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Holocaust – is that wallpaper paste?

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Last year two student sisters appearing on a Russian TV quiz show gained instant notoriety when asked to define the word ‘Holocaust’. A trip to Auschwitz with journalist Mumin Shakirov dispelled their ignorance, but, as he reflects, it was hardly surprising, given the subject is so rarely mentioned in Russia today.

Mumin Shakirov
1 March 2013

Ksenya and Zhenya were messing about as usual in the packed changing room as they awaited their turn to be made up with the other girls. In the half hour left before the programme recording started they changed their outfits twice, lingered over their choice of jewellery, argued about their hairdos and took souvenir photos of each other. The Karatygin sisters’ heads buzzed with everything under the sun – except the questions they might be asked this time. There’s no point in preparing for a TV quiz show; you never know what you’ll be asked by the star presenter, Olga Shelest. The last time, the twins were asked, ‘Is the Bermuda Triangle a style of bikini wax?’ They answered ‘No’, which turned out to be a good guess, and won them 500 roubles (£10). The money wasn’t great, but they did get on the telly. 

In the Vladimir region where they live, the almost daily ‘Amazingly Beautiful’ show on the MUZ TV channel is popular with a young audience. The Karatygin sisters already have a social network fan club; people write to them, ask for autographs and offer friendship. When the make-up person was finished with them, Ksenya and Zhenya were taken through to the brightly lit set where Olga Shelest and her giggling boy assistants were waiting for them. The twins could not have imagined that in a few days they would be famous not only in their godforsaken bit of Russia, but further afield as well. 

More than a moment of fame

As soon as Ksenya and Zhenya had made themselves comfortable on a soft sofa, Olga Shelest popped her question: ‘What does ‘Holocaust’ mean?’ The co-host boys were sure the sisters wouldn’t be able to answer, and they would get to keep the money. And they were right. The twins were stumped by the question, but eventually produced a brief answer: ‘It’s a wallpaper paste’. The Russian internet went viral. A clip from the programme was an instant hit on YouTube, and for the Karatygins the shit hit the fan, with everything from direct personal insults to leering comments about their schoolteachers. The girls, however, ignored all the brickbats – they had achieved their moment of fame and were determined to enjoy it. 

Many Russian journalists and readers were content to mock the Karatygin sisters' ignorance. Mumin Shakirov looked to engage with them, and found two good-natured, if undereducated girls 

Ksenya later reminisced about the first days after the show went on air: ‘We would walk into the Metro, looking everyone in the eye and shrugging our shoulders, as if to say “What, don’t you recognise us? We’re the famous Karatygins!”  Talk about attitude!’

‘The Russian internet went viral, with everything from personal insults to leering comments about their schoolteachers. The girls, however, ignored all the brickbats – they had achieved their moment of fame and were determined to enjoy it.’

The Karatygin sisters were born in the small town of Krasnaya Gorbatka, which is about 300km from Moscow. They went to school there, and were active in various after school clubs. Zhenya also had singing and piano lessons; Ksenya didn’t show any particular talents. They were brought up mainly by their mother, Valentina; their father died from an illness when they were still children. For their last two years of secondary education, they were sent to a boarding school in Vladimir, the regional capital, and from there they set their sights on Moscow. They applied to the Moscow Kosygin State Textile University, and, much to their mother’s surprise, were accepted. Life in Moscow was expensive, so they supplemented their grants by appearing on TV, handing out advertising flyers outside Metro stations, doing street surveys and working as nannies. 

Was it real, or a performance for the cameras?

I invited the twins to Radio Liberty’s Moscow studio (I was working for RL at the time), along with Alla Gerber, president of Russia’s Holocaust Foundation, to discuss the incident that had created such an online furore. What interested Alla and myself in particular, was whether Zhenya and Ksenya really didn’t know what the Holocaust was, or whether they were playing dumb for the cameras, to boost the show’s ratings. Here are some extracts from our conversation.

Zhenya Karatygin (ZK): To be honest, I didn’t know the answer. I’m no intellectual… I relied on my feminine logic; the word reminded me of names for household products, insecticides, that sort of thing, and I thought it sounded like a name they’d give to glue.  Ksenya didn’t try to contradict me, so that’s what we answered.

Ksenya Karatygin (KK): I did know what the Holocaust was.

Alla Gerber (AG): So what would you have answered – then, I’m not talking about now?

KK: I would have answered that it was the persecution of Jews during the Second World War.

Mumin Shakirov (MS): What else do you know about it? You must have read something.

KK: (silent)

ZK: To be honest, I’ve only just found out what the Holocaust was from what Ksenya just said  

MS: You mean you still haven’t read anything about it? 

ZK: No, I haven’t

MS: And have you ever heard the word ‘Auschwitz’?

ZK: No

MS: Ksenya, what about you?

KK: I’ve heard it.

AG: So what is it? 

KK: Something to do with a war, maybe the Civil War?

AG: The Civil War?

KK: I’m not going to try to be clever, I’ve heard the word but I don’t know what it was or where I heard about it.

