Ukraine in Focus: Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk. “The Bridge over the Chasm of Oblivion”



Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk is a Holocaust scholar active in the field of public history and memory politics. She is a former Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences at Rivne State University for the Humanities in her hometown of Rivne, Ukraine. She co-founded and manages the NGO “Mnemonics” devoted to citizenship education and the memory of the multicultural history of the Rivne region.






The Bridge over the Chasm of Oblivion: Creating Spaces of Holocaust Remembrance in Ukraine


Rivne is one of the twenty-six regional centres of Ukraine. It is a city of about two hundred forty thousand inhabitants located in the northwestern part of the country, which, like many other cities in Ukraine, is the inheritor of a multicultural history. But before going any further, I would like to start with one of my most vivid memories of the city, when, on a summer day, my mother and I were riding the bus to our countryside cottage near an area called Sosonky. At some point, I looked out the window and asked my mother about the road we were passing and where it led. My mother fell silent for a while and then confessed she did not know. In reality, that road led to the site of one of the worst massacres of Jewish citizens of Ukraine. But the site clearly had no place in the city’s memory.

The story of my childhood illustrates the role of the state in constructing collective memory around certain historical narratives. By describing Rivne’s symbolic space, I will try to show the place of the Holocaust in the memory of its citizens. Meanwhile, I would like to note right away that it is impossible to characterize local memory without including the state component. In this case, it would concern the public space, which is in a sense a landscape of memories.


Symbolic Space is a Landscape of Memories

Public space is a site of historical memory that reflects both the past and the present. Space is a site that transmits value messages that a city addresses to its residents or visitors. Its “language” is a product of both the historical heritage and political elites who have constructed memory based on convenient historical narratives. By marking the space with certain signs and meanings, the participants in this process try to create an environment of dialogue.

The state and local political elites, who make decisions at some point or another, decide the subjects of commemoration. First of all, they choose to commemorate what should not be forgotten, what should unite and consolidate the citizens of the state, regardless of their ethnicity and religion, into a single whole. At the same time, these political actors try to find answers to another dilemma: what images have disappeared, for various reasons, from the memorial narrative of urban spaces. After all, these images can be revived, or vice versa, can continue to be silenced and doomed to oblivion. Therefore, symbolic space is political in nature.

Symbolic space has the power to enforce the significance of certain events, the activities of public and political figures or cultural representatives, and yet it can also silence certain stories of the city’s or state’s past, deliberately concealing them, as was the case with Sosonky, where there were no signs or plaques commemorating the events that had taken place there. Thus, my mother, among many others, was just unaware of them. These mechanisms – enforcement and concealment – are inherent in the construction of collective memory and ensure its functioning.

Cultural groups within the state, on the other hand, can be actors in the competition for the presence or absence of other cultural groups in their collective and local memory, or can marginalize their presence in symbolic space. The process takes place through the use of the landscape of memory to preserve the memory of the Other (this would be the case with Klym Savur (a chief Commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army-North, who initiated the ethnic cleansing of Poles in Volhynia in 1943). However, symbolic space can also exist in a contested space of tension and compromise with the memory of stories from the histories of different ethnic or cultural groups. For instance, the Memorial Sign to Volhynia Czechs who died during WWII.

Success in the competition between cultural groups for the representation of memory in symbolic space may lie in the ethno-demographic context of a region or country. After all, if the population is completely or relatively homogeneous, one of the competitors has an obvious advantage in the acceptable “formatting” of memory. Cities “speak” silently in their own language: objects of historical and cultural heritage, names of streets, cultural and commercial centres, symbols, monuments, cemeteries, buildings. This language of memory, which is mostly non-verbal, is heard in many different ways.


The state as an institution for constructing collective memory

An indication of the Holocaust’s retouching and de facto silencing in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic can be seen in the historical education of the time. In the former USSR, and thus in Soviet Ukraine, the victims of Nazism were considered a homogenous group of “Soviet people,” instead of being treated as members of a particular cultural group, as evidenced by the language used in the inscriptions on monuments commemorating the victims of WWII. The topic of the Holocaust was silenced in those years, as was the topic of the Holodomor.

