On Three Monuments to Holocaust Victims:
Reflections on Victory Day (9 May)
There was no place for ethnically or religiously marked suffering or victims in the Soviet image of the Great Patriotic War. It is precisely for this reason that the phrase ‘peaceful Soviet citizens’ was used in referring to the millions of Jews who were murdered. The Soviet deportations on ethnic grounds and on accusation of collective ‘betrayal of the Motherland’ were an absolute taboo. Also unmentionable was the fate of Soviet POWs, millions of whom died of artificial famine in Nazi concentration camps, while hundreds of thousands more survived only to find themselves later sent to Soviet camps as ‘traitors to the Motherland’.
It would be a simplification to draw a rigid opposition between the image of World War Two prevailing in Western Europe and America, on the one hand, and the image prevailing in Russia and post-Soviet countries, on the other. But there are nevertheless fundamental differences in the accents of memory here.
The central defining event of Western historical memory, not only of the war, but to a large degree also of the twentieth century itself – the Holocaust – remains relatively unknown in the countries on whose territory it actually took place. And although mentioning the Holocaust is now permitted and does take place, including in textbooks and in the mass media, this aspect of the history of the war remains marginalised and subject to serious mystifications (especially with regard to the attitude of the local non-Jewish population towards the fate of their Jewish neighbours). In contrast to the Polish situation, in Ukraine, Russia (where only the western regions were occupied) and Belarus we have yet to see any serious public debate on these issues. And although more and more new monuments and publications about the Nazi extermination of the Jews are appearing in all three countries, to all intents and purposes there is still a lack of serious sociological and anthropological studies of the reception of these monuments and publications. More than this: we do not even have a basic catalogue of the Holocaust memorial sites in post-Soviet space. This article offers a preliminary and impressionistic sketch of three such monuments.
Neighbouring Monuments: Dnepropetrovsk
In pre-revolutionary Yekaterinoslav, Jews comprised almost 40% of the total population; there were forty-four synagogues and prayer houses operating in the city. On 13-14 October 1941, the Nazis executed around ten thousand Jews in the Botanic Gardens on the outskirts of the city. In the 1970s, the Botanic Gardens were re-named Yurii Gagarin Park. The Park became surrounded by new educational institutions, libraries, a sports complex and dormitories belonging to Dnepropetrovsk University, named in honour of the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine and Russia. Meanwhile, a bland grey monument was erected in the park, bearing the Russian inscription ‘To the civilian victims of fascism’ (pictured).
This monument was situated by the side of a park track used by students for cross-country running. The author of these lines passed the monument on an almost daily basis en route to the library, but not once did he stop and reflect. Information about what exactly happened during the war beyond the windows of the contemporary university campus was absent from both the university lecture halls and the university library. The memorial was not a site of memory, and it was certainly not a site of reflection. Its euphemistic inscription blocked off any emotional engagement with the event; the text served not so much to recall the event as to obliterate it.
The memory of this event – of the annihilation in the course of two days of around ten thousand people (a total of 16-17 thousand Jews were murdered during the occupation in Dnepropetrovsk, a figure equating to around 60% of all civilian deaths in the city) – was preserved only in the city’s Jewish commune. On 2 May 1989 the first government-authorised rally in memory of Holocaust victims was held in Gagarin Park. And on 14 April 2011, not far from the Soviet monument, a new monument appeared (pictured), built using funds raised by the Jewish commune, with inscriptions in Hebrew and Ukrainian: ‘In this soil lies the ashes of 10 000 peaceful Jews of Dnepropetrovsk, brutally murdered on 13-14 October 1941, and of many more of our holy brothers and sisters, tortured and shot by fascists (1941-43)’, and a quote from the ‘Father of Mercy’ prayer: ‘May our Lord remember them for good together with the other righteous of the world and may He redress the spilled blood of His servants’.
As I wrote in Otechestvennye zapiski (no. 5, 2008), the proximity of the two monuments, describing the same historical event in different ways, is externally non-conflictual. Ritual flowers are laid each year at the Soviet monument; memorial prayers are conducted each year at the monument erected by the Jewish commune. Do these people (mostly students) compare the two monuments? Have they noticed the differences between them? Do they understand that we are dealing with differing interpretations of an identical event? We don’t know the answers to these questions. The topic has yet to be researched.
