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Consciously or unconsciously, I have largely avoided the controversy concerning Ukrainian–particularly Ukrainian nationalist–participation in the Holocaust.  Two primary reasons for this are that there is still considerable debate about the issue even among historians, which makes me reluctant to speak definitively, and because much of the debate among non-historians, which is where I would fit in, is inane.  There is scant effort among non-academics (and sadly even among some academics) to determine the truth.  Rather, the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist resistance is often branded, as it was by Soviet propaganda, a fascist, Nazi-collaborating band of barbarians.  There is no attempt to see the movement in its historical context, and any misdeed by a Ukrainian during the war is held as evidence of every Ukrainian’s attitude.  (To be fair, there are some defenders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army who deny any member of either group ever committed an atrocity, a statement that, if true, would make OUN-UPA the only armed group in history of which such a thing could be said.)

In short, I have been afraid to wade into the controversy, because it is fraught with bitterness and pain on both sides.  I have spent almost seven years now writing about Ukraine; I have my biases.  But I am not Ukrainian, nor am I Jewish.  I have been loathe to offend either group by proffering absolute pronouncements on their history.

I wrote about the issue recently, though, not here but in comments on two other blogs.  Even as I was commenting, I feared I was making a mistake.  The issue is delicate to begin with, and comments sections on the Internet tend to be where critical thinking and civility go to die.  To my surprise, the exchange that followed, while passionate, even heated at times, became a respectful, thoughtful conversation.

The conversation began when I read this post on Clarissa’s Blog.  I encourage you to read it in its entirety, but to sum up, the author was objecting to a piece on The Blog of Garnel Ironheart about the unhappiness among some Ukrainian-Canadians that the Holocaust is receiving greater attention than the Holodomor (Stalin’s genocidal famine of Ukrainians) in the new Canadian Museum of Human Rights.  Among Garnel Ironheart’s comments was the claim that “the Ukraine has an extensive history of Jew hatred.”  Clarissa condemned the post, commenting that she found it particularly objectionable as a Ukrainian Jew.

On both blogs, I shared a quote from “The Anti-Imperial Choice: The Making of the Ukrainian Jew” by Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, in which Shtern describes the anti-Ukrainian sentiment that predominated in Israel.  Petrovsky-Shtern explains how Soviet efforts to stigmatize the Ukrainian nationalist movement led many Jews to equate Ukrainian nationalism with antisemitism.  Garnel Ironheart replied to my comment, and in the initial exchange we were both testy, as you can read in the comments section of the post to which I linked above.  But rather than follow whatever animosity was present, Garnel and I explained our points of view in somewhat greater detail.   I do not think it is necessary for me to summarize his views, because he can present them better than I, and they are available on his blog.  I expressed frustration that the Ukrainian nation is often judged by the worst actions of any Ukrainian during the war, and that efforts to explain–not condone–antisemitic attitudes in Eastern Europe during WWII (by noting the disproportionate Jewish membership in the Soviet NKVD secret police, for example) is often dismissed as antisemitic itself.

I am certain that Garnel and I have not reached significant agreements, but I am pleased that we conveyed strongly held views without resorting to the kinds of tactics that often pass for debate on the Internet.  The experience taught me that rather than leaving the most sensitive issues to ideologues, I might do better by saying my piece and by trying to understand how others arrive at their conclusions.

I just learned that Volodomyr Vyatrovych, a historian who was serving as director of the archives for Ukraine’s SBU, was fired from that post.  The SBU is the successor to the KGB, and Vyatrovych made great progress in opening the archives from the Soviet era, archives that document the innumerable crimes of the Soviet Union against the Ukrainian people.  Vyatrovych is a casualty of the recent presidential election, which saw Viktor Yanykovych become president.  Yanukovych is often characterized in the Western press as “pro-Russian” or “pro-Kremlin.”  I often think the “West versus Russian” frame for discussions about Ukraine is too simple, but the dismissal of Vyatrovych reeks of Russian and Kremlin appeasement.  Vyatrovych was certainly unpopular with Russia, because he disclosed information about the Holodomor, the 1932-33 genocidal famine of Soviet Ukraine, and because his view of the WWII-era Ukrainian nationalist resistance didn’t coincide with the Soviet/Russian propaganda.

