“Erased” in Luts’k? Politics and Memory in Western Ukraine
I was recently in Luts’k for an interview during my stint here in Volhynia. After the interview, I thought to visit the famous Luts’k High Castle, also known as Lubart’s Castle, while I was in town – it is, after all, the image on the back of the 200 hr bill! A Ukrainian friend and I bought a couple of tickets, a guide-book, and took a stroll through the 14th century castle. We took some pictures, made some jokes and enjoyed the Ukrainian couples taking their wedding photos. As we were walking around, I could not help but be troubled by the fact that I couldn’t place this castle in my mind. While the five centuries prior to the 20th century aren’t exactly my strong suit, I knew there was some reason I knew something about this castle.
When I got home, I read the Ukrainian Wikipedia entry for the castle (like a good historian) and nothing rang a bell. I then hopped over to the Russian and finally English entries for the same place (it is always interesting to compare multi-language entries for the same item, I must add). It was when I read the English entry that the bell rung: “On July 2, 1941 1,160 Jews were murdered within the walls of the castle.” That’s why I knew the castle – hardly an oddity, since my point of reference is the Second World War. I had read about the castle in Timothy Snyder’s excellent piece, “The Life and Death of Western Volhynian Jewry, 1921-1945,” in The Shoah in Ukraine, eds. Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower (Indiana University Press, 2008).
As I had witnessed myself, there was nothing to note or commemorate the murder 1160 people within these castle walls today. Not a plaque, nor a marker – nothing. I will admit this did not surprise me in the least. After spending a fair amount of time in western Ukraine and eastern Europe for that matter, I’ve realized the most Jewish sites, be they graveyards, public buildings, or killing sites remain largely unattended and neglected, not to mention often vandalized and defaced (the Zhytomyr synagogue is a good example). If there is any memorialization, more times than not, it came from abroad. Even in places like Rivne and Luts’k, which were never really “Ukrainian” cities per se – they were Polish and Jewish cities prior to the war – traces of these other cultures have been removed or ignored. To illustrate this point, the monument for 10,000 plus murdered Jews outside Rivne at Sosenki, was sponsored with money from abroad. Even more interesting, many Rivne citizens are not even aware of its existence. A Ukrainian friend, who lives ten minutes from the killing site, did not know about the site or where it is located until her mid-20’s and she is completeing a PhD in history program. Also, worth noting, the former synagogue in Rivne is now a sports gym and on the ground of the former Jewish theater now stands a Petliura monument and the Prosvitа office.
When I first visited Ukraine, there was an initial shock at this state of affairs – but that is now gone. As an American and citizen of the “West”, my time in Eastern Europe has provided new insight on how I’ve been reared to believe in the practice of memorialization and commemoration. Put simply, despite what wrongs may have been done in the past by a government or group of people, the present always represents an opportunity to remember the wrong that has been done. This idea is engrained in us. Of course, as an adult, I realized how selective our memorialization practices can be in the US and especially how blind we can be to contemporary events that will certainly lead to some memorials of their own in the future (I’m looking forward to a monument for the millions of lives lost on both sides in the supposed “war on terror” in the next few decades).
I think most Americans would be horrified at the state of memorialization in a place like Ukraine. They’d say the Ukrainians should honor “their” dead — those who lived among them as neighbors, friends, co-workers. To take the Luts’k example in light of a general Western line of thinking: over one thousand people were murdered in a vast genocidal project within these walls – should we not mark their passing? What if you were one of those victims – would you want your death remembered?
One such scholar, Omar Bartov, actually wrote such a book of indignation or cri de coeur, as one scholar deemed it, about these neglected and disgraced spaces. His book, Erased, is a travelogue of his first trip to Galicia, in which he surveys the memorial landscape and examines spaces previously inhabited by Jews. Even this renowned scholar could not but help and bear his moral outrage at Galicians for their rejection of Jews as being a part of their past. He blamed much rejection on the rise of “nationalism” in the region since the fall of the Soviet Union.
While reviews of his book were mostly positive in the West, Bartov received a great deal of criticism from Ukrainian peers. Many pointed out, and I’d say rightly so, some of the short-sighted aspects of the book – such as laying out the proper historical framework for the region and a discussion of how Soviet memory policy played in obliterating the Holocaust in Ukrainian consciousness, not to mention taking to task the weak thesis that “nationalism” (left largely undefined and geographically confused) is the culprit of these memory crimes.