ZK : You were asking just now who Jews were, what they were like. I think it’s when parents have different racial backgrounds, for example if a Russian woman marries a man with a different nationality…

We asked no more questions about history and politics, and moved the conversation on to more personal topics. This revealed that Ksenya and Zhenya were very fond of their mother, worried about her health and phoned her from Moscow almost every day. Valentina Karatygin had the twins when she was 43 and is now over 60, she is still recovering from an operation and lives alone in Krasnaya Gorbatka in a three room flat in an old building. She has only a small pension but still manages to help her daughters out financially. Ksenya lives with her boyfriend in a rented flat on the outskirts of Moscow; Zhenya lives in a student hostel. Their studies are going well (this was later confirmed by the head of their university). 

‘You were asking just now who Jews were. I think it’s when parents have different racial backgrounds, for example if a Russian woman marries a man with a different nationality…’  Zhenya Karatygin

In general the Karatygin sisters made a good impression on Alla Gerber and me: they are polite, a little shy, but at home in front of a camera and unafraid to ask if there’s something they don’t understand. They are physically very graceful and lively, and talk well, telling us vivid, funny stories about their childhood. But the readers of RL’s website, where the interview was published, ignored these personal qualities and could only home in on the gaps in their knowledge of history. Their comments were, not unexpectedly, full of caustic remarks about the Karatygins, sometimes couched in offensive terms, and these swiftly provoked what looked like a concerted counterattack from angry anti-Semites and xenophobes. 

A trip to Auschwitz

Our interview with the TV ‘stars’ obviously demanded a sequel, and I came up with the idea of taking Zhenya and Ksenya on a trip from Moscow to Warsaw, Krakow and Auschwitz. I thought they ought to see what no one – not their mother, schoolteachers, classmates nor older friends – could show them or tell them about. I decided to give it a try, although I wasn’t sure if a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau would make much of an impression on them, and the Polish Cultural Centre in Moscow, quite unexpectedly, offered to sponsor the trip.  

At midnight on 28th October 2012 we boarded a train at Moscow’s Byelorussian Station. The sisters were in high spirits, watching the lights of Moscow through the window, examining rustling Euro notes and the Shengen visas in their passports and learning Polish words from a phrasebook. It was their first trip abroad, and at that point their curiosity extended only as far as a pleasant walk through old Krakow and some shopping. They were immediately at home with the video camera that would accompany them. The first serious conversation came the next morning, when the train pulled out of Minsk and headed for Warsaw. It had been more than six months since their scandalous TV appearance, but they had no regrets about their performance. 

‘There’s one good thing about that stupid show: you realise that other people are as thick as you are. If you asked at any school or university, even ones where they teach history, I’m not sure that everybody would know what the Holocaust was. So I don’t feel bad about it at all.’ Ksenya Karatygin 

KK: We got carried away, we wanted to be seen – and we were seen.

ZK: The main thing about being on a show like that is that you get to meet new people. Afterwards we were asked on lots of other shows, on other channels. We were pleased; we’d been noticed. 

MS: But a lot of people were attacking you on the internet and even using abusive language about you. 

KK: There’s one good thing about that stupid show: you realise that there are other people who are as thick as you are. If you asked at any school or university, even ones where they teach history, I’m not sure that everybody would know what the Holocaust was. So I don’t feel bad about it at all. 

ZK: I didn’t read those comments, I was more annoyed that my Mum heard them – she told me about them. We’re popular at home, so I don’t know if she read about it in the papers or if other people told her. But I didn’t read any of it.  

At the word ‘Mum’ their eyes immediately brimmed with tears. Valentina is going to have an operation after a stroke, the right side of her face is paralysed and her recovery isn’t going well. Ksenya burst into tears, and Zhenya tried to calm her down. We resumed our chat after a short break. 

KK: Mum brought us up, although Dad was around as well. When we were little he helped Mum a lot, but then he got a job and started drinking.

The twins’ father died after a stroke when they were 17 years old. I tried several times to return to the subject of the Holocaust, but at a certain point Zhenya got fed up answering questions, rushed out of the compartment and wouldn’t speak to anyone for a long time. She even wanted to return to Moscow, and her mood infected Ksenya as well. We only made up at Warsaw’s noisy Central Station, where we arrived at six in the evening, and the twins were distracted by the bustle of the platform, the new faces and unfamiliar language. An hour later we were on the express to Krakow. Ksenya and Zhenya had had something to eat and were in a much better mood. We steered clear of the subject of the Holocaust and talked about the future. Zhenya is studying to be a colour designer, but doesn’t see herself working in the textile industry; she would like to become an actor. Ksenya hasn’t decided what she’d like to do after university; she lives for the moment, thinks about a house of her own, a family, children and, of course, her boyfriend Dima. 

The Memorial Museum

On the morning of 30th December we got on the Krakow-Auschwitz bus. The sisters produced a camera and spent the whole journey taking pictures out of the window: woods, hills, old stone houses, cemeteries and village churches. They were excited about lots of things, especially gardens with beautifully mown lawns, and were struck by how clean and homely everything looked, even quite ordinary farmhouses and orchards. As the bus approached the town of Oświęcim, better known in English by the German version of its name, Auschwitz, I asked Ksenya and Zhenya what they were expecting from this trip. 

