Willing to Know the Truth

Mariia Ginzburg is the founder of the “404 – Unknown Pages” project, a group of mostly young people in Kharkiv who explore hidden sites of Ukrainian history. By asking survivors they investigate an unknown chapter of the Holocaust: Jews who fled Ukraine when the German army was advancing. Mariia’s team consists of people of different age, nationality and profession. The future has begun. An interview.

Christian Herrmann: Mariia, your Kharkiv based organization is called “404 – Unknown Pages”. What pages are this and why do you want to open them?

Mariia Ginzburg: To be honest, we’re not an organization. “404 – Unknown Pages” rather is an independent project, which can be realized thanks to several NGOs in Kharkiv. I would say we have a club of people who are interested in opening and saving unknown pages of our history. Especially we focus on stories of people who were witnesses and victims of the terrifying period – Second World War. We call those stories “404 – pages”, because we can’t find this pages anywhere before we actually add them, like you can get “error 404 – page not found” in the internet if the web-page has been deleted or never existed.

We are trying to investigate topics that were unpopular or forbidden to talk about. Our main work stream is collecting stories of people who were evacuated by the government or fled to the north of USSR right before the Nazi occupation. Mostly those stories are about saving lives due to circumstances or other people, but a lot of them have personal tragedies inside. It’s another part of the Holocaust history as well. Most civil Soviet Jews survived only because of evacuation, but no-one was evacuated due to his or her nationality, which has to be clear for everyone.

Christian Herrmann: Tell me a little bit about the people who are involved. Who are they? What motivates them?

Mariia Ginzburg: We can say our team is characterized by the word “diversity”. Last year it was even international as Eilika – a long-term volunteer from Germany in SVIT-Ukraine – joined our team and was actively participating. Now she’s trying to be involved from her home country. Our team consists of people of different age, nationality and professional occupation. But all of them have something in common – willing to know the truth of what happened in those times, to open it to other people and to try to learn from the past. We’re organizing events which are devoted to anti-fascism, anti-racism and anti-totalitarism topics where we’re trying to show nowadays problems and their connection to our common past. All these parallels are so obvious but unfortunately are mostly ignored.

We’re always open to new volunteers who would like to take part in our project.

Christian Herrmann: What do young Ukrainians learn about the holocaust in school? Everyone I asked, said “next to nothing”. Hard to understand when one considers that in Ukraine 1.5 million Jews were murdered. Why is that?

Mariia Ginzburg: I can just tell you the same: “next to nothing”. I’m not a part of the formal education system, so I’m not sure my opinion would be enough authoritative. But I think, there are several reasons. First of all, we still have a hard heritage in the education system from the Soviet Union even after reforming. The topic of Holocaust was a taboo here for almost 60 years, so it’s not so easy to open it up. Also there was a “governmental anti-Semitism” in the Soviet Union, when Jews had problems with being selected to the best universities or humanitarian specialties, couldn’t get a good job and so on. After the beginning of 90-s there’s no nationality mentioned in our passports, but do you really think anti-Semitism can immediately vanish? Mostly it became hidden and moved from the government to the people’s relationship level. So how much information do you get about the Holocaust during your 45 minutes in school? A history class always depends on the teacher. Personally, I had a good one in my school.

Secondly, we have quite complicated relationship between nationalities in East and West Ukraine. The conflicts between Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and Jews have strong roots and the question of responsibility is still open. Who supported the Nazis during the occupation? Who actually made those “yellow lists” or did pogroms? Why Ukraine became the first territory where the Nazis could make mass killings by shooting? All this questions have very unpopular answers. Each community doesn’t want to take responsibility of what happened because everyone knows that not only the Nazi army was cruel and committed incredible crimes against humanity. So people actually don’t want to go deep into the topic. Most of the researches, exhibitions, movies or other activities on this topic were made or sponsored by the Jewish community or Germany which is quite understandable.

And finally, here the question about the Famine during the 20s and 30s, when millions of Ukrainians died, is still open and controversial. So how can we expect from the Ukrainian government and from Ukrainians to pay more attention to Holocaust studies?

But the most important thing, I would like to mention, most of this problems go deep into the national history. In my opinion, each one here has his or her own truths. We often forget that Ukrainian hero Khmelnitsky is the one who is responsible for the cruelest pogroms and mass killing of Ukrainian Jews. We often forget that people of all nationalities died during the wars, famine and revolutions in USSR and in the same time people of all nationalities worked in KGB. We often forget that killing even for the “good purposes” is still killing, is still a crime and is never justified by any means. As long as we are not able to face the fact some of our “national heroes”, our relatives or relatives of our friends are not angels, they committed crimes and we should live with that, we would never have the level of society that can take responsibility, learn and prevent such crimes in the future.

On the other hand, we can see a new generation of young volunteers who really care and are motivated to act for peace. Even though they’re just a minority, this gives me a strong hope. “Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi once said and I totally agree with him.

“404 – Unknown Pages” is on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/unknown.pages404

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