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An Indian Bicycle and the Nazi Occupation

January 10, 2012

I cannot resist the opportunity to present one more letter written to the Gebeitskommissariat in Lut’sk during the war that I found over here in Ukraine. For the first installment of “Dear Gebeitskommissar…” see here. Readers of the blog will know my endless desire to link a favorite hobby, cycling, to my scholarly interests in the second world war, as evidenced here and here, so this one should come as no surprise.

One, Liudmila Valenta, age 23, resident of the village Banasivka in Luts’k raion, wrote to the Gebietskommissar on July 6, 1942. The matter: her bicycle. As we know from my other entry on the diary of a young boy in Kremenets’, the Nazi administration forced the residents to register and turn over their bicycles to the authorities much to the consternation of Ukraine’s inhabitants.

Ms. Valenta was forced to turn over her “Indian” brand bicycle (nr. 99283) to the police on June 29, 1942. The problem was she taught at a “volkschule” (letter is in German) located 2km from her home. She also needed to travel to Luts’k  to the head Schulabteilung (School Dept.) once a week as well.

Given her predicament, writing a letter was all she could do and then hope for the best. She wrote something I think most cyclists can agree with — even those of us not living through the Nazi occupation: “I cannot attend to these matters as well, nor as quickly as I can with my bicycle.” She ended with, “Please allow me an exception [and to keep my bike].” Whether or not that happened, is unknown, but I’d like to picture her taking many safe travels to and from school on her Indian bicycle along the bumpy Volhynian roads.


Disney Defames Ukrainians?

January 8, 2012

I swear I’m doing actual work when I come across this stuff. I present to you a Letter to the Editor printed in The Ukrainian Weekly, a diaspora newspaper in Canada, from 1994.

So in short, the sender thinks the character (watch for yourself) Taurus Bulba,  from the Disney cartoon, Darkwing Duck, defames the Ukrainian nation, because he somehow resembles a Ukrainian and is a negative character on the show. As per background, Taras Bul’ba is a mythical Cossack hero from the Zaporizhian Sich, who was immortalized in Nikolai Gogol’s short story by the same name. The name Taurus Bulba (think “bull”) is obviously a play on words, since the character is a bull.

To start, if you don’t like ethnic stereotypes you probably shouldn’t watch any cartoons or read any comics (the list is endless). That said, how a child is going to connect a bull with a funny accent to the nation of Ukraine is beyond me. Most American adults don’t where or what Ukraine is – how he/she is going to grow up and hate Ukrainians is pretty confusing. Not to mention, the accent is generic and in no way specifically Ukrainian (sounds Hungarian to me). As for Taras Bul’ba – he was a “Cossack” (in make-believe land) and is not designated in the short-story as a “Ukrainian”, since that was a later national construct.

Ironically, the writer thinks that if children watch a bull with a funny accent it is going to incite “ethnic hatred” later in life, when the short-story “Taras Bul’ba” is likely to do more in that direction, as it contains negative, stereotypical depictions of Jews and Poles (though I’m doubtful this story will cause young people to start pogroms). Perhaps someone will include this cartoon into the very long and comical (pun intended) entry for Ukrainophobia on Wikipedia (note Daniel Mendelsohn and Everything is Illuminated are even included).

Dear Gebietskommissar…

December 23, 2011

In the Luts’k archive (a city in western Ukraine), I recently came across a great file with letters written by Luts’k citizens to the local Gebietskommissar during the Second World War and Nazi occupation of Ukraine. The Gebietskommissar was a German civilian leader who ruled over  an administrative parcel of land known as a Gebiet during the occupation of the Soviet Union. Gebietkommissars played an intimate role in perpetrating the Holocaust, not to mention countless other such crimes in the wild East. One Germany military advisor described the relationship between a Gebietskommissar and his citizens as a “lordship”, if that gives you an indication as how they ruled their territories.

