In row over Holocaust history, Israel and Poland issue joint critique of Ukraine

In row over Holocaust history, Israel and Poland issue joint critique of Ukraine

Ambassadors of the two countries decry the glorification of wartime Ukrainian nationalists ‘who promoted… ethnic cleansing’ of Jews and Poles

Activists of various nationalist parties carry torches during a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Activists of various nationalist parties carry torches during a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine on January 1, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Israel and Poland, which have clashed repeatedly in recent years over differing interpretations of the history of the Second World War, came together on Thursday to issue a rare joint condemnation of Ukraine over its efforts to rehabilitate nationalists who collaborated with the Nazis.

The criticism came one day after Ukrainians marked the 111th birthday of Stepan Bandera, the wartime leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a violently anti-Semitic organization that collaborated with the Nazis. Among Holocaust historians, the consensus is that the OUN and its military offshoot, known as the UPA, were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews and up to 100,000 Poles during the war (estimates vary).

In a joint letter to civic leaders in Lviv and Kyiv, Israeli ambassador Joel Lion and his Polish counterpart, Bartosz Cichocki, expressed concern regarding efforts to honor Bandera and Andryi Melnyk, the head of a competing faction of the OUN.

In Kyiv on Wednesday, local officials raised a giant banner with Bandera’s picture over the city administration building, prompting anger from Jewish activists. That came just over a week after the Lviv Oblast Council approved funding for a 2020 celebration in honor of Melnyk.

“Remembering our innocent brothers and sisters murdered in the occupied territories of Poland 1935-1945, which now constitute a part of Ukraine, we the Ambassadors of Poland and Israel believe, that celebrating these individuals is an insult,” Lion and Cichocki wrote.

“Glorification of those who promoted actively the ethnic cleansing is counterproductive in the fight against Antisemitism and the reconciliation of our People,” they continued.

“These very days our governments are spending their utmost efforts to respond to the further attacks on Jews in different countries and prevent attempts to falsify history of the Second World War,” they added in an apparent reference to recent Russian claims that Poland precipitated the global conflict.

Thursday’s letter is the second time that Lion and Cichocki have come together to call for a change in Ukrainian memory policy. In June, the pair signed a joint letter to the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Ivano-Frankisvsk, protesting the unveiling of a monument honoring Roman Shukhevych, a collaborator with the Nazis who was implicated in the murder of countless Jews and ethnic Poles.

Following Ukraine’s 2014 revolution, the former Soviet republic’s parliament passed a series of bills known collectively as the Decommunization Laws, meant to sever the country’s ties to its Russian and Soviet past. One of the bills prohibited what it called the “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for independence of Ukraine in the twentieth century.”

In practical terms, these bills paved the way for the rehabilitation of Ukrainian ultranationalist figures who had collaborated with the Nazis.

Over the last several years, streets all over Ukraine have been named after far-right figures and steps have been taken to rehabilitate their images, casting them as fighters for democracy whose followers saved Jews from the Germans.

Asked about the letter, Ambassador Lion told The Times of Israel that Israel and Poland “have a common interest in combating Holocaust denial and rewriting of History.”

Israeli Ambassador to Ukraine Joel Lion. (Wikimedia Commons/Dovernewyork )

Israel has repeatedly clashed with Poland since it passed a bill that made it illegal to hold Poland responsible for Nazi crimes in 2018.

Critics of the law, including Israeli politicians and prominent Holocaust historians, warned that it would limit debate about the Holocaust and serve to obscure the actions of Poles who betrayed Jews to the Germans or killed them.

Last month, in what may signal the beginning of a change in Ukraine’s approach to its past, the government announced that it was appointing Anton Drobovych, an academic who had previously worked at the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, as the new head of the Institute for National Memory, the state body primarily responsible for implementing memory policy.

JTA contributed to this report.

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