Tuesday, February 15, 2005

You'd Think Readers of The Jewish News Would Resent Holocaust Minimizers

I reworked my piece on President Yushchenko's inauguration in Ukraine for the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, which ran it here. I got one call from a reader, upset that I was way too easy on the Ukrainians. He was going to give Bush a pass for appointing Kuropas to the official delegation, however. He wanted to rail at the foreign country but hadn't conceived of anything he could do about it in his own. Go figure.

Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, Feb. 11, 2005/Adar 12, 5765

Last month, Viktor Yushchenko took office as Ukraine's third president. His eventual victory required massive public demonstrations, court decisions and a repeat election; nevertheless, Ukraine's surprising turn to democracy and the rule of law is wonderful news. But while Yushchenko's election augurs a new future for Ukraine, history still casts an ambiguous shadow. That history may evoke entirely different responses in different people.

On his inauguration day, Yushchenko participated in a symbolic Cossack ceremony. The commemoration undoubtedly filled many Ukrainians with nationalistic pride, but as someone whose ancestors fled Ukraine due to those same Cossacks, I found that the charm eluded me. It all turned out for the best; without Cossack "help," I wouldn't be an American today. But celebrating my forebears' tormentors doesn't feel completely joyful.

I saw this dissonance, where one family's pride is another's sorrow, often in Ukraine. Driving around Kyiv, my host pointed out a historic cathedral where, during World War II, Russian commandos set explosives before a meeting of high-ranking Nazis generals. Despite damage to much of the building, most of the Nazis escaped. My guide clearly considered the resulting structural damage considerably worse than the mission's failure.

Perhaps this modern-day Ukrainian's experience with the more-recent terrors of the Soviet system overpowered his revulsion for fascism. Victory over Germany occurred 60 years ago; the USSR didn't crumble until 1991, and those horrors would be fresher. The Soviets used WWII as a political weapon. Perhaps fighting fascism became tainted by its association with communism.

But there are more troubling explanations, too. Ukraine suffered so gravely under Stalin, when forced collectivization led to famines that killed millions, that some peasants welcomed the German Army, approving of any enemy of their enemy. And some Ukrainians (and Ukrainian-Americans), believing that the world little remembers how desperately Ukraine suffered under the Soviets, may minimize the depredations of the Nazis - even going so far as to excuse their collaborators.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration managed to validate this historical revisionism - not quite Holocaust denial, but more like Holocaust excusal.

The same week as the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the Bush administration appointed Myron Kuropas as a member of the official delegation to Yushchenko's inauguration.

Kuropas, who claims to be prominent in the Ukrainian-American community, says that Jewish organizations "manipulate" memories of the Holocaust for financial gain. In 2000, Kuropas wrote, "Big money drives the Holocaust industry. To survive, the Holocaust industry is always searching for its next mark. Ukraine's turn is just around the corner." Kuropas complains that Ukraine is unfairly portrayed as anti-Semitic, then argues that Ukrainian cooperation with the Nazis was caused (and justified) by Jewish participation in the Soviet government.

There certainly were Jewish communists, but it's also true that both Hitler and Himmler were Catholics. Somehow collective guilt only applies to Jews.

As Jews, we should lead the world in remembering how Ukraine suffered. We should also show that it's not necessary to diminish the Holocaust to remember the anguish of others. The Bush administration shouldn't give a platform to those who contend otherwise.

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