OPINION - Paul Peter Jesep: John Demjanjuk in a broader context - World Jewish Congress

OPINION - Paul Peter Jesep: John Demjanjuk in a broader context

Ukraine has been an ethnic, social, religious, and political crossroads. Its rich heritage has yet to be fully and successfully integrated in a post Imperial and Soviet age. This is especially true when it comes to Jewish-Ukrainian relations that too often harbor fear, distrust, and misunderstanding frequently encouraged by Russia’s foreign policy objectives to marginalize Ukrainian culture, language, and sovereignty.   Strained Jewish-Ukrainian relations again become apparent in the case of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian immigrant who settled in Ohio after World War II. He has been the focus of war crime allegations for more than thirty years. The case is indicative of a larger friction between Ukrainian Jews and gentiles. It may, however, provide an opportunity for healing, understanding, communication, and long overdue reconciliation.

In 1981, the US Justice Department revoked his citizenship alleging that Demjanjuk was a sadistic guard at Treblinka. Demjanjuk supporters have insisted that the Justice Department withheld exonerating evidence in 1981. A recently disclosed FBI memo on whether the Soviets forged documents to implicate Demjanjuk has further complicated a finding of his guilt or innocence. Although such tactics have been used to delegitimize Ukrainian claims for national sovereignty, whether it occurred in Demjanjuk’s situation never will be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

As a point of reference, it has been verified and reluctantly acknowledged by Russian authorities that the Soviets did falsify documents to blame the Nazis for the Katyn forest massacre in Russia. Joseph Stalin ordered the murder of thousands of Polish officers who were captured when Russia invaded Poland from the east while Nazi Germany did so in the west.  Stalin and Hitler had agreed to divide up Poland in a non-aggression pact before September 1939. After spending over ten years in Israel the country’s Supreme Court concluded that the wrong man had been convicted of war crimes at Treblinka by a lower court. Demjanjuk’s conviction was overturned.   Israel chose not to bring new charges and he was released.  In 1993, the United States restored his citizenship.

Six years later, the Justice Department again pursued Demjanjuk.  In 2004, the United States stripped his citizenship a second time.  In 2009, after a series of appeals proved unsuccessful the 90 year-old was sent to Germany to stand trial as a guard at Sobibor.  In May 2011, he was convicted of crimes against humanity.  He has been released pending an appeal. A Spanish court also has accused Demjanjuk of killing Spanish citizens, opponents of Franco’s fascist regime, at the Flossenbuerg concentration camp. 
Demjanjuk has maintained his innocence.  His story has not changed since 1981.  But whether justice has been served or if this is a miscarriage of it may at this point only be known to God. 

There is, however, a much bigger issue involved here.  The case draws attention to historical questions about anti-Semitism in Ukraine and especially the country’s complicity in Nazi genocide. Collectively, the Ukrainian community, especially in the Diaspora, has felt accused of possessing a national character that is anti-Semitic. 

Today, Ukrainian nationalism raises angst among many Jews since some factions contain strains of strident anti-Semitism.  Yet extremists are not patriots or nationalists.  They are chauvinists who do not respect the religion or culture of others.  Russia has gleefully and cynically encouraged Jewish apprehension charging that all Ukrainian nationalists and Ukrainian nationalism in general are byproducts of Nazism, Nazi collaboration, and historic anti-Semitism.  Hence, it should be marginalized at every opportunity.  There is credible historical evidence that Russian domestic policy strategies have included inciting ethnic and religious tensions within the empire to weaken nationalist aspirations. A careful evaluation should always be made to distinguish Ukrainian nationalists from chauvinists. 

President Viktor Yushchenko, whose father survived a Nazi death camp as a prisoner, was an unrepentant Ukrainian nationalist who always reached out to the Jewish community.  During his first run for president he and the Orange Revolution received widespread support from the Jewish community.  Once elected no other president in Ukraine’s history, whether it was participating in Chanukah celebrations or issuing proclamations to honor Ukrainians who happened to be of the Jewish faith, did more in this area since the country’s independence.

