A new year’s torchlight march through downtown Ukraine in honor of Holocaust era-Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera drew harsh criticism from the Simon Wiesenthal Center on Sunday, but failed to elicit condemnations by Ukrainian Jews.
Members of the ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party and the Right Sector movement marched down Khreshchatyk Street, one of Kiev’s main boulevard’s and the site of last year’s EuroMaidan revolution, to celebrate the one 106th birthday of Stepan Bandera, whose faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists helped murder thousands of Jews during the Second World War.
Five thousand people participated in the march, according to organizers, The Kyiv Post reported.
The “current government came to power using Bandera’s slogans, so it has to follow his ideas,” Svoboda leader Oleh Tyanhybok said before the march began, according to the Ukrainian newspaper.
“Holocaust perpetrators are the last people on Earth who deserve to be glorified, regardless of their nationalist credentials. This phenomenon, currently so common in post-Communist Eastern Europe, and especially in Ukraine and the Baltics, clearly shows that these countries don’t fully comprehend the obligations of true democracy,” SWC Jerusalem bureau director Dr. Efraim Zuroff said in a statement.
While Bandera and his faction initially fought on the side of the Germans, they later turned against Berlin and Bandera wound up in a concentration camp. He was killed by the KGB in Munich in 1959.
“The march has more to do with the systematic Holocaust distortion prevalent in post-Communist Eastern Europe, which has a very fundamental anti-Semitic component, than outright anti-Semitism,” Zuroff told the Post.
The march is a good example of three separate phenomena, he continued: “hiding or minimizing the role of local Nazi collaborators in Holocaust crimes; promoting the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes; and glorification of anti-Communist freedom fighters (the new heroes of these countries), who were local Nazi collaborators who participated in Shoa crimes.”
Right Sektor has made efforts to disassociate itself from anti-Semitism, with its leaders meeting with community representatives and protesting in favor of Israel during last summer’s Gaza war.
Svoboda, known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine until 2004, has been accused of being a neo-Nazi party by Ukrainian Jews and while party leaders have a history of making anti-Semitic remarks, their rhetoric has toned down considerably over the past years as they attempted to go mainstream.
Prior to the revolution the party had 36 seats out of 450, or roughly eight percent of the total representation in parliament, but the party failed to make the election threshold in October’s election.
While Svoboda has several lawmakers in the legislature who were elected in direct elections in their districts, the party’s representation is now minimal. Parliamentary seats are apportioned through both a proportional representation system and by direct election of candidates by region.
Ousted president Victor Yanukovich’s predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, engaged in an effort to rehabilitate figures such as Bandera, posthumously awarding him the title of “Hero of Ukraine” in 2010, riling the Jewish community.
“To glorify Bandera is to reject Stalin and to reject any pretension from Moscow to power over Ukraine,” one academic explained at the time.
Ukrainian Jews were more sanguine about the march than the Simon Wiesenthal Center, however.
The march had “nothing in common with anti-Semitism,” Eduard Dolinsky, the executive director of the Kievbased Ukrainian Jewish Committee, told the Post.
According to Dolinsky, the march was a celebration of “Ukrainian striving for independence and resistance to Russian aggression.”
Despite this, however, he added that “the dark part of Ukrainian Jewish history should be duly researched, documented and recognized despite attempts of some Ukrainian historians to draw a picture of friendship and cooperation between Ukrainian fighters and Jews under Nazi occupation.”
According to David Fishman, a professor of Jewish history at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary who has written a number of articles about Ukrainian Jewry, Ukrainian society is “fiercely divided” over Bandera.
“Some of the Ukrainians who glorify Bandera as a national hero are unaware of his anti-Semitism and yearlong support of the Nazis (before he turned against them). Others willfully choose to deny Bandera’s anti-Semitism and that of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists he led, so that their hero remain ‘pure,’” he explained.
“But there are those, in Svoboda and in society at large, who embrace Bandera’s fascist and anti-Semitic legacy. They are a troubling minority on the fringes of Ukrainian society that can, if not checked, grow and wreak havoc, much like white supremacists and neo-Nazis in America.”
“Are the Ukrainian authorities in Kiev doing enough to counter them?” Fishman asked. “They are not. The authorities seem to believe that the fascist and anti-Semitic fringe will die off on its own, if ignored. That is a major mistake.”
While Ukrainian leaders have condemned anti-Semitism, some charge that the government has turned a blind eye to the ascension of racist figures such as neo-Nazi Vadim Troyan, who was appointed to head the Kiev Oblast regional police on October 3, due to their role in combating separatists in the east of the country.
Ukrainian Jews have largely indicated that they are unworried by anti-Semitism and that the bigger danger lies in the destruction wrought by the current war.
While the organizers of the march are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, said Dnepropetrovsk Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, the majority of Ukrainians does not support such sentiments.
Noting Svoboda’s failure to pass the election threshold, the rabbi said that while Ukraine’s past should not be ignored, the problem is not anti-Semitism but the “difficult financial situation and lack of security and political stability which has resulted in a large number of Ukrainian Jews immigrating to Israel and, unfortunately, to Germany.”
Zuroff, however, sees things differently, saying many Jews living in Ukraine “believe that in order to secure their existence in today’s Ukraine, they have to turn a blind eye to the glorification of people like Bandera.”
In response, Kaminezki stated that Ukrainians see Bandera as a national hero rather than as an anti-Semitic figure, similar to how Scotts view William Wallace or the Italians see Garibaldi, and do not always associate him with anti-Semitism.
“My perception out of what I hear and see: In contemporary Ukraine Bandera has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, but more with national self-identity of Ukrainians,” said one Ukrainian Jew who asked not to be identified, explaining that support for Bandera for many has less to do with anti-Semitism than anti-Russian sentiments.
“In his time Bandera’s hatred of Jews was the extension of the hatred to the Soviets and part of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence,” she said, “but today Jewish figures such as oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky are seen as major components of Ukraine’s war effort.”