Vyatrovych’s dismissal is an outrage; the appointment of the new SBU head is cause for shame.  President Yanukovych appopinted Valery Khoroshkovsky to the post.  Khoroshkovsky is a billionaire of questionable reputation with zero apparent qualifications for the position.  For a much more informed take on the appointment than I can provide, read Steve Bandera’s post here.

I am angry about this news for a couple of reasons.  First, and perhaps self-interestedly, I am conducting research into Ukraine’s nationalist resistance during WWII, and it’s likely that I won’t have access to archives that are essential to understanding this history.  More importantly, I am angry on Vyatrovych’s behalf.  I met him a few times, both here in the U.S. and in Ukraine.  Though we were separated by a language barrier, we were united by a love of history and a desire to see truth emerge from the shadow of totalitarianism.  I interviewed him for several hours in Lviv in 2007, and his passion for his work was inspiring.  I realize this sounds like a eulogy of Vyatrovych, which is wrong.  He’s too determined and intelligent to let this incident impede him.

I will move forward with my research, too, and I will do so inspired by Vyatrovych’s example and his words: “No one, regardless of titles or rank, has the right to decide which truths, or how many, should be made public.”

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Stefania Protschack Kostuik joined the Ukrainian resistance when she was fourteen. She and her fellow members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists found themselves trapped between—and resisting—the totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Stalin. Millions of Ukrainians were deported and killed as the Nazis and the Soviets traded control of the territory throughout World War II.  Part one of Stefania’s story appeared in the previous post.

On the 30th of June, 1941, Khmil, our tenant, came to my mother and me with a large bouquet of flowers.  My mother asked what they were for, and Khmil replied, “This is in celebration of a holiday.”  My mother asked what holiday?  Khmil said that over the radio they announced that Ukraine had declared its independence.  We began to cry.

In a few days Osyp Bilobram [a leader of the youth members/units of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] came to visit me.  This is when he revealed to me that this little group we had was part of the resistance and that we would remain members of OUN.

They set up a communication center in my apartment for contact between the OUN central command communications (recruitment) center in Lviv and with our province.  There was a girl that came there and had her typewriter there.  All kinds of machinery and equipment were housed there.  I was very involved.

But in the beginning of 1942 the Germans began arresting everyone in the Frankivsk oblast.   At the end of 1941 the Germans had arrested the commanders of the OUN, Stepan Bandera and others.  And they started arresting us.  In 42, the command allowed me to go study in Lviv.  We cleaned out my apartment of all the evidence.  The communications equipment was moved somewhere else.  And our home was vacated of all traces of the communications center.  And I went to Lviv.

I went with another girl to Lviv.  We turned over our documents.  This was the month of July and they told us to come back in September when school would begin.  The OUN had created a youth camp in the village of Yamnytsia that would be utilized for recruits as a political ideological camp and a weaponry/military training camp.  Yamnytsia was a very educated and nationalistically aware village.  It was from this camp that the first youth units went into the Soviet occupied areas in the eastern provinces.

When we were returning, our boys were waiting for me in the village of Yamnytsia.  They informed me that while I was gone the Gestapo had been in my home and had searched it and left a message for me to report to them.  The OUN command ordered me not to return home because of the Gestapo issued an order for my arrest.

And so the other girl returned to Stanyslaviv [today called Ivano-Frankivsk],  and I remained in Yamnytsia underground awaiting further orders from the command.  I had already crossed over into an illegal (outlaw) status.

Then I received an order from the command to go work as an “undergrounder” into Tlumach, neighboring rayon [district].  There was a Ukrainian committee there and they sent me there with the assignment from the OUN that I was to work in this Ukrainian Committee, with the understanding that I am to head the woman’s division.  I worked there one year.  It turned out that the Germans had discovered my whereabouts and I had to flee from there.  Then they sent me to the Kalush District there was a training camp that had started training for information gathering and self defense for the UPA.

