UNESCO and USHMM support a project on educating about the Holocaust in Ukraine


With the support of UNESCO and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC) in Kyiv, Ukraine, hosted an expert workshop entitled “Holocaust: Facts, Memorialization, Lessons” on 15 November 2018. It brought together 15 historians, educators, museums managers, curators, and opinion leaders from various Ukrainian institutions with the aim to create a common understanding of contentious episodes in Ukraine’s national past, such as the Holocaust. The outcome of the workshop will serve as a basis for future research and the development of programs and recommendations.

In an interview, Yana Barinova, the Chief Operating Officer at BYHMC, and Andriy Rukkas, BYHMC Academic Officer and Associate Professor of History at Taras Shevchenko National University, explain the motivation and aims of the project.

 “The Holocaust is also a Ukrainian tragedy: Many of the crimes that fall within the scope of the Holocaust took place in Ukraine. More than 1.5 Million Ukrainian Jews were killed. We have to teach about it as a part of our national history and also to prevent future atrocities,” explains Andriy Rukkas the historical relevance of education about the Holocaust in Ukraine. However, formal education offers only very limited access to information about this significant topic. “In secondary school, there are about three to four lessons dedicated to the whole history of the Second World War. Within these lessons, teachers have to address the Holocaust. This of course leaves little time to talk about the nature of the tragedy and its history in detail,” continues Andriy Rukkas. “Some universities, like Taras Shevchenko National University, offer courses on the history of the Holocaust, but many professors do not feel comfortable proposing such classes. There is still a lack of academic historical knowledge and for many researchers it is difficult to access literature or resources about the Holocaust, as they are not available in Ukrainian.”

Challenges regarding addressing Ukraine’s past during the Second World War are not limited to formal education, but also manifest themselves in the country’s broader culture of remembrance. Yana Barinova explains how: “It is extremely difficult to write a national narrative of the history of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and especially Ukraine, as borders have changed so much over the last decades. It is unclear, which territory we should describe when we talk about Ukraine during the Holocaust.” Other controversies arise around the collaboration of the Ukrainian population with the German occupying forces as well as the remembrance of different victim groups. Yana Barinova illustrates these challenges using the example of the historical site of Babi Yar: “In September 1941, more than 30,000 Jews were shot at this location just outside of Kyiv by German police and their auxiliaries. Today, there are 30 monuments, built at different times by different groups. Visitors do not have access to one cohesive storyline that would help them to understand what happened there. Instead, they have to navigate through many, sometimes conflicting, narratives, which takes a lot of efforts.”

To address these fragmented and often competing depictions of history, the Bai Yar Holocaust Memorial Center was established in 2016. “The Center’s permanent exhibition does not aim to create consensus, but to stimulate debates and to inform dialogue”, presents Yana Barinova the Center’s innovative approach. “This process can help to create a common ground, a common understanding of this history. This can also contribute to further debates about other contentious episodes and historical catastrophes in Ukraine, such as oppression under Stalin, the annexation of Crimea and the nuclear catastrophe of Chernobyl.“

The workshop held on 15 November 2018 supported this approach. Its main aim was to create the basis for a common understanding of the Holocaust in Ukraine, starting with a common vocabulary. To this end, the workshop was divided into three sessions, entitled "Facts", "Memorialization", and "Lessons", which included presentations by Sofia Dyak, Olga Honchar, Daryna Gladun, Igor Shchupak, Yegor Vradiy, Iryna Zakharchuk, Andriy Kulikov and were moderated by Andriy Rukkas, Oksana Dovgopolova from Mechnikov Odesa National University, and Vladyslav Hrynevych from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Natalya Lazar and Aleisa Fishman from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum attended the workshop. The participants of the workshop worked on drafting a short program document with three sections, including a “glossary” of concepts and terms, a list of “points of understanding” to build consensus, and  a list of “acute issues” that continue to cause discussions. According to Yana Barinova, the workshop led to robust results: “The workshop has helped us to kick-off a long-term process of working together and coming to terms with the Ukrainian past.” The draft documents will serve to inform a longer paper, which currently holds the working title “A Road Map to Understanding”.

The workshop was held under the auspices of UNESCO and the USHMM. “It is wonderful to see how such renowned institution, as the USHMM and UNESCO, are supporting this project and our Center”, says Yana Barinova. “Touching on these controversial topics raises tension in our country. This is why we need strong and influential partners. The endorsement, support and knowledge of UNESCO and the USHMM are therefore crucial for the success of our project. It has enhanced our mission, strengthened the outcomes and will help us to create and sustain new partnerships.” 

The workshop is the outcome of the 2017 International Conference on Education and the Holocaust, a capacity-building program for education stakeholders organized jointly by UNESCO and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The program aims to equip education stakeholders from across the world with the tools and skills to develop and implement projects that advance the institutionalization of education about the Holocaust and other violent pasts tailored to the respective national context.