Thursday, October 1, 2009

Holocaust Preservation in the Ukraine

There's been a recent flurry of interest in the Ukraine as the Kiev city council toyed with building hotels for its 2012 European Football championships on the site of the Babi Yar massacre. The massacre, carried out from September 29 to Oct. 1, 1941 by the Nazis, killed 33,000 Jewish men, women, and children. Due to pressure from local and international Jewish and human rights groups, the city council ultimately decided against building the hotels.

Not surprisingly, all of the media coverage I've seen has been from the Western/Israeli Jewish perspective. Any space given to the Ukrainians has been quotes from Jewish leaders hypothesizing why the Kiev city council acted as they did. For instance, the Jerusalem Post offers this from Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, "perhaps it is not surprising that such a decision was made in a country in which there was extensive participation of locals in the mass murder of the Jews...Since their independence, [Ukraine] has not investigated a single case of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone brought any such murderers to justice."

It is all well and good to write articles vilifying those who wish to destroy Holocaust memorial sites, but what new do we gain from those pieces? Not much. Dr. Zuroff attributes Kiev’s lack of respect for Holocaust victims to anti-Semitism. But that kind of rhetoric neglects to take into account the cultural and societal narratives that evolved in the Soviet Bloc around World War II and the Holocaust that sharply diverge from those in the West and in Israel. More helpful would be some insight into the thinking behind the hotel proposal or questioning if the city council understood the full significance of the site. Anti-Jewish sentiment or Holocaust denial may have played a part, but in the often corrupt Ukrainian government, I’m sure that there were other baser motives as well—like greed.

To build a hotel on the Babi Yar site would be grossly inappropriate. And even if we do gain a deeper understanding of the Ukrainian position, this does not make the council’s initial decision less offensive. However, there is nothing to be lost by trying to insert more nuance into the discussion, even if the conclusions remain the same.

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