Ukrainian Holocaust and War Memory

Part 1: Introduction

Ukraine has been called an ethnic borderland, and is just that. A young country, Ukraine’s history during the Second World War is as fascinating as it is confusing and muddled. With approximately 1.4 million Ukrainians killed by the hands of the Nazis and their own Ukrainian neighbors, war memory in Ukraine is tainted, diverse, and very much alive in the country today. Because of the high death toll in Ukraine, as well as the high amounts of collaboration, the country is now littered with protected monuments that are held in high esteem to those wishing to honor those who were killed in Ukraine during Nazi occupation. Photographs of such atrocities make events of the past undeniable, and often times indict people for their collaboration with the Nazis. Other photographs make viewers unable to forget the image that they saw. Yet some locations of mass executions in Ukraine have very little documentation at all, and certainly do not have photographic evidence available (at least to the public). The viewing of a photo can raise an emotional response within the viewer, perhaps even more so than verbal or written testimony. Therefore, this paper aims to address the impact of photography on Ukrainian memory of the holocaust in Ukraine, as well as to address how the lack of photographic evidence of an event or a group can impact memory. The controversial memory of war heroes, collaborators, and victims, is difficult to navigate. One question posed by Elizabeth Jelin is “who has what rights to determine what should be remembered and how?”[i] These are questions that will be addressed in this paper. The memory of locations and of people is determined by those alive today, and is constantly in flux. Photographic evidence lends itself to the answering of these questions by preventing an erasure of Ukrainian history during the war, but what happens when there is a complete lack of evidence? Or the evidence can be viewed in multiple ways (as will be addressed below in the case of Stepan Bandera). Ukrainian history has been erased in the past, but the ability to view photographs as evidentiary support for past events may prevent such an erasure from taking occurring again.

Part 2: History of Ukraine: Division and Invasion

One of the most notable features of the Ukraine is a distinction between the East and the West. The Eastern portion, has been under Russian and/or Soviet rule since the 1600’s, while the Western portion was under the control of Poland-Lithuania, Austria, and later under Poland, and Romania until its integration into the Soviet Union in 1944.[ii] This dichotomy is necessary to note, as the difference between the two regions bring difference in culture, politics, and language all impact national identity. Also important to note of Ukrainian history is that with the exception of the brief time from 1918-1921, Ukraine was never an independent state in modern times, this independence was not achieved until 1991.[iii] This distinction may play a significant role in war memory because of the impact of collaboration by Ukrainians (especially in auxiliary police units) who actively participated in the massacre of Ukrainian Jewry and other undesirable citizens. The time during which Ukraine was independent was ended by the Soviet Union in 1921. This period of Stalinization brought with it Stalin’s goal of crushing Ukrainian nationalism, as well as the destruction of any voice that the peasantry of Ukraine had, especially with the Famine of 1932-33, accompanied by the ongoing cleansing of Ukrainian intelligentsia which began in 1930.[iv] In order to make way for Communism, nationalist ideology needed to be subdued because the two ideologies could not coexist in a productive state. Accompanying this goal was the Stalinist goal of full-scale socialization of the countryside. The result was that any peasant deemed an anti-Soviet activist would be shot, imprisoned or exiled.[v] Those peasants deemed rich exploiters were to lose all of their property and be exiled, while those deemed politically harmless had to accept inferior land while being forbidden to join collective farms.[vi] Along with harsh conditions for the peasantry, the years of terror under Stalin also reached a political realm, where those posing a threat to Stalin’s agenda because of their real or perceived goals of national Ukrainization were subject to execution. This broad category was not aimed at the peasantry, but rather affected party state officials, those who had non-Bolshevik political affiliations (past or present), intellectuals, those in industrial management or engineering, clergy, and national minorities, with 122,237 “enemies of the people” executed between the years of 1937-1938.[vii]

