to him that he was also the first person asking people from local villages about the events they had witnessed during the war.

Towards integration

Reckoning with the past, though many marginalize its importance, is crucial. Not only allows it to ask about identity without fear what lies beneath, but also reminds where the origins of Europe really are. Foremost, it is about maturity. It is noteworthy that Andrey Portnov titled his short article about the Ukrainian memory of the Shoah “Is Ukraine ready to grow up?” („Czy Ukraina jest gotowa wydorośleć?“). Indeed, admitting one’s faults and apologizing require mental maturity. Furthermore, the issue brings up another question: in what kind of world we would like to live. Yes, the present organization called the European Union is defining itself basing more and more on financial calculations. But would the European Union have emerged, had it not been for the experience of war and the principle of “never again”? “The “never again” rule must operate, regardless of the fact that only a few Jews have remained in Ukraine.

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Vasco studied History and Political Science in Berlin and Warsaw and completed a Master of Arts in Public History at Freie Universität Berlin. In his PhD project he investigates how the museums of German and Polish Wrocław (Breslau) exhibited local history between 1900 and 2010. His fields of interest are German-Polish and European historical cultures and exhibition projects.

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