During the existence of the USSR, the topic of the Holocaust was silenced in every possible way. Stalin’s anti-Semitism was reflected in the USSR’s formal policy of erasure of the memory of the Holocaust. Until the late 1980s and early 1990s, the objective coverage of the Holocaust was impossible. During the perestroika years, certain aspects of WWII played an explosive role. The public learned about many subjects that had been suppressed for decades (for example, the enormous losses of the Red Army in the summer of 1941). Among them was the Holocaust, which, like the Holodomor, the Soviet-engineered Ukrainian famine that took place in 1932-1933, was a taboo in the USSR for decades.

Despite the fact that the Holocaust entered the public discourse, Ukraine in those years had not yet found its attitude to the issue of including the Holocaust in its collective memory. The answer to this question was formed both centrally, in the political elites of Kyiv and locally, in local communities. The question was whether the political elites (including the local ones) would be guided by their intention to hold their “own” pain (that is, the traumatic memory of the Holodomor) and “someone else’s” pain (that is, the “legacy” of the Holocaust) as equal, or whether they would differentiate this pain, leading to the eventual marginalization of the memories of others. In particular, this concerned the symbolic space of cities.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in Ukraine and its western part, in particular, there was a certain loyalty to the Other, which was due to the awareness of the common destinies of different cultural groups in the former USSR. The latter is known to be the state that for decades had imposed the “ideal” of the Soviet man on its citizens, and thus suggested not so much a process of integration as one of assimilation.

In the case of Ukrainians and Jewish people, it was also about them recognizing themselves as victims of totalitarian regimes. The fate of the targeted groups that were deliberately exterminated by the Bolsheviks and Nazis, the participation of some Jewish people in the People’s Movement of Ukraine for Perestroika, or its support, built bridges of understanding between the two cultural groups. The first manifestation of empathy for the victims of the Holocaust was the participation of representatives of different ethnicities (Ukrainians, in particular) in the events initiated by Jewish communities and dedicated to commemorating the victims of this genocide. This was the case, for example, in April 1990, when such a memorial event was held in Rivne for the first time. I’ll comment on that a bit later.

Another example of Ukraine’s gradual abandonment of the Soviet experience of silencing the Holocaust has been the erection of memorials. First of all, there was the unveiling on September 29, 1991, of a monument to the mass killing of Jewish people in Babyn Yar. Erecting monuments to Jewish victims of Nazism in various cities and towns of Ukraine, and commemorative events held at the dawn of Ukrainian statehood, spoke to the prospect of including the Holocaust in the Ukrainian collective memory.

Memorials, unveiling ceremonies and other commemoration practices that honored the memory of those innocent victims of Nazism, who were previously represented as Others in western Ukraine on the whole and Rivne, in particular, are one of the components that define the content of an inclusive model of remembrance.  In this case, the mere fact of attending the event and participating in the mourning is an action that invokes respect, empathy, and memory.


Sosonky is a memorial landscape in the memory frame of the local Holocaust

During the WWII, Rivne became the capital of one of the administrative districts occupied by the Nazis, the Reich Commissariat of Ukraine. Here, on November 6-7, 1941, in the Sosonky district, which at the time was considered an outskirt of the city, the Nazis executed 17,500 Jewish inhabitants of Rivne. More than 5,000 other Jewish people ended up in the ghetto, where they were imprisoned for eight months. In mid-July of the following year, those 5,000 Jews were also executed near Rivne in the town of Kostopil. As a result, the city lost what had been its largest ethno-religious community, which in the prewar period accounted for about 80% of its overall population. Thus, in the postwar years, the issue of honoring the memory of the victims of these mass killings arose.

