The harrowing history of Ukraine’s past was recounted recently in the annual lecture honouring Rudolf Vrba, the late Vancouver scientist whose 1944 escape from Auschwitz brought the most concrete proof of the Nazi “Final Solution” to the world.
Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk delivered the 2023 Rudolf Vrba Memorial Lecture, titled The Holocaust in Ukraine: Violence, Gender and Memory. Ivchyk is at the University of British Columbia on a visiting fellowship that was created by Dr. Richard Menkis and Dr. Heidi Tworek to bring to Vancouver a Ukrainian scholar at risk. Ivchyk is associate professor in the department of political sciences at Rivne State University for the Humanities in her hometown of Rivne, Ukraine, and her work is focused on public history and memory politics.
Ivchyk’s presentation was based on survivor testimonies held at the USC Shoah Foundation, and narrowed in on the experiences of Jews in the western Ukrainian region of Volhynia and Podilia. Of the approximately 27,000 Jews who lived in Rivne (then known as Rovno) in 1937, it is estimated that just around 1,200 survived to the 1944 liberation by the Red Army. In a single day, on Nov. 6, 1941, about 21,000 Jews were murdered by Einsatzgruppe C and Ukrainian collaborators. The surviving Jews were imprisoned in the Rovno Ghetto, which was created the following month. In July 1942, remaining Jews, about 5,000, were transported to a stone quarry and murdered.
About 1.5 million Jews died in Ukrainian territory during the war years, most of them shot in what has been called the “Holocaust by bullets.”
“The Holocaust has long remained on the margins of collective memory in Ukraine,” said Ivchyk. Babyn Yar, a ravine outside Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were murdered over two days in 1941, has become a national symbol of Holocaust remembrance, she said. “However, the local level of remembrance remained low.”
There are many other sites of atrocities that were committed in Ukraine. “Some are marked by monuments, others are still forgotten and lost,” she said.
Of the several thousand Jews who survived the initial mass executions, anyone over the age of 13 was forced into slave labour.
“Nobody wanted to work for the Germans,” Ivchyk quoted one survivor, “but we had to. We hoped it would somehow balance our relationship with the Germans and would help us survive.”
Violence against women was mainly carried out by Ukrainian collaborators, she said, though Nazis also took part.
“I remember many times Germans came at night, knocked on the windows, took away beautiful girls,” Ivchyk quoted a survivor. “Sometimes, they raped and killed them right away. Sometimes, they said we will come again.”
Rabbis became a particular target of violence against men, given their social and symbolic status, and their role as spiritual leaders.
In the Soviet era, historical memorialization was subordinated to the priorities of the regime.
“The Holodomor [the deliberate Soviet famine that killed millions of Ukrainians], the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the Holocaust and the genocide of the Roma – all of these events were suppressed in collective memory by the Soviet regime,” she said.
Today, support in Ukraine for Holocaust memorialization is ambivalent.
“The activities of the state today do not prohibit academic, educational or public activities in the field of Holocaust remembrance, but neither does it act as a financial or ideological initiator,” she said.
The Vrba event was funded by the Holocaust education committee of UBC’s department of history, which is responsible for the annual lecture, as well as a number of other organizations, including the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the Diamond Chair in Jewish Law and Ethics.
Menkis, associate professor of modern Jewish history at UBC and chair of the Holocaust education committee, noted that the event recognizes Vrba’s contributions to two primary areas to which Vrba’s life was devoted: Holocaust education and science, particularly pharmacology. The annual lectures alternate between these topics.
Menkis told the audience how Vrba and his friend Alfréd Wetzler made the momentous decision to escape from Auschwitz after overhearing conversations around the planned deportation of Hungarian Jewry. After a difficult and dangerous trek, the pair reached northern Slovakia, where they compiled a report documenting the layout of Auschwitz and the extermination process there.
“Although the report is credited with saving many lives,” said Menkis, “Vrba and Wetzler were keenly aware that more decisive action could have saved more. After the war, Dr. Vrba continued to speak about Auschwitz and his experiences. His book, I Cannot Forgive, written with Alan Bestic, was first published in 1963 and has been issued in a number of translations and re-editions since. He is also well known for his unforgettable testimony in Claude Lanzmann’s [documentary film] Shoah and perhaps less well-known but also important was his effective testimony in the Canadian trials against Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.”
Vrba’s widow, Robin, attended the event virtually. Vrba died in 2006.