One of the most critical reviews came from the lauded Ukrainian scholar, Yaroslav Hrytsak. Part of his criticism of Bartov is fair and echoes the points above and part is a laundry list of factual discrepancies. Hrytsak’s explanation of the current “Ukrainian national egoism” in these matters relies solely upon blaming the Soviet system. He writes that the Soviets erased all collective memory in Galicia (I’m unsure about what he means by the term “collective memory” here) and, therefore, Ukrainians are in the process of rescuing their own memory and have little interest in Polish or Jewish memory. He does not want to defend this process, only explain it. Another part of the problem, he argues, is the groups whose heritage is now erased were either killed long ago or left after 1989. He then goes on to say Ukraine should not be compared with neighboring countries like Poland, but instead isolated and applauded for their efforts to reconcile with the Poles regarding the Polish-Ukrainian ethnic conflict during the Second World War and post-war period. Hrytsak finishes by saying he does not fully understand Bartov’s aim with this book.
While I heartily disagree with Hrytsak’s characterization of the Ukrainian acceptance of what was “ethnic cleansing” and his refusal make fruitful analogies, his point regarding a lack of certain interest groups left on Volhynian and Galician soil is worth isolating and reviewing. Hrytsak wants to explain the problem by saying there are no Jews left in these regions so, naturally, there are no memorials. This point raises a number of good questions Hrytsak fails to address. Does Hrytsak think there should be memorials for the Poles and Jews of “Ukraine” (they did not die in “Ukraine” as we know it now)? How does Hrytsak envision future memory practice evolving in Ukraine, especially given there are no groups to push their own memory politics here? Do a majority of Ukrainian Galicians actually want to commemorate their dead neighbors? If they don’t, and Ukraine is a democracy, should someone still push to do these commemorations? If so, who might that be?
Like two passing ships in the night, Bartov and Hrytsak fail to understand each other’s vantage points. Bartov is appalled at the lack of multi-cultural memorialization practice in Ukraine and horrified at the rise of ethno-centric politics in the region – this is the driving force and scope of the book. For Bartov and the West, you memorialize whether the dead is present or not, or whether the remaining groups were complicit in the crimes. Right or wrong, this is the vantage point of any Western liberal or conservative. Hrytsak seems to fail to fully grasp this Western view-point and why it drives such books and views like Bartov’s. I don’t think Hrytsak understands what a desecrated Jewish cemetery looks like to the average Westerner. If he did, he would not be as confused by the singular focus of Bartov’s book.
On other side, Bartov does not seem to understand that the current Western practice of multiculturalism has little roots here in Western Ukraine, the only real attempt having occurred under the Pole Henryk Józewski in Volhynia during the 1930s (eloquently depicted by Timothy Snyder in his Sketches from a Secret War book). The Russian Empire played groups against each other, as did the Second Polish Republic, despite Jozewski’s efforts, and so did the Soviet regime — there was never a time for Western liberal consciousness to develop. The only advantage, if you want to call it that, for the current Ukrainian regime is that there are pretty much only Ukrainians left in the regions. Still the same politics of ethnic enmity are being played out in memorializaiton practice (whether intentionally or not). The Ukrainians simply want Bartov to grasp the back story here and, in many ways, that is fair.
The merits and faults of Bartov and Hrytsak aside, the question remains: what does the future look like in a modern ethnically cleansed landscape? We might as well take one concrete example, rather than speak abstractly here, to probe the question – the Luts’k Castle should work just fine. The site represents just one of thousands of such sites in Volhynia where tens of thousand of Jews were murdered where they lived (some 20,000 were shot by fall 1941 in Volhynia). The castle today represents a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. As I noted, many wedding photographs are taken there and the castle remains a backdrop for the Luts’k image as it routinely receives visitors, like myself. The rest of the castle’s history is harmless – containing mostly distant Polish and Lithuanian princes, and the like, fighting each other. Would a majority of Luts’k’s citizenry support a marker of the Holocaust in their now “Ukrainianized” landmark? My guess would be: unlikely. I think many would see this as an invasion of their Ukrainian space (despite the fact it was never “Ukrainian” space, of course). What Ukrainian would want a Holocaust memorial in the back of their wedding photos?
Even if there was an effort to memorialize the one thousand perished Jews, an even better questions is: who would undertake this project? The city government? If the majority of the populace is indifferent or hostile to the idea, why would the government act on it? And better yet: using whose money? Luts’k and its people, like many such cities, is facing plenty of economic troubles — I cannot believe there would any financial justification on their part to build a monument. Say there was support from a private group here or abroad — this without a doubt, would be characterized as an invasion of Ukrainian space from abroad by Ukrainian press, especially if it was from Israel.