ZK: I’m curious, it’s like with the Battle of Borodino: you read a book and immediately you want to go there, to imagine it, to experience it, to go on a guided tour and hear more about it – things our teachers never told us.

MS: What did your mother and your friends and the other students think when you told them you were going to Poland?

KK: They said, ‘it’s alright for some, getting to go abroad for a week with somebody else paying. How did you wangle it?’ They’re a bit jealous. Of course, it’s partly a holiday for us, and it’s our first trip abroad. 

ZK: At first Mum was really for it, and she helped us organise our passports, but when it came to it, a week before we left, she suddenly panicked. She was all, ‘Why, what’s it for, maybe you should back out?’

At ten o’clock the bus parked at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Once past the entrance gate with its infamous motto ‘Arbeit macht Frei’ (work makes you free) you can visit a series of barracks with exhibitions on different themes: ‘Extermination’, ‘Material Evidence’, ‘The Everyday Life of a Prisoner’, ‘The Death Block’.  We went through one building after another, listening to our guide’s detailed account of how smoothly and efficiently Hitler’s death machine worked. The sisters were told where the various exhibits came from – tonnes of human hair, artificial limbs and crutches, toothbrushes, suitcases, bags and other personal possessions. A separate exhibition looked at the Nazis’ methods of killing their prisoners, most of whom were Jews. We saw instruments used for torture and human experimentation, pellets of Zyklon-B, the gas used to kill people in the gas chambers, and wooden models of the sealed chambers with little human figures in them. Then we were shown the wall of death, where tens of thousands of people were shot, and the only surviving crematorium – the Nazis managed to blow up the other four before their retreat. We also visited the second camp, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, three kilometres away from Auschwitz I and even larger. 

‘Now, whether we like it or not, we are among the people who know about what happened. I’m ashamed that this was a huge event in history, and Soviet troops took part in liberating the prisoners, but we didn’t know anything about it.’ Ksenya Karatygin

Ksenya and Zhenya listened to the guide in silence. Some of the several hundred visitors to the Memorial complex each day faint as they go round, and many take tranquillisers.  Zhenya also broke down: as she walked past the display cabinets containing children’s clothes, including thousands of pairs of small shoes, she suddenly stopped dead, then walked over to the window and we heard her weeping, quietly at first and then sobbing her heart out. Ksenya tried without success to calm her down, and then burst into tears herself. We decided not to continue the tour. Then Zhenya disappeared and we didn’t try to find her, as she obviously wanted to be alone. 

The same thing happened with Ksenya the next day. They had booked a room for us to watch ‘The Liberation of Auschwitz’, a documentary made by front line filmmaker Aleksandr Vorontsov in 1945, after Soviet troops entered the camp. The film contained footage and still photographs, and the scenes of violence and cruelty put Ksenya into a state of shock. With tears streaming down her face, she had to let her feelings out: ‘Now, whether we like it or not, we are among the people who know  what happened. I’m ashamed that this was a huge event in history, and Soviet troops took part in liberating the prisoners, but we didn’t know anything about it.’

Why didn’t they know?

You can hardly blame these poor young women, famous thanks to a fatuous TV quiz, for not knowing about the Holocaust. I remember my own schooldays in Soviet times; we weren’t taught anything about it either. We knew that the Red Army drove the Nazis back as far as Berlin; we knew that millions of people perished in the Second World War, but we weren’t told anything about the mass extermination of Jews. On the other hand, we saw plenty of anti-Semitism, both official and otherwise, in the USSR, where many Jews were unwilling or afraid to admit to being Jewish, and where a tacit quota system limited their access to university places and jobs, not to mention a ban on emigration. In this situation, how could anyone show any interest in the Holocaust – not many people in the Soviet Union would have even known the word. 

'At school in Soviet times we weren’t taught about the Holocaust  either, but we did see lots of anti-Semitism - a tacit quota system limited Jewish people’s access to university places and jobs.'

Historian and researcher Ksenya Poluektova is not surprised by Russians’ general ignorance  of this human tragedy, and believes it is typical not only of young people but of their parents’ generation as well: ‘One the one hand, it’s just not interesting, there’s nothing there to fire the imagination or talk about, and on the other this is a generation weaned on TV and exposed to very bad history textbooks.’ Poluektova believes the young people of today should be understood, not criticised: ’How are they supposed to know? The only things they might have seen are films like ‘Schindler’s List’ and ‘Life is Beautiful’, which shows the Holocaust happening not here, not to us, but in some faraway countries. They can’t see that it has any direct connection with Russia.’  

Before we left Krakow, I asked Ksenya and Zhenya whether they would tell their friends and fellow students about what they had seen. Ksenya thought for a moment and said, ‘I don’t know many people who’d be interested in something that happened here 70 years ago. If they ask, we’ll tell them all about it, but we won’t bring up the subject ourselves.’ She looked at Zhenya, who nodded in agreement. Would their trip to Poland change their lives in any way? ‘I think so. I hope so.’     

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