10.07.2008 | Halya Coynash

The Edge of National Memory (Volyn 1943)


Human memory is at once elusive and intense, the source of pain and regrets, and of endless richness of experience. We feel the most compelling argument to be “but I remember!”, although any psychologist will tell you that the dividing line between what we remember and what “really” happened is at least as elusive.  In the world we share with others, and our “historical memory”, emotions and subjective assessments may abound, however the prose of life does add its restrictions.

Earlier this year Memorial published a call to dialogue, entitled: “On “National images of the past”

The central thesis is presented as follows: “Yet each national group remembers and perceives its own history in its specific fashion. National memory refashions and interprets this shared history in its own way. For this reason, each national group has its own twentieth century.”

I am prompted to write this as the sixty fifth anniversary approaches of the Volyn Massacre, although the thoughts apply just as much to conflict over Holodomor, the attitude to the Soviet period in the Baltic Republics, and to a lot more.

Two people can experience and therefore remember events quite differently, and how much more so two nations.  I would in no way minimize this.  It is vital to make every effort to understand the tragic complexity of the Soviet period and endeavour to understand one another.

Yet the way forward, towards trust and growth, will remain blocked while we refuse to confront a legacy of bitterness and hatred, and clutch hold onto a myth in which we alone are victims.

Is there a Polish “Volyn” and a Ukrainian?  The very suggestion is monstrous. There are different assessments on both sides, caused partly by years during which the subject was taboo, but doubtless also by psychological factors.  Poles become frustrated that many Ukrainians avoid Volyn in discussing UPA [the Ukrainian Resistance Army], and fail to acknowledge the scale of the tragedy. During those bloody days far more Poles were massacred than Ukrainians, and therefore more Ukrainians were party to this terrible crime. And yet Ukrainians with justification point out that Ukrainians were also killed by Poles. Ukrainians hear wild charges that all UPA fighters murdered Polish civilians and react with antagonism.  Or they try to avoid the subject entirely.

Most unfortunately the difficulty many people have in reading Polish or Ukrainian material on the subject has little to do with problems in understanding the language. There are, however, historians willing to thoroughly and honestly examine all material, not just that which suits previously formulated opinions.  

Openness and tolerance are vital, and yet there are and must be absolutes.  The murder of a child is a horrific crime regardless of political considerations, regardless of injustices endured. However much Poles may have oppressed Ukrainians, there can be no justification, historical, political or moral, for the murder of civilians. We can try to understand, should in fact, but condemn we must.

A few years ago a Russian national, Vitaly Kaloyev, killed the Swiss air controller who may have caused the collision of two planes in which Kaloyev’s wife and two children died. The consequences if all took the law into their own hands are too clear to need spelling out, and the welcome Kaloyev received in Putin’s Russia disturbing, yet at an emotional level we probably understand. There could be no question of compassion if he had killed the air controller’s children.

The son of the notorious war criminal Mengele was asked once in an interview why he had not denounced his father during the latter’s illicit visit to Germany. “He was my father”, the man responded.  Well, I could rage about who Mengele was and what he did. That answer will still stay in my mind.

  Yet it is grotesque to even conceive of Germans laying claim to their own memory of Nazism, their own twentieth century which we must try to respect and understand.  Some Germans may justify the Third Reich: they do so privately.

For Western Ukraine and the Baltic Republics which were occupied first by the USSR, then the Nazis, then by the Soviets again and for a long time, obviously words like “liberation” sound like mockery.  These circumstances preclude judgment of those who lived through terrible times.  They do not, however, doom us to justify choices made. 

There is no longer any doubt that some members of the UPA were directly implicated in the massacre of civilians in Volyn and Eastern Halychyna.  If some Ukrainians believe that the UPA is unfairly maligned or that it was an isolated group within the Army that took this road, then the evidence needs to be presented widely and can only help understand what happened. On condition, that is, that the evidence concerns complicity or non-involvement in a crime, not reasons why it was all “understandable”, or simply a barrage of emotions and lists of historical grievances.

The grievances are endless.  They will remain so unless we finally accept that some things have no justification. 

The Germans were forced to come to grips with their guilt 63 years ago.  Certainly they had more grounds for repentance. However most other countries in Europe have dark moments which need confronting.  .  Doubtless some French historians have scrupulously studied the true nature of the Vichy regime’s collaboration, yet the popular image presented of war-time France is of the fearless Resistance, with all else hidden from view.  In neighbouring Poland we should mention the publication of Gross’ book “Neighbours” in 2000 which demonstrated that Poles had been guilty of the massacre of Jews in the village of Jedwabne. The impact was devastating for a nation accustomed to seeing itself only as victim, not the perpetrators.  To their credit, the National Institute of Remembrance investigated the evidence and basically confirmed the charges. Even before that President Kwasniewski had officially apologized for the crime. 

A gesture, some might say.  Others will argue that we don’t bear responsibility for the actions of those who committed monstrous crimes. At one level this is true. We bear responsibility, however, for hiding from the truth, whether by concealing facts or blurring the issue with historical grievances. We are complicit when we assume that those demanding the truth about the murder of whole families, entire villages, are in any way “anti-Ukrainian” or “anti-Polish”.

Attempts to defend at any cost a specific view doom us to history which tells only part of the truth and to conflict with those who want another part of that same truth to be told.  Not two twentieth centuries. One – filled with tragedy and infinitely complex but one that we share.

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