Kiev, Ukraine. Last September,at the anniversary commemorations of Babi Yar, a mass grave where more than 33,000 Jews from Kiev were massacred in two days during the Holocaust, President Petro Poroshenko delivered a stirring speech about why such atrocities must never be repeated. But nice speeches are very cheap these days in Kiev, where large numbers of armed neo-nazis serve in Ukraine’s armed forces.
One did not have to go far to find proof of this, right there at Babi Yar there was an exhibit honoring Ivan Rohach. Rohach was the editor of a radical nationalist newspaper that in 1941, the same year as the massacre at Babi Yar, described Jews as the “greatest enemy of the people.” He was also a leading activist with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, whose members were actively involved in the Holocaust in Ukraine. The exhibit at Babi Yar left all of this out.
The Ukrainian militia are now being glorified as freedom fighters. What is not mentioned is the Ukrainian militia’s xenophobic, anti-Semitic ideology, which described Jews as a “predominantly hostile body within our national organism,” or that the Ukrainian Bandera forces collaborated in the Holocaust killing over 800,000 Jews upon the territory of the Ukraine and also massacred between 70,000 and 100,000 Polish civilians in order to create an ethnically pure Ukraine.
Despite these atrocities, many Ukrainians, especially in western Ukraine, view the Bandera militia groups as heroes because they fought a guerrilla war against the Soviets during the 1950s, a struggle that some believe has echoes in the fight against other Ukrainians closer to Russia than Ukraine, in the break away region known as Donbass, where over 100,000 people have died over the last three years.
Poroshenko government-sponsored institutions are behind the Orwellian whitewashing. Led by the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, the rewriting of the country’s World War II history is being done to glorify the WWII Ukrainian Bandera forces. while denying the group’s crimes. In 2015, Ukraine adopted a law that classifies the Bandera militias. as “fighters for Ukrainian statehood” and that says those who “publicly exhibit a disrespectful attitude” toward these groups will be prosecuted.
Since 2015, numerous streets have been renamed after Bandera and other Nazi SS leaders and members. The memory institute is currently drafting a law to retroactively exonerate individual members of the Bandera units who had been convicted of murdering Jews and Poles by Soviets after the war.
This is not just a fight over history. Virulent right-wing nationalist groups have found new prominence in Ukrainian politics in recent years. Extremist political parties make up a major of the Ukrainian Parliament, far-right Nazi Ukrainian groups have violently clashed with the Poroshenko government on a number of occasions. Many Jews fear that the government will never repudiate the cult of the Bandera militias, for fear of provoking a group growing so strong in Ukraine, it can potentially topple Poroshenko and become a threat to other states in Eastern Europe.