This week marks the eighteenth National Holocaust Memorial Day, an occasion on which to mourn and remember the annihilation of six million Jews by Nazi Germany. Symbolised by the very existence of this day, public memory of the Holocaust in Britain, as in the west more broadly, remains highly developed and manifests in the cultural, political and educational spheres. Yet in Ukraine, as in other Eastern European countries such as Belarus, Moldova and Bosnia, these memory-cultures are considerably less established despite the passing of over 70 years since the end of the war, and the 1.5 million Jews killed there between 1941-44.
In the post-communist nations of Eastern Europe, Soviet rule ensured that the Holocaust, Nazism, and its victims occupied a peripheral position among the nation’s memories. That is, until the late 80s-early 90s, when the confrontation of their pasts catalysed a proliferation of public memories and testimonies of the Holocaust. Such restorative commemoration processes were decidedly less radical in Ukraine, however, where the emergence of memoirs after its independence in 1991 were less pronounced and often entailed the erasure of Jewish voices.
Contrary to the sophisticated nature of Holocaust memory in neighbouring Poland, not only does the Holocaust barely feature in cultural production in Ukraine, but many of its residents are not familiar with the term ‘Holocaust’. Here, the Holocaust is often confused with the ‘Holodomor’ – the name given to the famine of 1932-33, during which 3.5 million ethnic Ukrainians starved to death under Stalin’s colossal grain requisitions. This tragedy signifies the country’s dominating narrative of national suffering.
While death and labour camps such as Auschwitz have gained considerable global attention since 1945, much less remembered modes of extermination were those perpetrated by mobilised killing squads in Ukraine called Einsatzgruppen. Aided by German and Ukrainian police, Einsatzgruppen carried out mass shootings of Jews at sites such as Babi Yar, a ravine where 100,000 Jews and other minorities were shot during the course of the war, before depositing their bodies into mass graves dug by the victims prior to their deaths. Knowledge of the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’, as these murders are known, is scarce, as is the location of hundreds of Ukraine’s unidentified mass graves.
The legislation of 1996 incorporating the Holocaust into the Ukrainian curriculum did not materialise until the year 2000, where its significance on Ukrainian territory was muted and its details distorted. What is more, the Ukrainian Institute for National Memory (established in 2006) committed itself to the disproval of Ukrainian nationalist complicity in war crimes, rather than commemorating the lives of its Jewish victims and condemning collaborators of the Holocaust.
Under the governance of president Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010), the same decade also witnessed the glorification of antisemitic military groups such as the OUN (Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists) and UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army). These groups played a significant role in the routine killing of Jews as well as Poles during WWII. It is hardly surprising, then, that the racial hostility and collaboration of ethnic Ukrainians who participated in the persecution and murder of Jews, and benefited economically from their destruction, has largely gone unrecognised.
The dissolving of the Holocaust into Ukraine’s general memory of the war has thus obscured the reality of its history. This ‘forgetting’ evokes what Edward T. Linenthal calls ‘comfortable horrible’ memory – that which allows us to obtain security from memories that are in some way uncomfortable or threatening.
As Melanie Klein wrote in her 1937 work Love Hate and Reparation: ‘on the whole we do not like the idea [of aggressive feelings] so unconsciously we minimise, and underestimate their importance’, keeping them always in ‘the outer edges of our field of vision’. In order to combat the insufficiency of Holocaust memory in Ukraine, it must strive toward a remembrance of the Holocaust that recognises its own role in the ‘aggression’ and brutality of Nazi genocide, and acknowledges the identities of its Jewish victims.
The UK also has a responsibility to cultivate a more transnational memory of the Holocaust for the prevention of future catastrophes – one that includes the nations of Eastern Europe where it remains difficult to do so. Applied to contemporary political aggression and aggressors, this refusal to ‘forget’ or to underestimate that which makes us uncomfortable is also critical to the ways in which we respond to the pressing crises of white supremacy and the rise of the alt right gaining traction in Britain, the USA and Poland.
Emily-Rose Baker is a first year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, researching the emergence of Eastern European Holocaust memory post 1989-91. Based in the School of English, she is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH), as part of ‘The Future of Holocaust Memory’ Network at Sheffield, Leeds and York.
This blog is part of a series of posts for National Holocaust Memorial Day – they will appear here as they are posted.
 Edward T. Linenthal in Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory: Remembering the Holocaust in an Age of Decolonisation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) p.9.
 Melanie Klein and John Rickman, Love, Hate and Reparation (London: W.W. Norton & Co., 1964) p.6.