The letters were written by local Ukrainians who were seeking help of some sort from the man in charge, Heinrich Lindner. One such letter was written by Kristina Pavlovska, originally from Stepan’ (a mid-sized town in neighbouring Rivne oblast’) and resident of Luts’k. In her first letter to Lindner on March 5, 1942, Pavlovska wrote that she was a Karaite-Jew during her childhood, but in her teenage years she was baptized with the help of some local peasants. At the present moment, she was a devout Orthodox Christian and had married an “Aryan” before the war. They both routinely went to church and are followers of Archbishop of Luts’k and Kovel’, Polikarp (Sikorsky). She writes the GK can check these facts with Polikarp himself. At the end of letter we learn the reason for its existence: at present, authorities are trying to take her from her husband, put her in the ghetto and force her to wear the Jewish star.

There is a lot going in this first letter. First, who are Karaites? The Karaites are a sect of Judaism that reject the Rabbinic tradition of interpreting scripture and instead believe in a strict following of Tanakh alone. What is important about Karaite identity in relation to the Holocaust is that the Nazis did not consider Karaites to be Jews and thus did not kill them. The Reich Agency for the Investigation of Families made the final decision on the Karaites  and a letter from the Reichsstelle fur Sippenforschung provided the key ruling on the matter:

The Karaite sect should not be considered a Jewish religious community within the meaning of paragraph 2, point 2 of the First Regulation to the Reich Citizenship Law. However, it cannot be established that Karaites in their entirety are of blood-related stock, for the racial categorization of an individual cannot be determined without … his personal ancestry and racial biological characteristics. (Source: YIVO archives, Berlin Collection, Occ E, 3, Box 100, letter dated January 5, 1939.)

The majority of Karaite Jews in Ukraine were Crimean Karaites, known as Karaim by locals. While they lived in Crimea for centuries, no one is entirely sure from where this Turkic speaking Jewish group originated. Some have argued they are Khazar by origin (of Koestler fame) who converted to Karaite Judaism when they arrived in Crimea, while others claim they are Jews in origin who left Levant before the canonization of the Talmud. The level to which members of this community self-identified as “Jews” and “Judaism” (sometimes they deemed their belief system the “Mosaic Religion”) fluctuated over the last two centuries, varied from town to town, and certainly was something  influenced by external events. Read more…

Soul Sundays: La Mer

December 18, 2011

I haven’t posted any French songs yet for Soul Sundays, so I thought this tune would be a nice addition. La Mer was written by French composer Charles Trenet while riding on a train in 1943 and has been covered by over 400 artists over the last six decades. This version by the Spanish singer, Julio Iglesias, was featured in the latest spy film, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“, where it caught my eye. Enjoy!

On Walls

December 17, 2011

I recently went to Israel to partake in a workshop on the Holocaust and present some of my own work. While I was there I took the time to do some interviews for my project and take in some of the country.

One site I took in was the massive wall that demarcates Jerusalem and the West bank. I took a tour of East Jerusalem with an Israeli group and also saw some of the wall myself when in Bethlehem. While I certainly knew about the wall beforehand, there is really nothing that can prepare you for the experience. In order help understand why the wall went up (yes, I’m well aware of the immediate reasons given by Israeli government), I decided to get some historical background to understand what I was looking at. I started reading Tom Segev‘s book 1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Transformed the Middle East while I was still in Israel and finished it upon return to Ukraine. I’ll simply let voices from the book and the images speak for themselves, since as you’ll see they’re very much capable of doing so.

“’Restricted areas of residence’ evoked limitations on domicile and movement imposed on Russian Jews under the czars.” Israeli General, Elad Peled, in his 1966 report on the possibility of occupying the West Bank (Segev p. 222-3). He further stated that if Arabs resisted, Israel would take steps toward a “police state.”
After 1967 victory, there were one million Arabs in the West Bank. Former President David Ben-Gurion commented, “We don’t need them on top of the Israeli Arabs.” On Gaza Arabs, “It won’t be easy to get rid of them.” (Segev p. 455) Read more…

Thanksgiving Day Prayer

November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving from William Burroughs and myself!

The Soviet Cycle of Life

November 23, 2011

While I’m on the topic of cool, old Soviet-Volhynian books, I might as well share these wonderful woodcut (or pseudo-woodcut?) images from the Rovenshchyna book I found in the library.

Cover of the book

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles..."


Read more…