Re-accented Memory: Netishev
The concept of ‘invisible’ monuments is quite popular in the literature on the subject. In the case of Holocaust monuments in Ukraine, ‘invisibility’ often presupposes not so much the absence of associations or emotions linked to monuments (this is more applicable to monuments to Lenin and other figures of Soviet hagiography), as the physical invisibility arising out of the location of the memorials at remote sites, in forests, in old cemeteries. The latter is a result, in particular, of the tendency to strive to erect post-Soviet memorial sites at the site where the actual events being commemorated took place, or at least nearby. As a result, this harnessing to historical authenticity can make the monuments effectively inaccessible and unknown to the majority of residents of the localities in question.
On the motorway leading from Volhynian Ostrog to Shepetovka, not far from the city of Netishev, famous for Khmel’nitskaia nuclear power station, you might notice an unusual monument to Holocaust victims (pictured). The monument stands at the very edge of the road, next to the forest. Through the car window, you might catch a glimpse of a slab bearing the star of David and a menorah. If you pull over and approach the monument, you’ll read the inscription on another, horizontal slab: ‘Here in 1941 fascists brutally put to death 2500 young men and women of the town of Ostrog simply because they were Jews. Eternal memory of you!’
Only then will you turn your attention to the appearance of the remaining parts of the monument, which point unambiguously to its Soviet origins. The slab bearing the description of the event is dated clearly: August 1997. We can only guess as to what was written on the slab preceding it in Soviet times, but we can be certain that this inscription would not have mentioned the fact that the dead were killed because they were Jews.
Interestingly, in contrast to Dnepropetrovsk, attempts have been made to adapt the Soviet monument near Netishev to contemporary conditions. After changing the inscription and adding Jewish symbols, the monument’s Soviet base and plinth were left intact, and most importantly, it remained in its previous site, by the side of the motorway.
In this case, then, the pluralism of the representation of memory was expressed not in the construction of a neighbouring (alternative) memorial, but within the framework of the partial re-working of the original monument. It is especially noteworthy that the inscription on the slab is trilingual: Ukrainian, Hebrew and Yiddish (pictured). The presence of Yiddish, the language most likely spoken by the majority of Ostrog Jews, is in this case an important element of respect for the memory of the dead.
Jewish Memory Sites in Minsk
Occupied Minsk was the site of the largest Jewish ghetto on the territory of the former USSR. In addition, it was to this city, located close to the border with the Reich, that Jews were deported from Germany and Austria. Contrary to the widespread stereotypes, there are actually quite a few monuments and memorials in Minsk linked to the city’s Jewish past and its destruction during the Holocaust.
Only a few of the buildings in the Jewish quarter have survived, but a post-Soviet memorial to the prisoners of the ghetto stands on one of the city’s squares. In the 1970s, the Soviet regime transformed the old Jewish cemetery – which was also the site of Nazi mass shootings of Jews – into a park. By 1991, symbolic memorial tombstones had appeared in the park, in memory of the Jews deported to Minsk from Bremen, Koln, Dusseldorf and Hamburg, built by the authorities of these German lands and cities (pictured).
Later, a contemporary monument to those who were shot was also erected in the park: a table and chair with bent legs. Nearby lie a dozen or so tombstones preserved from 19th-early 20th century burial sites (pictured).
Another site of mass executions is the Minsk ‘pit’, today located right under the windows of late-Soviet tower blocks. The monument in ‘the pit’ is especially impressive because the original landscape has been preserved – one must descend by steps in order to reach the memorial. You are accompanied in your journey down the slope (without steps) by doomed figures descending to their deaths – one of the most poignant monuments to Holocaust victims in the post-Soviet space (pictured).
After your descent, a walk of fifty metres or so takes you to a Soviet-style monument bearing the inscription: ‘Luminous memory throughout all eternity of the five thousand Jews who perished at the hands of brutal enemies of humanity: the fascist-German villains. 2 March 1942’ (pictured). Immediately beyond the obelisk and the edge of the pit stand residential homes. It would be difficult for the people living here to ignore this monument.