“I will never forget the day that Nazi troops chose, for some reason to ride through the village of Kortiless. The Ukrainian people cheered them…”[viii] The Nazi invasion of Soviet Ukraine began on June 22, 1941. By mid-September of the same year, Red Army forces were surrounded, and by the end of September, the Nazis had taken control of Ukraine.The knowledge of oppression under the Soviets is necessary to understand the state of Ukraine upon the Nazi invasion, and to why Ukrainians were likely to welcome the Nazi’s, particularly in the West, an area that was not as “russified”. Many saw the war as an opportunity to gain independence from Russia. This historical knowledge impacts war memory in Ukraine into the modern day, and may impact the erection of monuments to protect the nationalist sentiment that aided in the massacre of Ukrainians during the war. Upon the outbreak of war, Ukrainians were unaware of the racial hierarchy of Nazi ideology, by which the majority of Ukrainians were deemed unfit, but ranked slightly above those facing immediate destruction (Jews, Gypsies, and other “Asiatics”) meaning that only few were seen to posses the racial qualities that would allow them to be “Germanized”.[ix] This may also have contributed to willingness to collaborate with the Nazi invaders, and to a guilt that may tarnish the war memory of Ukrainians, especially in the heavily nationalist Western Ukraine. Ukrainian participation in the massacre of Jews and other Ukrainians makes the memory of victims and of their massacre difficult in Ukraine because the memory indicts the perpetrators, who were often collaborators.

Part 3: Stepan Bandera

The “Hero of Ukraine” is a Ukrainian national honor established in 1998 to honor those deemed to have taken part in either acts of heroism, or achievement in labor. Lately, one historical figure has tarnished the honor, causing Ukrainian protest, public petition, and court rulings to overturn the awarding of this honor to a controversial “hero.” Stepan Bandera, former Ukrainian Nationalist and accused Nazi collaborator during the Second World War, was awarded the title in 2004 by Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko. However the scandalous award is not only causing issue in Ukraine, but around the world. The European Parliament has called on Ukraine’s new president, Victor Yanukovich, to strip Bandera of the title, saying that the European Parliament “deeply deplores” the decision because of Bandera’s leadership of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) who collaborated with Nazis during the war.[x] The issue of whether or not to strip Bandera of the “hero” title divided the country in January 2010. During this time a court ruling declared that Bandera was not fit to carry the title and the title was stripped January 1st was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Bandera, and one reporter in Ukraine noted that: “Suddenly, just as Lenin’s statues had peppered the Soviet Union, statues of Bandera started appearing all over west Ukraine. If Yanukovych dishonours the memory of Bandera, there is likely to be a new epidemic of statues in the west, while those in the centre and east could be vandalized.[xi] One such monument is pictured below, and is located in the Western Ukrainian town of Ivanovo-Frankivsk, others like it can be seen in L’viv, and Ternopil, as well as other Western Ukrainian towns.


More recently, as of October 2011, Russia has denounced the Ukrainian honor again, as the renaming of a street from “Peace Street” to the “Nachtigall Battalion Warriors Street” has caused a similar situation to the awarding of the national hero title to Bandera. The Nachtigall Battalion Warriors Street was made to “honor members of the auxiliary formation that fought alongside the Nazis in World War II.”[xiii] The Nachtigall battalion was established by the German military, and was staffed with members of the OUN.[xiv] After learning of the name change, Aleksander Lukashevich spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Minister said, “The actions of the Ukrainian authorities cause surprise and outrage. Do not they see the sacrilege in such actions? We still count upon the local and central authorities in Ukraine to hold a thorough investigation and return the street its noble peaceful name.”[xv] The history of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and their militant branch the Ukrainian Insurgent Army is one that continues to divide Ukraine because of their work alongside the Nazi occupiers during World War II. Photographs taken during the war in Ukraine can be helpful for historical purposes, but also can be damning for those photographed. Pictured below is a photograph taken of the Nachtigall Battalion Ukraine, who actively collaborated under Stepan Bandera with the Nazis prior to Operation Barbarossa. Photographs of Ukrainian nationalists actively participating alongside the Nazis’ are undeniable, and the link from Stepan Bandera to the Nazis is undeniable as well, therefore, these historical images are able to bring to light a history that verbal testimony (which can easily falter or be rebutted) cannot do. They place the people in scenes that they cannot deny being in. However, many deny that the work of men like Stepan Bandera should be considered collaborationist, because as Ukrainians, they were also victims to the war, and to the previous communist regime. Therefore, conflicting memory results in a torn Ukraine. Can the perpetrators (in this case, nationalists) also be the victims?