After Tlumach in 1943, I went to this training camp.  I was to be a courier.  Aside from this I was to help the Commander, Sokil, to gather information and analyze courier information for our Oblast and I was a liaison with the various units.

There was a web created like a network in each village that was constantly communicated.  Each village had one person assigned.  If the UPA was near they had to tell certain people of the OUN with a certain time frame.  If the Russians were there and how many.  This needed to be passed along to the UPA.

The network was all over the surrounding areas.  So the UPA had all the information as to where the enemy was moving, who were the agents were.  The UPA and the OUN had day-to-day knowledge as to movement available because they had covered the surrounding area extensively.  These people worked individually but had complete ties with the entire network.  This networking was so well branched out, the area was very well covered.

This information allowed the OUN and the UPA to know, for example, when a big unit of Bolsheviks was coming.  They knew this meant that they had to retreat.  If dignitaries were coming, or a patrol unit, we knew whether or not we could ambush them.  If someone is to come, people need to retreat to other territories.  So it was information about the enemy’s size and movement to determine if battle could be engaged.

In 1944, when the front was approaching the boundaries of our province, I had two assignments from the UPA couriers to complete.  Here in Zniatyn [near the Polish-Ukrainian border] were the Bolsheviks.  In Ivano-Frankivsk the Germans.  And in Nadvirna were the Hungarians. These were the lines drawn of the fronts.  The first time it was not difficult to cross the front.  I crossed over with a boy.  This boy and I went on horses to the village of Krasna.  The Hungarians ambushed us, and the boy fled.  They interrogated me.  Later they told me in Polish, “You are a Bolshevik spy.  We do not have prisons, and you understand me well.”  [The Hungarian meant that they wouldn’t take her prisoner but execute her.]  So they led me into the woods to be executed.

But the boy who fled that was with me rushed to tell the UPA that I was arrested and they were getting ready to execute me.  And as the UPA were moving through the area near the front between the Russians and the Germans, the boy reached them.  The UPA ambushed the Hungarians.  There was some firing.  I was freed.  I left and was assigned to command another unit in another region.

[After WWII ended, the Ukrainian resistance continued fighting the Soviets.]

In 1946, the command informed me that a group being formed and we need to gather information and prepare the curriculum for this training camp.  I became very ill.  I laid in a bunker for two months.  They were transporting me from Verkhovyna to Varozhtay on a sleigh.  They covered me up.  We were only 100 meters from our destination when the Bolsheviks stopped us.  They asked, “Where is the wounded one?”  That is how I was arrested by the Bolsheviks.  [The Bolsheviks must have known she was ill and had been looking for her.]

I was sentenced to 20 years.  I received 20 years in Siberia.  I only served 10.  I was an invalid, and the healthy ones were kept in one place.  So I was moved around.  I was in many different places—Krasnoyarsk, Mordovia.

I returned from Siberia to Ukraine.  After this I was not active in the resistance, because I knew I was always under surveillance.  I returned in 1957.  I married in ‘58.  Had three children.  The OUN and UPA command told me for me to marry so that the Soviets would leave me alone.

Later I went to work.  Even after this they followed me.  I was always under suspicion.

Please subscribe to my email list for updates on the blog and my book in progress, Scattered Graves, which tells the story of a family’s struggle to survive WWII in Ukraine.

This is the first of a series of posts I plan to do featuring interviews with members of Ukraine’s resistance during WWII. Most of the interviews lasted several hours, so I will present each in parts. I have edited them for clarity. I conducted each with an interpreter, my good friend Petro Paluch, and the recordings were later translated and transcribed by a gifted and generous translator, Olia Lawriw, to whom I am most grateful.

I interviewed Stefania Prostschack Kotsuik in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine in July 2007. She had an elegant, dignified manner and spoke calmly even when describing memories of suffering. She was born in Western Ukraine, which was then part of Poland. She was in her early teens when she joined the resistance.

Photo by Petro Paluch

My name is Stefania Protschack Kostuik. I was born on the 9th of August, 1925. The documents say the 22nd of August. You choose which you prefer. I was born in the city of Nadvirna.

