As foreign delegations and Jewish community members filed into the opera house here last week to commemorate the victims of Babi Yar, they were greeted by an unlikely group of uninvited guests.
Holding black flags decorated with five-pointed stars, some two dozen demonstrators silently protested the event.
They were anarchists, their fliers explained, and they objected to the government holding official ceremonies condemning Nazi crimes while failing to acknowledge the role of Ukrainians in murdering Jews. "Why are Ukrainian nationalists crying crocodile tears for Holocaust victims?" their flier asked.
Local Jewish groups without an ax to grind against the Ukrainian authorities were mostly kinder in their assessment, praising the government for holding the Babi Yar commemorations. But they lamented a Ukraine which hasn't adequately reckoned with its past, neglecting its own role in massacres such as that in the Kiev woods.
"This is a step forward," said Efraim Zuroff, director of Israel's Simon Wiesenthal Center. "[But] the criticism is justified, especially if it's coming from a local group. It's nice to make international spectacles of commemoration, but it's important what's behind them."
He said Ukraine got a failing grade on his organization's annual report card on prosecuting Nazi-era crimes and has been "absolutely terrible" in taking any concrete actions in light of its history.
"There was a very strong element of local collaboration with the Nazis and the mass murder of Jews. This was one of the dominant elements of Ukraine during the Shoah," he said. "They are way behind practically all the other Eastern European, post-Soviet countries" when it comes to dealing with their Holocaust crimes.
At Babi Yar, special Ukrainian security forces reinforced the rings of Nazi soldiers who surrounded the ravine to make sure that no Jew escaped the massacre, begun on the eve of Yom Kippur 65 years ago, while other local citizens told the Jews to head to the site and informed on those who didn't. Over two days, more than 30,000 Jews were killed, and during the next two years at least 100,000 people were murdered at this spot, including Soviet POWs, Roma and handicapped individuals.
In contrast to previous times, when government officials minimized or even suppressed the Jewish component of what happened at Babi Yar, the suffering of Jews was highlighted in the 65th anniversary commemorations. The main events were sponsored by the World Holocaust Forum, led by Russian Jewish Congress head Moshe Kantor and Yad Vashem, but hosted by Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko.
He condemned the tragedy and spoke strongly against xenophobia and anti-Semitism, which are rising in Ukraine. But at no point did he or other participants discuss the role of the Ukrainians in what happened.
The anarchists particularly criticized the government for whitewashing the past of nationalist leaders, whose anti-Semitic tendencies led to the deaths of thousands of Jews.
Chief among them was folk hero Bogdan Chmielnicki, who in the 1600s led the Ukrainian serfs in rebellion against their Polish oppressors and along the way butchered tens of thousands of Jews. A World Jewish Congress official described him as the worst figure for his treatment of Jews since Haman. Chemielnicki's statue presides over downtown Kiev and has become a symbol for the city.
Yad Vashem officials said Ukraine has not done enough to come to terms with its past - though the Babi Yar commemorations showed progress - but stressed that dealing with the present realities are most important.
"The key thing is to act against anti-Semitism today," said Estee Ya'ari, a Yad Vashem spokeswoman.
Those tracking anti-Semitism in the country finger one of Kiev's private universities for the promulgation of anti-Jewish sentiment.
The 50,000-student Interregional Academy of Personnel Management (MAUP) produces more than 70 percent of the city's anti-Semitic literature, according to the head of the Ukrainian Jewish community. An American Jewish Committee study from the summer reported references to Jewish efforts at world domination, delegitimizing of Judaism as a faith and calls for the "liquidation" of Israel.
Jewish officials noted that in private, Yushchenko has also stressed his opposition to MAUP's activities and his desire to stop them. But they also describe Yushchenko as politically weak and limited from acting on a whole host of issues, including the relatively low-profile issue of anti-Semitism.
Yet Kantor said there is at least one step Yushchenko can make in the short term. The site of Babi Yar has two memorials, one a modest menora in memory of the Jewish victims and one an older, towering Soviet statue. But in much of the wood, the atmosphere is of a normal park, one where couples picnic and children play soccer oblivious to the bones piled beneath them.
If Ukraine is really serious about progress on Jewish issues, he suggested, the government could start with turning the whole area into a respectful remembrance site, ideally with an official memorial building.
"We have to know this [history] and have to declare it," Kantor said ahead of the commemorative activities. Commemoration "is like a moral commitment on the level of the government."
Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>