Part 4: L’viv

Also in the midst of controversy over war memory is the city of L’viv. The Golden Rose Synagogue complex was rumored to be demolished in the spring of 2012, where a new hotel would take the historical synagogues place. In 1941, much of the complex was burnt down, with Jews inside by Nazis, being one of 43 synagogues to be destroyed by the Nazis in L’viv.[xvii] The history of L’viv in Western Ukraine, and with the invasion of the Nazi’s saw the erasure of a centuries old Jewish community. There were approximately 110,000 Jews living in L’viv prior to the outbreak of WWII, only 3,500 are known with certainty to have survived and returned to the city after the war.[xviii] A similar situation in L’viv centers around what is now the Citadel Inn Hotel, a building originally constructed in 1850, but remodeled in 2009. Owned by Volodymyr Gubitsky, the deputy regional governor responsible for the preservation of culture and heritage; the hotel was the site of mass torture and executions of tens of thousands of people during the Nazi occupation of L’viv (pictured below).[xix]


Like many other locations of mass murder in Ukraine, however, L’viv does boast monuments in remembrance of those killed. There are many small placards throughout the city that commemorate sites where synagogues were destroyed, and  two large monuments which were erected to commemorate the lives lost in the ghetto that was erected in L’viv by the Nazis from 1942-1943, where approximately 200,000 individuals were tortured and murdered[xxi]. The juxtaposition of the sites today contrasted to the photographs taken during the war is stark in contrast. The picture on the left is a picture of female inmates of the L’viv ghetto in the Spring of 1942, the right, is the monument to honor the ghetto which stands today:

[xxii] [xxiii]

The murder of the peoples of L’viv is undeniable and is documented through photography. There are numerous photos on any search engine that allow a viewer to see bodies strewn across streets or stacked into piles, victims in the ghettos witnessing hangings and mass execution, people being dragged through the streets by soldiers…the list of atrocities in photographs continues. This makes the history undeniable. The proof is in black and white, staring the viewer in the face. The city of L’viv, which had a long standing a rich Jewish culture was practically erased of its Jewry during the war. However, the city also boasts nationalist sentiments to this day. Within the city, there are countless sites commemorating nationalist “heroes” such as Stepan Bandera, as well as sites commemorating those killed by both Nazis and collaborators.

Part 5: Sudilkov

The Western Ukrainian town of Sudilkov is an area where approximately 7,500 Jews were executed, with approximately 471 killed at this site pictured below. Many other Jews killed were marched from Sudilkov to nearby Shepetovka for execution. In Christopher Browings book Ordinary Men gives more information about the murders in Shelptovka, stating:

“Postwar judicial interrogations in the Federal Republic of Germany, stemming from scant documentation, uncovered further information about the murderous swath Police Battalions 45 and 315 cut across the Soviet Union in the fall of 1941. Police Battalion 45 had reached the Ukrainian town of Shepetovka on July 24, when its commander Major Martin Besser, was summoned by the head of Police Regiment South, Colonel Franz. Franz told Besser that by order of Himmler the Jews in Russia were to be destroyed and his Police Battalion 45 was to take part in this task. Within days the battalion had massacred the several hundred remaining Jews in Shepetovka, including women and children.”[xxiv]

It lacks a large monument or heavy tourist and foot traffic. There is also very little documentation of the executions at Sudilkov, other than those that came out during the war crimes trials against Engelbert Kreuzer in April 1969:

“The German Reserve Police Battalion 45 stationed in nearby Slavuta perpetrated one of the first massacres of Sudilkov Jews. On August 21, 1941, the Battalion Commander Martin Besser, ordered Company Commander Engelbert Kreuzer to round up the Jewish population of Sudilkov.  Kreuzer and his men rounded up 471 men, women and children. The victims were transported to a large bomb crater about 20 kilometers outside Sudilkov.”[xxv]