The first memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Rivne was erected immediately after its liberation from Nazi occupation in 1944. But a year later the monument was restored, but this time with the Star of David on it. In 1967, a plaque was erected at the site of the mass shooting with the inscription: “A monument to Soviet citizens who died at the hand of fascist invaders during the Great Patriotic War of 1941 to 1945 will be erected here.”

This wording reflects the discourse of heroism and sacrifice of the Soviet people that prevailed in the USSR, in which there was no place for victims of individual ethnic groups. As a result of the monument’s ambiguous language, the site where Jewish people were executed did not actually turn into a place where commemorative events took place. This policy of the authorities led to the silencing of Sosonky. It did not speak to its descendants. The Rivne tragedy of the fall of 1941 was de facto erased from the memory of Rivne residents, including that of my mother and me, as I told you in my opening story.

The Holocaust victims, as well as those of the Holodomor, were discussed during the years of Gorbachev’s perestroika. Thus, the issue of saving the memory of those who perished during the Holocaust became relevant. The inclusion of the Other in collective memory (in this case, the Jewish victims of Nazism) is a complex and multifaceted process that depends on many factors.

The perception of certain facts by descendants as a precondition for different positions on the issue of honoring victims, including their memory in the symbolic spaces of cities are often legitimately applied to events related to the Holocaust. No less important is Anatolyi Podolsky’s conclusion that “…the state and society as a whole do not understand that the Holocaust is part of the general history of Ukraine, that is, its own history.”

In November 1990, a monument to the genocide was unveiled in the Sosonky district. The event was attended by representatives of the city authorities and members of Parliament. In June of the following year, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the massacre, a memorial was unveiled in this town. Along with representatives of the local Jewish cultural society, the ceremony was attended by local political elites of the still existing Soviet government.

With the creation of the memorial in Sosonky, the local authorities of the unoccupied state and the community of Rivne made a significant step forward in incorporating the Holocaust into the collective memory of the city’s population. The conclusion that the opening of the memorial in Sosonky has made a breakthrough in the perception of a fragment of Rivne’s history as one’s own pain, not someone else’s, is to some extent corrected by the fact that the actual initiative to erect it did not come from among national-democratic forces, but from the environment that existed at the end of the 1980s.

However, the main thing is the very fact of its discovery. After all, there was not just a place in the city that spoke of the place of execution of a target group of victims of Nazism. It created the conditions for the instrumentalization of memory: Sosonky was to become a place for memory practices. The memorial would speak to the Ukrainians, who already dominated Rivne in numbers, about the city’s non-Ukrainian past.

The inclusion of the Holocaust in the commemorative practice as a manifestation of sympathy of local political elites to the Otherness which was destroyed in Rivne turned out to be ambiguous. After the opening of the memorial in Sosonky, representatives of the local authorities from time to time avoided participating in events held there by local Jewish people.

Local political elites took part in the transformation of the city’s memorial space with the nationalist glorification of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army soldiers at the regional level. Meanwhile, 2005 saw the unveiling, in the city centre, of a monument to Ulas Samchuk, the head of the editorial office of the Volhynia newspaper, which carried pro-Nazi and anti-Semitic propaganda. In 1992, a memorial plaque was installed on the building of its editorial office. The heroism of the Red Army and the UPA became de facto predominant in the city’s landscape, while the Holocaust became a secondary component of Rivne’s memory. The Ukrainian-centred vision of memory continues with the monumentalization of Symon Petliura, an early 20th-century revolutionary leader and the head of the Ukrainian People’s Republic[1]. Ironically, the monument was erected on one of the city’s central streets, on the site where one of Rivne’s first theaters operated in the interwar years, owned by a local Jew, Leib Zafran.