Here in Halychyna, the Prosvita [a cultural organization] had done a lot of work. The youth had embraced this. There were organizations, reading rooms and sports activities around this. It gave us a substantial background in nationalism. I actually finished only six grades in Polish school. But we had a [Ukrainian] priest who came for religion classes and when the weather was nice he would take us to a park or the square and he would teach us history of Ukraine—Father Tymkiw. He also established national awareness.

Also because I studied in a Polish school, the focus there was Polish nationalism. And I witnessed this. This made me think that just as the Poles were proud, we should be proud and also fight for what is ours.

In 1939 the Bolsheviks came. This one year made a huge impact in my national awareness. My mother came home in the morning and said there is a new army. I ran outside and saw them. At first when they came into the village they were greeted with flags, bread and salt, church regalia, everything. But the Bolsheviks were dressed very ragged and muddy. The one thing you can say about the Polish military men was that they were always well dressed, honorable, gentlemanly, and respectable. When the Russians came in they were barbaric, crude, rude, and their uniforms were disheveled. They were constantly ridiculing everyone. We started feeling immediate animosity for them because of this.

Later they took over the schools and abolished them. They created new secondary schools. They herded the kids in and divided them. They would make sure there was a mixture from every school. They would they would take 3 or 4 kids from each class and move them to a Soviet style school. They were very much afraid of having groups [of Ukrainian students] that were unified.

Every class had a Russian in it, and that Russian was in charge of beating us and ridiculing us. We were raised to always be polite. The boys were gentlemanly and used proper salutations and greetings. Relations with the girls were gentlemanly. The Russians came in and started laughing at them. They would make fun of the boys when they were very gentlemanly to a girl. They ridiculed our boys. People became resentful then and realized there was an enormous change to how life was going to be in the future. This prompted students to participate in the liberation movement for the independence of Ukraine.

In 1940, a boy in my class approached me and proposed an idea. He told me that three of them had started a secretive little group. And he encouraged me to find two more girls that I trusted and create a similar circle.  “We are going to study history and literature of Ukraine among ourselves and later we are going to pass this knowledge along to our classmates.”  And this would be a conspiracy and it needed to be understood that no one knew of this. I spoke with the girls and six of us got together and took an oath. I was fourteen.

Later in 1941, when the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists] came out of the underground, we found out that we were the first youths in our school in the organization. And this oath was like the junior oath of the OUN. Initially, we did not know this. We just knew that we were members of this circle or club.

In 1940, all the students were called to school during Easter. Typically we were off for the holidays. We, the students, agreed among one another that we would stay home for three days and celebrate the holidays and boycott school. When we came after the holidays to school the Bolsheviks would not let us attend class. They demanded that our parents come.

The Soviets started to recruit students into the Komsomol [Communist youth] organization. The person in charge of recruiting for the Komsomol was a man from the village by the name of Vasyl Sawczak. People protested against him. He was despised. How could he do this? He came from a patriotic family and no one could understand how he could do this. We had a very educated and aware village. This was our reaction, how could Vasyl do this?

When we learned about the OUN in 1941, we discovered that Vasyl Sawczak was under the orders of the OUN to join the Komsomol. He was the head of the Komsomol in our school, but in fact he was the head of our little club and a member of the OUN.

In the following days, April and May of 1941, after an enormous amount arrests occurred, not just in the city, but in the entire province, the prisons were overflowing. Sometime in June in the prison grounds loud roaring engines of automobiles could be heard. This created a huge panic among the residents. Night and day the roaring engine sounds were heard with no end. This meant they were executing the arrested individuals. Huge panic and horror among the residents.

On the 22nd of June the Bolsheviks arrested another one of our teachers, Vasyl Pashnytskyj. He was executed the same day. He was working at the time as the director of the library.

It was nice and warm outside. All the youth were sleeping in the squares and parks. Not one of the youth slept at home, because it was very dangerous. [The Soviet NKVD arrested people in their homes at night.] We slept outside in the orchard. We heard these loud bombing noises. We thought the war had begun and that the Germans were around the corner. It turned out that the Soviets had wired the arsenal sites to destroy them because they had to retreat, and this was the series of bombings we heard. The NKVD had retreated.

