Ukrainians and the Holocaust

A reader of Ukrainian ancestry left a comment on my review of The Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn. He is seeking answers about the behavior of Ukrainians toward Jews during the Holocaust.

I have just read the book “The Lost” and look at it from a different perspective than some. I am Canadian born of Ukrainian ancestry; (mostly 2nd and 3rd generation except my step father and his family/friends). He came from Western Ukraine after the Second World War. His friends who I grew up around were all from Western Ukraine and escaped after the Second World War. They shared little of this time with us, like a dark secret. I am intensely interested in history and of central and western European history. The more I read and study the more I realize that there is some mixed history from those from the Western Ukraine or Eastern Poland at this time. I hope to better understand what happened in those horrible days. I know some Ukrainians were saviors and some were the opposite. For my own reasons, I want to understand some more of that reality. . . .

I have my perspective/bias but have always tried to look at mankind’s history both good and bad, with a questioning mind. I don’t think many of us thought of the colour or religion of our neighbours when we were 5 or 6 years old, we were play friends. The family stories of those from that time and world will show many things good and bad. If not shared now they are gone. We should not let that happen. As with Daniel Mendelsohn and his search, we know many others have followed a similar path. One more can’t hurt.

I suggest reading the rest of our discussion at the original post.

My maternal grandparents moved to Germany in the 1920’s in the wave of Eastern European migration. They made plans to emigrate to the US as soon as Hitler came into power.  Many native German Jews, with closer ties to Germany, delayed and hoped that things would blow over.

Recently, a relative researching our ancestry came across the story of two sisters from my grandmother’s town in the Ukraine that shared the uncommon family name. They are almost certainly relatives, even though no one has yet placed them on the family tree.

Their parents and siblings were murdered. The sisters, about 9 and 12, escaped and survived by scrounging for food. When they returned to the town, their property had been taken over by neighbors. The problems of the sisters and their descendants have continued. The townspeople never forgot the family’s origin and treated them accordingly, referring to them by the grandfather’s Jewish name. They were never fully accepted and no one sought justice for them.

The silence of the Ukrainians that you mention stems not only from guilt but also concern about claims for restitution.

So while the many heroes deserve to be honored, I find it disturbing to describe the history of the Ukraine in WWII as “mixed,” and talk about the “good and bad.” To say “some were saviors and some were the opposite” implies that one might be likely to discover an equal amount of both.

John, I know that you mean well and I harbor no ill will. I respect your desire to learn the truth, and your optimism that many untold stories of good Ukrainians are still out there. I’m sure they exist. And I am responding to only one part of your thoughtful comments.

But I have my own bias and perspective. My father is from Poland and lost his entire family. I grew up with no paternal grandparents or first cousins, and no photographs or mementos from his family. There is currently one living person who knew my father as a child. My father was one of the “lucky” survivors who managed to have a career and raise a family. But the impact of the trauma is felt to this day. It is felt in my mother’s family as well.

I recognize the importance of searching out heroes. We can be inspired by the example of Witold Fomienko and Vladik Kuvoriki. Perhaps we can learn even more from their behavior than from that of the collaborators. But too much emphasis on the heroes we risk minimizing the horror of the atrocities.  Articles like this one show that the Ukrainians’ treatment of Jews during WWII was far from “mixed.”

Readers with stories to share about their Ukrainian ancestors and the Holocaust please post them in the comments or use the contact form.


  1. I had a somewhat similar experience when I posted about the history of my grandfather’s town in Lithuania: Greetings from Mariampole. I don’t know what to say. I wish my commentator from Lithuania, Carra, would not stop reading my blog or commenting because we don’t agree about what happened in history.

    • mominisrael says

      I see what you mean. I had a guest, a lovely German convert. When the topic came up she said she didn’t understand why people thought her conversion had anything to do with the Holocaust.


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