Along the left side of the ‘pit’ is a stela executed in the form of a menorah, listing the organisations and individuals who financed the memorial’s construction. The Foundation of the President of the Republic of Belarus stands at the top of the list. I have to say that I am unaware of any instances of the state funding of Holocaust memorials in Ukraine at such a level.
To the right of the ‘pit’ is the Avenue of Belarusian Righteous Gentiles. It is fair to assume that the juxtaposition of these two memorials is not accidental, and is designed to underline the compassion and assistance rendered by Belarusians to their fellow Jewish citizens. In addition, the emphasis on the theme of the Righteous, without doubt, makes it easier to integrate the history of the Holocaust into the post-Soviet Belarusian national narrative.
An important way in which the Minsk case differs from, for example, that of Dnepropetrovsk concerns not only the role of the state authorities (recall that in Ukraine, the authorities, as a rule, do not obstruct memorialisation of Holocaust victims; but neither do they play a role in providing funding for such initiatives), but also by virtue of the fact that the Jewish community in contemporary Minsk is much less prominent and influential than in Dnepropetrovsk.
The fate of the two surviving synagogue buildings is vivid testimony to this. One of them now houses a chess school, and the other a theatre. Moreover, while the external facade of the former building has remained essentially unchanged, the second was substantially re-built during the Soviet years, such that only one of the side walls has preserved the original Mauritanian style windows and brickwork. Both buildings are protected architectural monuments and bear plaques to this effect. True, none of these plaques mentions the fact that these ‘nineteenth-century constructions’ actually housed synagogues.
It would be premature to draw any far-reaching conclusions based on just three examples, all the more so since each of the cases described above requires contextualisation. Nevertheless, I would like to risk some general reflections or even impressions here. An important question about all post-Soviet monuments to Holocaust victims might be formulated as follows: how is the change in emphasis in presentation of the victims of the Nazi regime influencing the general picture of the history of the war? How is the image of the war changing in a situation in which ‘peaceful civilians’ are now acquiring nationality?
It is a curious point that the word ‘Holocaust’ does not appear on a single one of the monuments described above. Meanwhile, all three monuments employ the conventional Soviet-era term ‘fascist’ with reference to the perpetrators of the crime. Each of the monuments lists the precise date of the concrete execution, but makes no reference to the broader phenomenon of the total extermination of the Jews. Moreover, not one of the monuments enters into direct dialogue, let alone confrontation, with the Soviet image of the ‘Great Patriotic War’. While they do name the victims as Jews (something which would have been unacceptable during the Soviet period), in other respects the monuments continue in many ways to remain faithful to Soviet stylistics. This is least noticeable in the Dnepropetrovsk case, and most noticeable in the case of the Minsk memorial. The inscription on the Minsk memorial, with its reference to the ‘brutal enemies of humanity: the fascist-German villains’, comes closest to the language of Soviet propaganda. Does this instance of Soviet linguistic usage reflect a conscious and calculated move, or is it simply the result of inertia? Does the use of familiar and recognisable language make it easier for recipients – for the residents of the tower-blocks whose windows overlook the monument -- to grasp the new content of the monument?
Here we come full-circle, back to the key problem raised at the outset: the problem of the perception and reception of monuments. After all, in the final analysis, monuments, like all texts, exist not only in the consciousness and imagination of their creators, but also, and more importantly, in the consciousness of their readers.
P.S. The photographs accompanying this text were taken by colleagues and friends, to whom I am intensely grateful for their deep vision of both monuments and problems of memory. The Dnepropetrovsk photographs were taken by my sister Tatiana Portnova. The Netishev photographs are the work of Anna Kolen-Lebedeva. Anna Vrubel’ took the photos in Minsk. Without their help, critical comments and subtle observations, this text would never have been written.
Translated and reproduced with the kind permission of Andriy Portnov. This article was originally published in Russian in Andriy Portnov’s blog at the Russian portal ‘History Lessons’, run by Memorial as part of the international project ‘Learning from History’.