The Holocaust and the Holodomor: The Challenge of a Collective Memory

December 2010
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The following version of the article was prepared for publication in the Krytyka Magazine and appears in a new collection of essays by the author. The text is largely based on a paper given at the international conference “United Europe – Divided Memory. Tomorrow’s Yesterday: Memory Politics in Europe” (Vienna, September 25–26, 2009).

This article deals with two very difficult concepts: the Holocaust and the Holodomor. However, the object of my focus is less the two concepts themselves, and more the conjunction "and" between them. The attempt to link these concepts is more problematic than the separate concepts on their own. I do not want to compare the Holocaust and Holodomor. Nor do I intend to discuss whether such a comparison is useful or, if it is, what its limits are and what it misses. These are questions for another article. Here my goal is much more modest: to show when and under what conditions the connection between the two concepts emerged and ask what this tells us about the current battle for historical memory in Ukraine and its neighboring countries.

Today, it is very difficult to ascertain who first compared the Jewish catastrophe of Shoah and the Ukrainian famine or when they did this. It is highly likely that this comparison happened even before the emergence of the concept of the Holodomor itself [1] and that the originator was none other than the creator of the concept of “genocide” himself Raphael Lemkin: shortly before his death Lemkin wrote an article making precisely this comparison, but it was only recently published. The comparison first acquired a public dimension at the beginning of the 1980s – to a certain extent by coincidence. In 1983, the Ukrainian diaspora in North America organized mass public commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the Ukrainian famine. These acts of remembrance took place against the backdrop of the considerable interest in North America in the genocide of the Jews generated by the television series “Holocaust” (1978). The Ukrainian disapora hoped to repeat the success of Jews, who had managed to win support for Israel by reminding the world of the Jewish tragedy at the time of World War II. Ukrainians aimed to do the same, speaking loudly about the famine as a “Ukrainian genocide” at every opportunity. The Ukrainian diaspora never had the same influence as its Jewish counterpart (even in Canada, where Ukrainians constituted one of the largest ethnic groups). However, it sought to take advantage of the atmosphere in the early 1980s created by Ronald Reagan’s declaration that the USSR was the “empire of evil,” which seemed to bode well for the Ukrainian question.

These hopes turned out to be in vain. Just as the diaspora Ukrainians were trying to inform the world about the Ukrainian famine, two other two important events took place: the trial of Ivan Dem’ianiuk in the USA and the beginning of the Deschênes Commission on war criminals who had found asylum in Canada after 1945. In both cases court documents portrayed Ukrainians as participants in the extermination of the Jews. The matter was complicated by suspicions – partially confirmed – that the Soviet secret services supplied investigative documents from their archives, some of which had been fabricated. This became the basis for fierce argument between the Ukrainian and Jewish diasporas, to say the least. Some Ukrainian writers went so far as to accuse Jews of organizing the famine in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic. They based these allegations on the activity of Stalin’s ally Lazar’ Kaganovich (a Jew born in Ukraine [then the part of the Russian Empire that later became Soviet Ukraine – Ed.]) and on the mass presence of Jews in the Soviet punitive organs [primarily before 1937 – Ed.].

The discussions on the Holocaust and the Ukrainian famine are a reminder of a common pattern in East European intellectual history: As in the majority of such cases, these concepts did not arise in...

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