Nevertheless, most of the monuments of the Soviet time in Rivne are dedicated to the events of WWII such as a mass grave of Soviet soldiers, a monument to the Victims of Fascism (on Bila Street). The ethnocentric vision of memory that replaced the Soviet one pushed the city’s multicultural history and the Holocaust to the margins of memory, occupying the public space of Rivne. After the unveiling of the monument, and later the memorial in Sosonky, any option for “weaving” the Holocaust into the symbolic space of the city, which is connected to the events of WWII, was hardly considered until mid-2018. The memorial in Sosonky remains de facto silent. It has no chance to fulfill its function of encouraging a dialogue with visitors because there are virtually no visitors there.

Until 2018, the symbolic space of Rivne continued to present memory from two different historical perspectives: the Soviet and Ukrainian nationalistic ones. The former continued to appear in the memorial and topographic space of the city. The intertwining of the memory of Holocaust victims and the memory of Rivne’s multicultural past, including its Jewish history as a shared history, gradually began to change at the end of 2016.


Non-Governmental Organizations and Memory of the Holocaust and Multicultural History

The role of the state and state institutions (for example, the Institute of National Memory (founded in 2006) defines the state vision of politics of memory and relays it to the local level. In the field of memory politics, the state has a monopoly on its implementation. This is evidenced by the return to the collective memory of the crimes of totalitarian regimes that were suppressed in the Soviet era, including the political repression in the USSR, the Holodomor, the deportation of Crimean Tatars, the Holocaust, and the genocide of the Roma.

Meanwhile, non-governmental organizations became promoters of historical commemoration. One of the first civic initiatives in the field of Holocaust remembrance in Ukraine was the creation in 1999 of the Ukrainian Institute for Holocaust Studies “Tkuma” (“Renaissance”), headed by Ihor Shchupak. The Ukrainian Centre for Holocaust Studies, led by Anatoliy Podolsky, was founded in 2002, and the Babyn Yar National Historical and Memorial Reserve was established in 2006. But over the following ten years, the reserve’s activities were almost invisible. The active phase began in the summer of 2016, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the massacre in Babyn Yar. In the same year, 2016, a private project on Babyn Yar, the Babyn Yar Memorial Centre, was launched.

One of the private initiatives that received the support of Rivne residents was the project of Mykhailo Balyk and Volodymyr Yakshyn. In 2016, political science graduate students at Rivne University initiated a project called “From Mammoths to Rivne. Historical Trails of Rivne”. The project was submitted to the public “participatory budget” and received financial support from Rivne city council residents. The project was implemented in 2017-2018 and involved marking the city with sign boards providing information on particular objects belonging to the city’s historical and cultural heritage. The project envisioned the return to the city’s memorial space of objects related to the Polish, Jewish and German history of the city, which had been forgotten after WWII. Thereby, the city began to speak about its multicultural heritage through 209 memorial plaques and signs, some of which present the Jewish history of Rivne. Bilingual signs in English and Ukrainian have been added to the Sosonky Memorial, the Great Synagogue, the Tarbut Jewish School, the Zafraniv Theater, the Jewish cemetery, and other sites of the city’s historical and cultural heritage, thus allowing more local and international visitors to gain deeper understandings of these sites.


Mnemonics: The NGO Centre for Studies of Memory Policy and Public History (Rivne, Ukraine)

At the initiative of three historians (my colleagues Maksym Gon, Petro Dolganov, and me), the Mnemonics non-governmental organization was founded in Rivne during that same year (2016). The aims of the NGO’s activities are to conduct research on memorial policy and public history, to search for, develop, and promote the implementation of their optimal democratic models in the field of memory policy in Ukraine, and to form an inclusive model of memory in the city of Rivne, the Rivne region, and the whole of Ukraine, while supporting the principles of tolerance, freedom, understanding, and responsibility. By including in the history and public representations of Ukraine’s past the memory of non-dominant social groups (ethnic, religious, women’s history, and others) and representatives of the civil society, the organization is aimed at creating an inclusive model of memory policy.

