The largest Jewish human rights organization in the US, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, joined the chorus of those who condemn the declaration of controversial nationalist leader Stepan Bandera as a Hero of Ukraine.
Mark Weitzman, head of government affairs at Wiesenthal Center wrote to Ukraine’s Ambassador in the US, noting that “it is surely a travesty when such an honor is granted right at the period when the world pauses to remember the victims of the Holocaust on January 27.”
Expressing his “deepest revulsion”, Weitzman also reminded that the late Simon Wiesenthal, who founded their organization, was born in Ukraine himself.
Earlier, Russian Jews similarly called Yushchenko’s move “a provocation promoting the rehabilitation of Nazi crimes” and “a challenge to the civilized world.”
Outgoing President Yushchenko, who lost the presidential elections on January 17, signed a decree conferring Bandera, the head of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) in 1941-1959, the status of a national hero.
Bandera’s supporters – mainly in Western Ukraine – claim he fought for Ukraine’s independence against both Soviet and German soldiers. However, many others in his country and Russia believe he was a war criminal who collaborated with the Nazis during WWII and killed innocent people.
The Federation of Russia’s Jewish Communities, or FEOR, in a statement issued Monday, said Yushchenko’s move “insults the memory of the victims” of Nazi crimes.
“The decree says Bandera was awarded ‘for his spiritual invincibility, fight for national ideology, heroism and self-sacrifice in a struggle for the independence of Ukrainian state’,” the document published on the organization’s website (www.feor.ru) reads. “Apparently, this way Yushchenko equates heroism and self-sacrifice to the mass murdering of the Jews and Poles that Bandera and his associates were widely practicing.”
The document authors believe “such a political gesture is a challenge to the civilized world, to everyone who fought against Nazism” during the Second World War.
The Federation of Russian Jews believes that the next Ukrainian president should reverse Yushchenko’s “disgraceful decrees” and make statements against the revision of WWII results.
During his presidency Yushchenko has widely promoted Ukrainian nationalism. Previously, another leader of Ukrainian nationalists, Roman Shukhevych, was awarded the Hero of Ukraine title.
On January 22, Bandera’s grandson, also named Stepan, received the award for his grandfather.
“Even though it was a surprise to me, the president acted wisely,” he told Radio Liberty. “[Yushchenko] could have done it earlier, but that would have been perceived as an attempt to win votes.”
According to Russia’s Jewish community, now that Yushchenko, who gained slightly more than 5% of the vote in the recent election, has no chances left to continuing fighting for his presidency. Therefore, “he has decided to leave his mark on Ukraine’s history as a person who tried to immortalize the memory of the country’s nationalists.”
“Ukrainian society is split into two parts, one of which is strongly opposed to the move and is angered by it… whilst the other supports the president’s decision,” Andrey Glotser, representative of Russia's Chief Rabbi Berl Lazar told RT.
Following the collapse of the USSR, many former Soviet territories including Ukraine and the Baltic states have been in search of new national heroes, he said. However, due to an “ideological vacuum”, this search is pretty difficult. “Their independence is quite young and these states look for new heroes among those who fought against the Soviet rule,” Glotser said.
“Instead of approaching history with clean hands and being impartial when considering the issue, they declare heroes of those whose morality was questionable since they were killing innocent people,” he said. The Nuremberg trials condemned the crimes of the Nazi and their accomplices, “so it is strange to see what is happening now in these states.”
“We believe there is no reasonable or logical explanation to this and there cannot be one,” he added.
Some member states of the Council of Europe have lately become more active and aggressive in their heroization of Fascism and revising results of the Second World War, the Head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev told Itar-Tass.
“Unfortunately, quite often these states use rather questionable formulations,” said Kosachev, who is also the head of the Russian delegation to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE).
“In Ukraine, Bandera is honored as a fighter for independence. In Georgia, they blow up a memorial since, they claim, it is necessary in order to make way for building a [new parliament building],” he said.
According to the Russian official, the issue should be discussed openly, fairly and in an unbiased way. However, “Ukraine, the Baltic states and Georgia have many sponsors, who, for geopolitical reasons, turn a blind eye” on what is happening in these states.
He said this kind of faulty policy is quite common in the international arena, including PACE, and vowed to continue fighting with it by introducing relevant resolutions and condemnation of the heroization of Nazism.
Andrey Glotser, Lazar's press secretary, echoed the Russian official opinion. He said he thinks that “the reaction of European leaders such as France, Germany, Great Britain and others should be harsher. However, for some reason, statements we hear are not strong enough.”
Meanwhile, the reaction of some in Ukraine was certainly strong. Konstantin Zarudnev, a member of the Leninsky District Council and an activist from the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine burned his passport in protest against naming Bandera a hero, Interfax agency reports.
He said Yushchenko’s decree “legalizes state terrorism and murder” because Stepan Bandera led “the killings of school directors, teachers, and law enforcement officials.”
Bandera was accused of murder and terrorism by Soviet authorities. On October 15, 1959, he was assassinated by a KGB agent in Munich, Germany.