The overgrown and rarely accessed small covered ravine in Sudlikov desolate and underwhelming. But the lack of photography of the events that took place here, have seemingly impacted the memory of the events. One man’s’ account of visiting the property stated that:

“An elderly Ukrainian woman, who had witnessed the killings, showed us to the memorial. We entered through the gate and went around the corner to the backyard…We entered into a small courtyard where we could see a small memorial with a Yiddish plaque.  The memorial and courtyard appeared as though no one had visited in over a decade. Then, she explained what had happened in this place. Germans and Ukrainians took the Jews of Sudilkov—all of whom were too old or unable to walk to the ghetto in nearby Shepetovka—to this courtyard.  There they dug a pit into the earth and buried Sudilkov’s Jews alive.  The Ukrainian woman told us that when the pit was covered, the earth continued to move for days because beneath the ground people still struggled for life. Jews who knew of the atrocity erected this tiny memorial after the war”[xxvii]

This area is not recognized or protected as a monument or landmark, but is maintained by private property owners. Sudilkov is interesting because while there is a monument erected in Shepetovka, there is nothing recognized to commemorate those nearly 500 people who were unable to walk to Shepetovka, and were therefore shot or buried alive. The story of Sudlikov stands out because there are undoubtedly so many places like it that have been forgotten, or are left without recognition.

PART 6: Conclusion

War memory in Ukraine has often been determined by the government, however, within the past couple decades, there has been an outcry from the peoples of Ukraine and many Jewish organizations (as well as the international community) to view the history from the perspective of those who were killed, the victims. The memory of the holocaust in Ukraine will continue to change and evolve over time, as distance from the past changes how it is remembered, as new research uncovers more facts, and as history is manipulated by those who benefit from such exploitation. The histories of massacre in Ukraine are well documented, and are especially revered in the Eastern half of the country, where the nationalist movement was not as widespread during the war than in the west, which identified more with western ideologies than the eastern and Russian ideologies of the Eastern Ukraine. Western Ukraine, however, did experience remarkable atrocities, which are remembered through various landmarks and monuments throughout the small region. The largest massacres and those which now have erected monuments are well known and have piles of photographs of the atrocities that took place at the site(s). This may lend to the impact of the event, the ability to visibly witness the massacres, this therefore leads to more recognition of the events, and a more public and recognized need for monuments and memorials. But what of places like Sudilkov?  Places where mass graves and those who lay in them seem forgotten? Unable to locate any photographs of the events at Sudilkov, one must wonder if the lack of imagery from the event lessens the impact of the memory. Many in Ukraine do fight for the memory of those killed, however, Meylakh Sheykhet, one of Lviv’s last Jews, who stated: ““It is hard to imagine these sites being treated less respectfully,” he says. “Over the tombstones of some of history’s greatest rabbis, there are now movie theatres, discos and car parks.”[xxviii] War memory in Ukraine has often been determined by the government, however, within the past couple decades, there has been an outcry from the peoples of Ukraine and many Jewish organizations (as well as the international community) to view the history from the perspective of those who were killed, the victims. The memory of the holocaust in Ukraine will continue to change and evolve over time, as distance from the past changes how it is remembered, as new research uncovers more facts, and as history is manipulated by those who benefit from such exploitation.

[i] Jones, Adam. “Memory, Foregetting, and Denial.” In Genocide: a comprehensive introduction. 2nd edition ed. London: Routledge, 2006. 502.

[ii] Paul Kubicek, The History of Ukraine (Connecticut: Greenwood Press 2008), 7-8.

[iv] Yekelchyk, Ukraine, 104.

[viii] Laizer Blitt, No strength to forget: survival in the Ukraine, 1941-1944 (London: Vallentine Mitchell), 33.

[ix] Wendy Lower, Nazi Empire-Building and the Holocaust in Ukraine (North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press), 27.

[xiv] Serhy Yekelchyk, Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 141.

[xxi] Bartov, Omer. “Travels in the Borderland.” In Erased: vanishing traces of Jewish Galicia in present-day Ukraine. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007. 29.

[xxiv] Browning, Christopher R. Ordinary men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the final solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.