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A crack in the heart

The end of World War II will be commemorated in Ukraine on May 8 – a sign of breaking away from communist rituals. For many people, May 9 – the “Day of Victory” – continues to have great significance.

Andrea Beer

Issak Nowoselezykj stands at the memorial stone for 5000 Jewish children who were murdered in Vinnitzja during the German occupation. The light marble stone has a hole in the middle in the shape of the Star of David. Every Jew carries this star in their hearts, which were torn apart by war, he says, referring to the inscription, which is in Ukrainian and Hebrew.

“Here children and with them the hope of the Jewish people were destroyed” it says. The dead children could have been future musicians, doctors or professors. “And we ask the Germans: Why did you kill them? Just as we are now asking the Russians: Why are you killing children in Ukraine? Why are you taking them to Russia and doing God knows what with them?”

Novoselezkyj leads the Jewish community in Vinnitsa on the Southern Bug, a river in western Ukraine. The agile white-haired man in the red patterned knit sweater is 75 and by no means a friend of Soviet traditions or even of Russia.

Issak Novoselezykj from the Jewish community in Vinnitsa and Nazi survivor Raisa Chernova.

Victory celebration instead of reconciliation?

However, Isaak Novoselezkyj deliberately remembers the end of the Second World War not on May 8th but on May 9th. For years he and his generation were taught that May 9th was Victory Day, when the war ended. “My opinion can also be due to my age, because it was like that all those years. Back then we didn’t talk about reconciliation, but about the day of victory. Reconciliation came much later. Every generation just rewrites history.”

The end of World War II is commemorated in Ukraine on May 8th. May 9th is still the day of the victory over National Socialism in World War II, on which the victims are commemorated and which is no longer called the “Great Patriotic War”.

Zelenskyy decrees new “Europe Day”

According to a new decree by President Volodymyr Zelensky, May 9 is also “Europe Day” for the first time this year, which was previously celebrated on the third Saturday in May. The unity of the Europeans, who destroyed Nazism and defeated Russia, is being celebrated, said the President.

The State Institute for National Remembrance in Kiev is responsible for the official line of remembrance. The whole thing is a process, states its deputy director Volodymyr Tylishchak. According to surveys, more and more people are of the opinion that the victory over National Socialism should be celebrated on May 8th and fewer and fewer people want May 9th as a public holiday.

“That means this process is taking place in society. It was accelerated by the major Russian invasion, but it started a long time ago and is still ongoing.”

According to historian Anatolyj Podolsky, the culture of remembrance changed with independence.

independence changed culture of remembrance

According to historian Anatoly Podolsky, five million Ukrainians fought in the Red Army. But the culture of remembrance changed fundamentally with independence, according to the director of the non-governmental Center for Holocaust Studies in Kiev. 32 years after the end of the totalitarian Soviet empire, after the “Revolution of Dignity” in 2014 on the Maidan, where people fought for civil and human rights.

“Our future depends on how well we analyze the past,” says Podolskyj. Today, the memory of the Second World War is above all the memory of the victims. “In Soviet times and in the Russian Federation, only heroism was commemorated and those who fought. There was no interest in the victims who were taken prisoner, so-called ‘Eastern workers’, Jews or Roma.”

Comparisons from then and now

Murder, torture, rape, kidnap, rob or humiliate – the list of Russian crimes in Ukraine is long. Could they superimpose the crimes committed by the Germans in WWII in Ukraine? Historian Anataloy Podolsky doesn’t believe that – and Isaak Novoselezkyj agrees.

“To forget these crimes, these atrocities by the Germans is simply impossible. But people who survived this war draw comparisons between then and now. And there is the expression that Hitler was an orphan boy compared to Putin,” says Novoselezkyj.

His gaze wanders from the children’s monument to a gray stele. This commemorates an estimated 20,000 Jews who were killed by the Germans in Vinnitzja. “There are many more murdered people lying in the ground over there,” says Novoselezkyj, pointing to an adjacent piece of forest.

Arrested Crime

In the Vinnitzja region alone there are up to 20 killing sites with no reference to German crimes there, says Faina Vinokorova from the regional state archive of the city of Vinnitzja. The elegant old lady is married to Isaak Nowoseltskyj and an expert on the Holocaust in the Vinnitsa region.

A Jewish Ukrainian was shot dead by German occupiers in Vinnitzja in 1941. This photo is one of the best known of the Holocaust.

In front of her is one of the most famous photos of the Holocaust – taken in 1941 by the German perpetrators from the notorious Einsatzgruppen and the SS. The black-and-white photo shows a skinny Jewish Ukrainian with brown hair who has to squat right on the edge of a corpse pit. A uniformed German holds the pistol to his head and is about to pull the trigger. The pit is already full of corpses, says Faina Vinokorova, who has thought a lot about the young man in the photo.

He knew where he was going and didn’t expect anything more. At most falling into the pit before the shot. I interviewed a survivor named Katz who made it out of the execution pit alive. His mother had protected him with her body.

For her, May 9th is a victory over violence and she wants to keep it. Maybe it’s not a suitable time in the Russian war of aggression, she says, but: “Why was the day given up? I can’t understand it.”

The renowned Holocaust expert Anatolyj Podolskyj sees it differently, but he doesn’t deny anyone’s opinion. “That’s the point. We can have different opinions, because Ukraine is not Putin’s dictatorship where people are killed for their opinions.”

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