In short, I believe the cultivation of multi-cultural memory practices in a place with little to no minorities, which has endured some of most violent episodes of the 20th century would be extremely difficult and I’m less optimistic than some of my colleagues like Tarik Amar. In my estimation, this type of practice depends upon two key factors: economic security and education. Regarding economic security, as long as large swaths of western Ukraine remain a victim of post-Soviet “capitalism”, there is no chance the citizenry here will bother and even be able to afford the costs of memorialization. Many here live without indoor plumbing, adequate healthcare and viable jobs – simply put: the state of the local Jewish cemetery that they didn’t know existed in the first place, is irrelevant to them.
The second factor, education is perhaps even more of a long-shot than the first. The ability to somehow grab hold of and wrestle the calamitous 20th century (not to mention the ones preceding it) and turn it into a malleable and digestible product for future generations of Volhynians and Galicians, so that they learn to regard and respect previous neighbors who are no longer even present in a politically correct way, is doubtful. Scholars, at present, are far from this task, let alone the population at large. Bartov and others are right that we are now in a stage where biased Ukrainian nationalist driven narratives are damaging historical practice and contemporary memory in these regions, but of course, simply expecting them to take on Western concepts through osmosis is not viable. And yes, the cultivation of some type of supra-national identity – where being “Ukrainian” denotes being a part of a diverse group that share a common space and political system, rather than some type of historicised ethnic-essential identity, would surely help. The prospects of this do also not seem favorable.
In fits of optimism and contra much of my pessimism about future memorialization, some scholars have drawn parallels with places like Germany, noting that it took decades for Germans to wrestle with their role in the Holocaust and therefore, we should not be “too hard” on Ukraine for its inability to deal with its past in the proper manner. It is certainly important to be understanding of the Ukrainian position and its backlog, yet here I’d be wary of false analogy and question its usefulness in the path forward. Just because there is a common issue involved, the Holocaust/Second World War, it does not mean Ukraine has to follow this same path of grappling with the past as Germany (the fallacy: just because A has sub-properties of x and y and B has А’s x, it does not mean B must have A’s y). Existing social conditions are more important here than wishful thinking. There are many differences between Germany and Ukraine cases, involving everything from their role in the war (Germany’s position as chief aggressor) to their current standing in the European and world community (more specifically the socio-economic standing of a country like Germany and their importance to the world compared to a place like Ukraine, who is struggling to keep its head above water). And one can easily make the argument that Germany’s path to “redemption” is an utterly unique one when it comes to admission of a nation’s sins in times of war (the US would not know much about this).
On the viability of multiculturalism itself, I’d ask anyone dealing with this region to paint a picture of what a tolerant, multi-cultural modern-day western Ukraine would look like. Would there be museums for the vanquished Jews and Poles? Days of remembrance? Will we Westerners be content when Ukrainians go to museums and look at exhibits to remember the people who once lived among them? Is this the telos of multi-cultural practice and memorialization? If not, what is the “end” for which we are searching? And the million-dollar question is, how would memorialization practices deal with Ukrainian complicity in the process of “erasure” (a gargantuan topic I haven’t even brought up in this particular discussion)?
And so here we are. Yes, Bartov is right, there are many “ghosts” in places like the Luts’k castle. The Jewish families who died there together naked and scared are mostly forgotten by the communities in which they used to live. Just as future rulers sought to control the region through Polonization or Russification or Sovietization, many Ukrainians here are now content to Ukrainianize this space anew. As many Ukrainian scholars would like us to remember and correctly so, these aren’t the only ghosts in places like Luts’k. The ghosts of prisoners from many faiths and nationalities, murdered by NKVD agents in the Luts’k prison, also reside there, as well as thousands who were pulled from their homes and packed onto cattle cars and sent to Siberia. In a place filled with so many ghosts you certainly understand better the desire to forget and simply trudge onward, once you’ve spent some time here. While I understand it better now, I cannot condone it either. I can only hope the difficult process of concurrently looking back and forward improves in the 21st century and I can contribute to it with my own work. What form “a step forward” may take or whether a Western version of multiculturalism ever grabs hold here is still yet to be seen. I’m not even sure multiculturalism is even germane in a place where the “multiple cultures” are already dead or gone.