The Mnemonics Centre works in several areas (academic, scientific, and publishing), creating a space for historians to discuss memory policy studies: for instance, by organizing the conference “Memory Policy in Theoretical and Practical Dimensions”; by the publication of monographs like City of Memory – City of Oblivion: Palimpsests of the Memorial Landscape of Rivne and Rivne: Outlines of a Disappeared City; or the translation and publication in Ukrainian of Jeffrey Burds’ The Holocaust in Rivne: The Massacre in Sosonky, November 1941 and the Ukrainian-language memoirs of Rivne resident Chaya Musman, My Shot Town, dedicated to the history of Jewish Rivne and the events of the Holocaust in the city; further, through the creation of modern educational tools – such as a virtual map of Rivne’s historical and cultural heritage sites, called Multicultural Rivne; the release of short documentary movies like The Executed City (dedicated to the history of the Holocaust in Rivne), A Man with a Face (a documentary animation about the activities of Yakov Suhenko, one of The Righteous Among the Nations who saved Rivne’s Jewish people during the Holocaust, The Uprising of the Doomed (on the history of the Jewish uprising in the Tuchyn Ghetto); as well as via mobile exhibitions like Multicultural Rivne (dedicated to the history of the Jewish community of Rivne in the interwar period) and The Disappearing City (a board game about the history of Jewish Rivne in the interwar period).

In a situation where official school and university curricula do not pay adequate attention to the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine and the events of the Holocaust, non-formal education initiatives play an extremely important role. The Mnemonics Centre’s activities in this area include organizing a series of educational workshops called “Reading the Monument” and “Places of Memory” (the use of memorial markers in commemorative and educational practices, 2016-2018), and three summer school programs called “How Cities (Do Not) Remember” (dedicated to the politics of memory in Ukraine with a focus on reviving the memory of the history of ethnic minorities and the Holocaust).

The initiatives dedicated to memorialization form the final component of the current strategy of the Mnemonics Centre. Memorial signs have appeared in the city honoring the memory of the Holocaust and WWII victims from non-dominant social groups: memorial stones on sidewalks (July 2018), a memorial sign to the victims of the Rivne ghetto (December 2019), and the memory of the city’s multicultural history (an online museum dedicated to a particular street). The Memorial Stones are dedicated to honoring five victims of Nazism from different ethnic groups (Volodymyr Misechko, Yakiv Suhenko, Zuzanna Hinchanka, Yakiv and Rachel Krulyk). The Virtual Museum presents the multicultural history of the city of Rivne in the interwar period through the story of preserved historic buildings (seven historical and cultural heritage sites), short soundtracks/street memories, and a podcast with a resident of Rivne and her parents who shares her memories of the postwar city. The second part of the museum is filled with the AR-history of three children from different ethnic groups (Jewish and Polish boys and a Ukrainian girl).

The project, which was launched in 2021 by Memory Paths with the support of the German Foundation Responsibility, Memory, Future, aims to actualize the memory of WWII in Volhynia through the experience of participants in the events (un)noticed by public history: prisoners of war, Jewish people, Roma, Volhynia Czechs, Polish communities, forced labourers, psychiatric patients, and women.

Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the memory, perception, and reading of the tragedy of WWII, interethnic conflicts, and crimes of totalitarian regimes have undergone significant changes: new forms of memory and commemoration are emerging. Public farewells to fallen soldiers in the war, public demonstrations of destroyed Russian military equipment (which in turn represents the strength and importance of the Armed Forces of Ukraine), renaming streets after fallen soldiers, and more are emerging in the arena of collective memory.

With each passing day of the Russian-Ukrainian war, the collective memory in Ukraine is undergoing changes in the way it remembers, understands, and presents historical narratives of its past. The civil society and the state will build a more inclusive society and future towards a deeper understanding of the past of Ukraine, its nowadays experience, and reality.




[1] Symon Petliura was considered responsible for the anti-Jewish pogroms because of his time as head of state. Some soldiers of the army were prosecuted for the anti-Jewish pogroms.