Around the fourth day [after the Soviets retreated] Yaroslavl Dovirak, the head of the Self Defense Group, came to me. He told me that the boys have taken control of the prison and have gone four days without food. I was to take a friend of mine and bring some food from the village. We did this. A car came to get us at my home. I lived on Frankivsk Street. We took some milk and bread. When we arrived the boys greeted us happily. There were many of our boys there. The boys happily ate the food.

Once they ate and gained a little strength one of them asked us if we wanted to see the prison. We said yes. They said, “We have cleaned up the facilities somewhat already. We have washed up the blood.” And then they took us on the grounds. There was a building in the center of the grounds that during the Polish rule was a prison hospital and now it was empty and full of clothing. It was full of especially Hutzul clothing. Embroidered shirts, shoes, pants. The rooms were full even to the outside porch. It was a one-story building. At the end there was so much clothing and no where to put it, that the Bolsheviks made prisoners just take their clothes off on the outside porch. You could see it was just thrown there. Where were these people? This was terrifying to us. We assessed that the Bolsheviks had executed all these individuals and the clothing was all that was left behind.

Then the boys took us farther and there was a wall and there was like this door, but when you opened it there was a deep ditch. It was very, very dark, all you could see was something dark and then the walls with had white on them.

He said, “They executed people here. You stood here on the edge, you were executed [shot] and you would fall into the ditch and the blood would drain from the body. Then they would take your body out and put it into a car or truck and dispose of the bodies.”

“And this?” we asked.

“Blood, dried blood. And this white stuff is remains of splattered brains from the executions. Over here in this freshly planted garden, here below are many buried corpses.”

They took us around, the cells, and told me to familiarize myself with them in case I ever ended up being here. They showed me the characteristics of the cells.

Later, that was the place I was to be imprisoned.

President Viktor Yushchenko’s recognition of nationalist resistance leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine has generated controversy and condemnations, including criticism from Simon Wiesenthal Center, which cited charges that Bandera was a Nazi collaborator.  More recently, the head rabbi of Ukraine vowed to return an award he’d received from Yuschenko to protest the recognition of Bandera.

So did Bandera collaborate with the Nazis?  Strictly speaking, yes.  But he was also a prisoner in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.  The tag of “Nazi-collaborator” in Bandera’s case is divorced from the historical context in which he and the Ukrainian nationalists struggled.  His “collaboration” consisted of accepting German support and training for Ukrainian nationalist troops prior to the German invasion of the territory that is now Ukraine.  (For an analysis of Bandera’s dealings with Nazi Germany, I recommend Ukrainian Nationalism by John A. Armstrong.  That is the source from which I’ve drawn most of this information.)

Why would Bandera and his fellow Ukrainian nationalists seek the support of a regime like Nazi Germany?  This is where context is key.  After Hitler invaded Poland in September 1939, the region that is now Western Ukraine fell into Soviet hands in accordance with the agreement between Hitler and Stalin.  For the next year and a half, the Soviets murdered and exiled tens of thousands of Ukrainians.  When the Germans invaded what had become Soviet territory in June 1941, the Soviets realized the could not evacuate their thousands of prisoners in Western Ukraine.  A few years ago, I interviewed a woman, Stefania Protschack Kostuik, who had visited the prison in Ivano-Frankivsk (then Stanyslaviv) days after the Soviet retreat.  The floor was covered with black jelly–congealed blood–and brain matter had dried on the wall in fragments resembling papier-mâché, she said.  The Soviets murdered more than ten thousand Ukrainian prisoners in a matter of days.

Now, none of this, nor any other facts about the brutality of the the Soviet NKVD secret police or the Red Army, excuses or justifies the crimes of the Nazis or those who helped the Nazis achieve their horrific goals.  But I think this context is important to illustrate why Bandera and other Ukrainians decided that early in the war the Nazis were the lesser of two evils.  We look back from 2010 knowing about the Nazis, about the Holocaust, about the extermination campss, about all of it.  In 1941, Bandera knew that the Soviets had killed thousands and thousands of Ukrainians and that the Nazis had killed none.  Yet.  Judging Bandera’s actions through the lens of information he couldn’t have had is foolish.