Unfortunately, Yushchenko, a survivor of a Russian assassination attempt made during the campaign that left him disfigured, was relentless in his zeal to posthumously make several anti-Communist Ukrainians national heroes.  These men have a dubious distinction for Nazi collaboration and lingering allegations of anti-Semitic acts.  This has overshadowed most of Yushchenko’s efforts in and on behalf of the Jewish community.

Divisive attitudes and negative stereotypes still hamper what should be the natural fruition and blossoming of Jewish-Ukrainian relations.  Jews were in Eastern Europe by the second century.  In the tenth century, Grand Prince Volodymyr of Rus-Kyiv (Kiev is the Russian transliteration) considered a proposal from Khazarian Jews to convert to Judaism.  In 1238, Ukrainian Grand Prince Danylo welcomed Jews to help rebuild his principality of Galicia-Volhynia.

Polish conquest later set the stage for one of the dark periods of Jewish-Ukrainian relations.  Polish nobleman employed Jews to collect heavy taxes, regulate access to Orthodox churches, and implement brutal conditions toward the Ukrainian serfs forced to farm the land.  These policies were set by Poles not Jews.  In 1648, it gave rise to Bohdan Khmel’nyts’kyi of the Zaporozhian Kozaks.  The vast majority of Jews did not oversee Polish estates.  Yet the Jewish people became scapegoats for the injustices of the nobility and the Polish Catholic Church committed to making Orthodox Christians submit to Rome’s authority.

Revolutionary fervor took hold in eighteenth century tsarist Russia.  In an effort to manage the growing unrest the tsar’s secret police increasingly sought to condition the population to blame Jews for social and economic problems. Imperial law greatly restricted Jews from settling or re-locating into Russia proper forcing most to settle or remain in the empire’s colonies. In a primitive economy the tactic deflected attention from the autocracy’s incompetence enabled by a secular, corrupt Orthodox Church hierarchy. Some historians have noted that ethnic Russians were encouraged to re-settle and help colonize Ukraine, not unlike Protestants brought in to populate Northern Ireland.  These new, unsophisticated residents had been conditioned to believe that the Jewish people killed Jesus.        
One tool used by the Russian secret police included the printing and distribution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, believed written in the period of 1897-1903.  Initially, its twisted logic was used to dissuade Nicholas II from modernizing his nation due to the opportunity it would give Jews to influence and potentially control Russia.  Later, tsarists fleeing the Revolution would use it to assert that the Bolsheviks were primarily Jews. 

In 1917, Ukraine declared its independence.  The Ukrainian Central Rada extended to Jews national-personal autonomy.  Included in the republic’s framework was the Ministry of Jewish Affairs and the Jewish National Council.  Yiddish was recognized as an official language manifested, in part, with it being printed on Ukrainian currency.  Elected to the Rada were several parties with the specific platform to protect and advance Ukrainian Jewry.  Ukrainian Jews held 30 seats in the parliament.  It was a time when Jews were called the “People of the Book” and rabbis were “knyzhnyky” scholastics or wise men worthy of respect.

Yet despite what appeared to be a pro-Jewish climate among Ukraine’s political and cultural elite, Chief of State Simon Petliura is often vilified for either encouraging anti-Semitism or doing nothing as a resurgence of pogroms occurred with increasing frequency (Szajkowski).  In August 1919, Petliura issued an order noting that “chivalrous troops who bring equality and liberty to all the nationalities of Ukraine must not listen to those invaders and provocators who hunger for human blood.  Yet at the same time they cannot remain indifferent in the face of the tragic fate of the Jews.  He who becomes an accomplice to such crimes is a traitor and an enemy of our country and must be placed beyond the pale of human society…” 

Jews served in the republic’s army, which included a “Jewish Batallion” helping to fight Polish efforts to annex Galicia.  As the Ukrainian government collapsed due to attacks by Poland, the Red Army, and tsarist troops, pogroms against Jews increased. Jews found disfavor among Poles, Communists, and tsarists for supporting Ukraine’s national aspirations.  In addition, Communists fueled anti-Semitism among Ukrainians by spreading propaganda that Jews will surreptitiously supporting the Poles.  The White Army spread rumors that Communists were primarily Jews.

