Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: Courage and Fear

Courage and fear. The first quality mobilizes action. The second emotion can paralyze the brain, but not always the heart.

Courage and Fear is also the title of a remarkable new book written by the Polish scholar and diplomat Ola Hnatiuk.  Her book is a gripping account of both the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Lviv in the Second World War.

The book focuses on the daily life and dire choices faced by a very special group of people in dramatic circumstances. We meet the Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian writers, artists, musicians, academics, and medical community of the city. This cultural elite outwitted, compromised with, or was destroyed by the barbarians in the garden.

Dr. Hnatiuk received her PhD in Ukrainian Literature from Warsaw University. She was a Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute Fellow. Currently she is a Professor in Culture Studies at Warsaw University, and also a professor at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

Dr. Hnatiuk has won numerous awards for her scholarly work, including work fostering Polish-Ukrainian relations. She has also served in the Diplomatic Corps of Poland at the embassy in Ukraine.

Her book, now available in Polish and Ukrainian, is not a standard academic monograph detailing a complex and controversial topic that continues to divide historians. Detailed it is, but in a highly personal and emotionally resonant style that reflects the best literary memoirs.

A very personal story is woven into the grand sweep of tragic events that the book covers. Hnatiuk’s mother was born in Lviv the very day after the Red Army occupied the city in September 1939. Her family left the city on the last convey of repatriates to post-war Poland in June 1946.

The family connection is a key element in the author’s darkly evocative portrait of the battered city. Hnatiuk’s grandmother and a friend, the Lviv artist Yaroslava Muzyka, who is a major figure and moral authority in the book, took great risks to deliver whatever food they could find to Jewish friends during the Nazi occupation.

In her foreword, the author writes that she set herself the goal of transcending national narratives. She wanted to depict individual histories and strategies of survival. Hnatiuk delves into what she calls the “ego-documents.”  These diaries, letters, memoirs, interrogation protocols, and third party accounts provide richly textured insights into the choices made by people under extreme duress. And she shrewdly notes texts written immediately after an event offer a more reliable account than those edited and published years later.

Hnatiuk has noted that there is very little black or white in the book. It is all shades of grey. She carefully engages with the most harrowing events of the war years and offers a sophisticated analysis of the various interpretations of events.

The book is replete with striking examples of cruelty and suspense. We have the story of the Soviet apparatchik warning the professors of the newly occupied university that “we are not vegetarians.”  And in the early days of the Nazi occupation, the Gestapo gathers Jewish medical staff from the city’s clinics in a prison courtyard, threatens them with violence, and then suddenly releases them.

There is the remarkable family saga of Milena, Mykhailo, and Ivan Rudnytskyi, the offspring of a Ukrainian Catholic father and a Jewish mother.  They all achieved great success in their chosen fields of public affairs or literature. But their very renown made them vulnerable to vicious denunciations.

Much much worse is yet to come but in all these stories Hnatiuk shows the demoralization and psychological shock afflicted by totalitarian techniques.

And yet within this unrelenting story of arrests, deportations, forced labor, murder, and exile, some in wartime Lviv found the moral strength to reach across ethnic or political divides to offer help and express solidarity.

The historian Timothy Snyder has called Hnatiuk’s book a compelling  study of pluralism, a pluralism reflected in concrete deeds, in a city, among friends, family, and within your own mind. Snyder praises the human dimension expressed in this book, a richer dimension than the usual paean to tolerance or nostalgia for a lost past.

As Hnatiuk writes in her elegiac conclusion to this very compelling work: “The world of polycultural Lviv disappeared. Something however was retained. Something that merits our deepest respect. And that something is the belief in a friendship that helped to conquer fear.”

Until next time, shalom!

– Written and narrated by Peter Bejger

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