I want to note here that to explain is not to excuse.  I am not a historian.  I am a journalist.  I lack the expertise to have researched the primary sources to convict Bandera or to exonerate him.  But I’ve read enough–and interviewed enough veterans of Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists–to know that to label the man and the movement a Nazi is a distortion at the very least.

I urge anyone interested in the Second World War and the tragedy it wrought to read The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn, which details the author’s search for information about members of his family who were killed in the Holocaust.  At the end of his powerful, beautiful book Mendelsohn ruminates on the complicated circumstances that both Ukrainians and Jews faced.  He writes on page 456, “The tragedy of certain areas of Eastern Europe between, say, 1939 and 1944, was… a true tragedy, since… the Jews of eastern Poland [Western Ukraine today], who knew they would suffer unimaginably if they came under Nazi rule, viewed the Soviets as liberators in 1939… whereas the Ukrainians of eastern Poland, who had suffered unimaginably under Soviet oppression during the 1920s and 1930s, viewed the cession of eastern Poland to the Soviet Union in 1939 as a national disaster, and saw the Nazis as liberators in 1941, when the Germans invaded and took control.”   Mendelsohn notes that this doesn’t explain the worst violence among neighbors, but he observes, rightly, that this formulation acknowledges the awful complexity of life in that place at that time.

Mendelsohn’s perspective helps explain why many Ukrainians regard Bandera as a hero.  I would argue that it also renders any dismissal of Bandera as a Nazi-collaborator as narrow and inadequate.

On Friday President Viktor Yushchenko granted “Hero of Ukraine” status to Stepan Bandera, the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a resistance movement that advocated for an independent Ukrainian state.  Yushchenko’s decision to grant Bandera Ukraine’s highest civilian honor was condemned by several Russian MPs and officials, which isn’t surprising since the Soviets and Russians always regarded Bandera, who was assassinated by the KGB in 1959, as a fascist and Nazi-collaborator.  Due to time and word-count restrictions, I won’t delve into Bandera’s reputation here.  I’ll say only that my judgement is more in line with Yushchenko’s than Russia’s and that most condemnation of Bandera ignores the historical context in which he and Ukraine struggled.  But I was bothered by the fact that nearly every story I read about Bandera’s posthumous Hero status mentioned a Russian reaction.  It’s one thing for the Kremlin to act as though it has a say in all of Ukraine’s affairs, but it’s discouraging when the media share that presumption.

A Ukrainian president should be free to honor a Ukrainian–no matter how controversial–without the requisite response from Russia.  The issue has nothing to do with Russia.  Bandera opposed the Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist any more.  Current Russian leaders act as custodians of Soviet thought and history when it comes to Bandera.  But when it’s convenient, Russian leaders distance themselves from Soviet history, such when there’s any mention of holding ex-NKVD/KGB responsible for crimes against humanity.  Russian/Soviet efforts to discredit Bandera date back to the Second World War, and they are as much an assault on the idea of Ukrainian independence as they are condemnations of the man.

That’s not to say that all Ukrainians love Bandera.  There’s no uniformity of opinion among Ukrainians regarding Bandera and the OUN, and the stories about the Hero of Ukraine honor should have reflected that.  But the way to represent those views is to find Ukrainian historians or academics to comment on the ways Bandera is perceived.  Every nation has controversial figures in its history, and Ukrainians deserve to decide how they regard Bandera the same way, say, American historians debate the legacies of presidents.

In the stories I read about Bandera’s Hero of Ukraine status, I didn’t see any comment from Polish officials, even though the most serious allegations against Bandera’s OUN are charges that they committed ethnic cleansing of Polish citizens in what is now Western Ukraine.  Perhaps the media doesn’t regard Polish views of Ukraine to have the same relevance as Russian views.  Or perhaps Poland understands, as Russia doesn’t, that Ukraine must reckon with its history and that the decisions about which Ukrainians to honor or condemn should be made by Ukrainians.

Update (January 25, 7:37 EST): This is a thoughtful, objective analysis of Bandera’s legacy: http://www.russiaprofile.org/page.php?pageid=International&articleid=a1264448209

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