Communist propaganda proved the most effective political deception.  Although only a fraction of Communists happened to be Jews, the entire Jewish people seemed to be blamed for helping to orchestrate the Holomodor – Stalin’s genocide in Ukraine in 1933.  Over seven million Ukrainians, Jew and gentile, lost their lives to the artificial famine. Cannibalism was widespread.  Although rarely, if ever acknowledged, Jews suffered and died with Christians during this period for the same reasons – Stalin’s planned starvation of Ukraine in an attempt to break its national resolve for independence. Approximately four years later Stalin finished off the Ukrainian intelligentsia, which would have included Jews, by deporting them to Siberia. 

During the early months of World War II some Ukrainians fell under the spell of the Nazi propaganda machine that Jews were to blame for the oppression of Soviet Russia who had gone from tsarists to Communists.  Others ignorant of Nazism and racial superiority greeted the Germans as liberators naively believing that an autonomous state within the Thousand Year Reich would exist.

In the end, the Ukrainian auxiliary police as did those who initially fought with the Nazis and later against them and the Soviets committed crimes against humanity.  Ukraine Christian News wrote in May 2006, “Carrying out the massacre was the Einsatzgruppe C, supported by members of a Waffen-SS battalion and units of the Ukrainian auxiliary policy … The participation of Ukrainian collaborators in these events, now documented and proven, is a matter of painful public debate in Ukraine.”  The debate about Ukrainian participation in the crimes against humanity remains very active among Ukrainians in the Diaspora.

The 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS, volunteers from Galicia, also made up of members deluded into believing Ukraine would gain its independence under Nazi patronage, were used to put down a popular uprising in Slovakia.  Ironically and independent of crimes against the Jewish people, these Ukrainians fighting for liberty did so at the expense of others.  Those persecuted under tsarist Russia and Soviet Communism became persecutors in their own right.  At the same time, however, there were many Ukrainian forces fighting both the Nazis and Soviets.  They all too often get incorrectly labeled as Nazi collaborators by Russian propagandists.   
In 2007, Yad Vashem identified 2185 righteous Ukrainians for risking their lives to protect Jews.  This information wasn’t available until after the breakup of the Soviet Union having been hidden by Communist authorities.  Other information now available includes documentation that the Soviet secret police created and falsified documents implicating otherwise innocent nationalists in crimes against humanity in an attempt to discredit the intellectual and philosophical foundations for Ukrainian sovereignty.  It remains one reason why the Demjanjuk case remains a sensitive issue among Diaspora Ukrainians.

Riots broke out in Western Ukraine during Victory Day events in May 2011. The Russian government, intent on marginalizing Ukrainian sovereignty, and the Moscow Patriarchate, committed to remaining the dominate church in Ukraine, were quick to condemn the demonstrations as pro-Nazi. Condemning violence and the failure to respect free speech even if it is honoring the Soviet Army is understandable. But the protests against Victory Day had little if anything to do with Nazi glorification. The Red Army destroyed the Ukrainian republic of 1918, a nation that Jews helped to support, and later participated in the mass starvation of peasants. In addition, the Red Army is the same force that collaborated with Nazi Germany to invade Poland which would lead to the Katyn massacre. To many Ukrainians the Nazi oppressor was replaced with a Communist one. This explains the Victory Day protests, though it does not justify violence or the disrespect for someone else’s free speech.

The discussion above is hardly an exhaustive examination of Jewish-Ukrainian history or relations. It contains many complexities independent of the numerous areas of history not even referenced here.

Regardless of the outcome of the latest Demjanjuk trial there are historical truths, some uncomfortable, that Ukrainians and Jews must acknowledge, come to terms with, and hopefully find closure with during a constructive dialogue with one another. It must also be remembered that there is no nation on earth that has a monopoly on fairness or wickedness.

Ukraine, a crossroads for many peoples, would do well to embrace its Jewishness as it does its Christian heritage. It should celebrate its rich religious and cultural diversity. In doing so, a freer, more democratic Ukraine can be built, sustained, and nurtured. It would be a counter-balance to Russia’s increasing authoritarianism while becoming a stable and reliable democratic ally of Israel.

Bishop Paul Peter Jesep is the USA spokesperson for the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UAOC). He is also a New York attorney. He may be reached at VladykaPaulPeter@aol.com. The views expressed in his article are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the UAOC or the World Jewish Congress.