Teaching the Holocaust in Ukraine, eight decades on

Seventy five years on from the liberation of Auschwitz, we interview a researcher in western Ukraine on making history interactive.

Natalia Ivchyk
27 January 2020, 12.01am
Signposts to Jewish sites in Rivne, Ukraine - set up by local students

Seventy five years after the liberation of Auschwitz, the passage of time and the passing away of witnesses to one of the worst genocides in human history has brought an urgency to the question of how the Holocaust will be taught when it is no longer a part of living memory.

Natalia Ivchyk is a history lecturer from Ukraine, a country with a particularly complicated relationship to this period in history. Rivne, her hometown, had a 60% Jewish population during the interwar period and was a richly multicultural city. However, 17,500 local Jews were murdered on 6-7 November, 1941, and on the night of 13-14 July, 1942, the Rivne ghetto was liquidated.

Ivchyk has drawn on her experience using personal, local narratives in the classroom to create a new kind of course on the Holocaust for her university students, one that challenges them to find witnesses among their family and neighbours, and map the forgotten histories of their towns and villages.

What do local, personal narratives add to your students’ understanding of the Holocaust?

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I knew it was important to create a course about the Holocaust that would focus specifically on our region, the Volhynia region of western Ukraine. This part of Ukraine has a very complicated history, as it changed hands many times over the centuries. Our city, Rivne, was once a part of Poland and had a vibrant Jewish culture, but was later the capital of German occupied Ukraine during the Second World War. Because of this history all around us, I knew learning from the personal stories of their neighbours and relatives would engage students much better than memorising facts and dates.

What does the course look like? How do students interact with the narratives?


I started with video testimonies from witnesses from our region available in public archives and from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. I also made my own interviews with witnesses, which is quite difficult because this is still a raw topic for people here.

Especially the topic of collaboration is still complex. Very few scholars have ventured to write about Ukrainian-Jewish relations during the Second World War. Some of those I interviewed remembered those from their community who tried to help their Jewish neighbours as well. It’s a mix, but it’s the participation in genocide that is very difficult for people to talk about.

I want to discuss the Holocaust with my students like a social history. After working with the video testimonies, they will be assigned to create their own memory projects by doing video interviews with people in their own communities who remember this period. They’ll be tasked with going out and finding these people and investigating the hidden history of places they’ve known their whole lives. Once they’ve made these discoveries, I’ll encourage them to use electronic maps and other multimedia tools to mark those spaces with photos and the stories they find.

Where did the idea for the course originate?

Actually one of my inspirations for creating this course was a student I had a few years ago in a course on the political history of Ukraine who, on his own initiative, went out and interviewed people and marked some historic spaces with QR codes so people can learn about them. One was a famous Jewish theatre during the interwar period and another was a synagogue, which is still standing but no longer operating as a synagogue. I saw that this type of research has a real impact on students.

Is the teaching of the Holocaust politicised in Ukraine?

It is very politicised. The main challenge is how to address the participation of Ukrainians in the Holocaust. Of course, the Holocaust is taught in high schools and universities as a part of general Ukrainian history, and there are several very good Jewish studies programs in Ukraine teaching Jewish history and culture. Openly discussing the experiences of Ukrainians and their participation in the Holocaust, however, is still extremely difficult, not just in educational institutions, but in the broader society. At some points there has also been concern from some corners that teaching the Holocaust would somehow “compete” with teaching the Holodomor genocide [the man-made famine that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33].

How has the teaching of the Holocaust in Ukraine changed since Soviet times?

In the USSR it wasn’t possible to study the Holocaust at all. The topic was closed for educators and historians. After the collapse of the USSR and Ukrainian independence, we slowly started developing programs to learn about the Holocaust in Ukraine, as was the case across Eastern Europe in the 1990s. If we talk about commemorative practices, Ukraine did very well in the 1990s. Several monuments dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust were erected and the door started to open to this topic. But, overall, the approach toward teaching the Holocaust in Ukraine has always been dependent on the broader political situation in the country. Now we have the opportunity to start exploring our regional, local and personal narrative histories, even when it is difficult, and to map the historical and symbolic spaces in our communities.

Natalia Ivchyk is a lecturer at the Department of Political Sciences at Rivne State Humanitarian University in Ukraine, where she researches the history of the Holocaust and the politics of memory in Ukraine. She recently completed a Freedom Chair Fellowship, which is co-organised by The Charles University Department of Russian and East European Studies in Prague and the Prague Civil Society Centre. She is also a member of the Center of Studies of Memory Policy and Public History Mnemonics. 

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