Anti-Semitism law is a good step that shows that Ukraine takes this issue seriously - Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ellen Germain
An interview with the United States Department of State Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Ellen Germain for the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency
Text: Nataliia Pushkaruk
- Ms. Germain, can you please tell us more about your visit to Ukraine. What is the purpose of the visit and what are your impressions? What are your impression of the visit to Lviv and Uman?
- I am very happy to be here in Ukraine. This is actually my first trip as US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues. My responsibility is to help the United States and other countries appropriately and accurately commemorate the Holocaust. We are upon the Holocaust education, supporting museums, archives and of course supporting victims, survivors of the Holocaust to commemorate the tragedy and to help memorialize their stories and their narratives.
Here is Ukraine I have been travelling around the country for the last five or six days starting off in Lviv which of course has rich Jewish history and was delighted to be able to meet there with the mayor, the deputy mayor, members of the Jewish community to talk about how best to preserve and protect the very varied and rich Jewish heritage in Lviv. There is an old Jewish cemetery. We had excellent discussions about how best to preserve the integrity of those areas and how to commemorate for Ukrainians and visitors the rich Jewish history of Ukraine which of course is part of Ukrainian general history.
I then came back to Kyiv and went to Uman where again we met with the mayor and Jewish community activists to talk generally about the issues of protecting religious freedom in all these places, combating anti-Semitism all of which is part of commemorating the story of the Holocaust and preserving Ukraine's rich Jewish heritage.
I think overall for me this trip is about showing the United States commitment to protecting religious freedoms and that includes countering Holocaust denial, countering Holocaust distortion, fighting anti-Semitism, helping partner countries like Ukraine protect Jewish heritage, focus on the victims and what can be done to help memorialize their stories.
I came here with Paul Packer, who is the Chairman of the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. I think the fact that the United States has an agency that is devoted to protecting the United States heritage abroad (that is heritage that Americans are connected with in countries like Ukraine, neighboring countries throughout Europe) shows that this is an area of great concern to us. We have not only that agency, we have the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues which is myself and we also have special envoy for countering anti-Semitism in State Department. All of that shows the United States' huge commitment to focusing on these issues and to countering anti-Semitism in all of its forms.
I was here for the commemoration of the Babyn Yar massacre and I attended that very moving commemoration on Wednesday. I think for me one of the most moving parts of that was simply standing at the ravine where the massacre took place, looking down there and thinking of the victims and the tragedy that took place. It was a very emotional and very moving moment. The commemoration was solemn and indicative of how seriously Ukraine takes the issue of appropriately memorializing the tragedy at Babyn Yar. I was proud to represent the United States at that event and I was also very proud that we were able to have Secretary of State Blinken deliver remarks by video. In his powerful remarks he talked about personal connection to Babyn Yar and I think that really spoke to people.
- What are your impressions of the first part of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which is going to be built in the coming years?
- The United States position is that Babyn Yar deserves a full and accurate memorialization of the tragedy. The most important aspect of any memorial, of any commemoration is that it fully and accurately memorialize the tragedy that took place there. Anything that contributes to that is a positive step.
- As you know, this project is private and among its sponsors are Russian businessmen. Shouldn't the Ukrainian state stand behind the perpetuation of such a memory?
- I think for us the main issue is a full and accurate memorialization, commemoration of events of Babyn Yar. There are many different options for doing that but the overriding goal, the key is a full and accurate memorialization of the tragedy and commemoration of the victims. How that is done is a question as it is a question at all Holocaust sites and all sites of such tragedies. That is a question for discussion and debate but the outcome should be a serious and respectful commemoration that respects the facts and accurately portrays the truth on the facts of what happened and conveys the history of the tragedy.
- Still what threats can pose the participation of Russian money in this project?
- I think as long as the memorial accurately commemorates what happened at Babyn Yar and tells the story truthfully and accurately that really is the most important thing. It needs to commemorate the victims and be respectful of the tragedy of Babyn Yar and accurately and truthfully explain the fact of what happened during the massacre at Babyn Yar.
- Recently the President of Ukraine signed a law on prevention and counteraction to anti-Semitism in Ukraine. What do you think about this document?
- I am very happy to see that Ukraine has passed the law on anti-Semitism. It really shows that Ukraine and its leadership is taking the issue seriously and has now enshrined a law against anti-Semitism into legislation. So that is a good and serious step.
In my conversations around the country over the last few days I've talked to Jewish community members, various government officials and I have asked about the problem of anti-Semitism in Ukraine. What I have heard is that it is not a huge problem in Ukraine which is a good thing to hear. It is a problem as it is a problem throughout the world and again Ukrainian law on anti-Semitism is a good step and it really shows that Ukraine and its leadership, its parliament are taking the issue seriously.
- What problems related to anti-Semitism have you noticed in Ukraine?
- I have to say that in my visit I have encountered none. I was warmly welcomed everywhere I went not only by obviously the Jewish communities and rabbis that we met with, by the local officials, mayors, some of local population who we spoke to in Lviv, Uman. Everywhere I went it was wonderful, warm welcome. People were friendly and eager to know what we were doing there, why we were visiting. I got a number of thumbs up for the United States. That was lovely to see as well.
- Did you discuss any projects on saving the Jewish heritage in Ukraine that are possible to fulfill in cooperation with the USA?
- We with my colleague Paul Packer were talking about possible ways of cooperating. One of the things we discussed in Uman and in Lviv as well as with Ukrainian government officials is ways of marking or memorializing Jewish heritage sites. For example I was told that there are some 800 synagogues sites that are known around Ukraine. Of course, not all of them still exist. Many of them are being used for other things. But what about of possibility of marking those in some ways, putting historical plaque? We discussed that because that's the way of reminding local population of their reach Ukrainian history. It is also a way of creating a kind of tourist trail when tourists come to Ukraine. There are so many Americans with Ukrainian heritage who come back to Ukraine to see their ancestrial towns and cities. It would be wonderful to be able to mark some of these areas of Jewish heritage: cemeteries, synagogues, Jewish schools.
We also talked about how to protect the area of sites of Jewish cemeteries. There is debate over some of the sites where construction is going on.
- How is going on the fight against anti-Semitism in the United States and what piece of advice could you give to the leadership of our state?
- Anti-Semitism unfortunately is still a problem throughout the world. As I said the United States has a special envoy for anti-Semitism, which shoes how seriously we take that issue. Every year we also do a report on international religious freedom that reports among other things anti-Semitism in every country around the world. So in the United States we have educational programs to try to educate both our own population, our embassies around the world to counter anti-Semitism. We have exchange programs where we bring foreign officials, academics, specialists over to the United States to try to exchange best practices with them about what we are working on to fight anti-Semitism. But it is an ongoing issue, something that all of us must constantly struggle against. And civil society plays a big role in it as does the media, as do journalists, because one of the big issue we all are dealing now is disinformation and the question of social media and how social media can amplify ugly things like anti-Semitism and finding strategies and ways to partner together to fight that is hugely important.
After my time here in Ukraine I am actually going on to a large conference in Sweden on countering anti-Semitism and commemorating the Holocaust. And there will be discussions of exactly these issues on that conference as well.
- Crimea and the territories in eastern Ukraine are currently occupied by Russia. How do you think this affects the problem of anti-Semitism, preserving the memory of the Holocaust there?
- I have visited only few parts of Ukraine in my time here. I think generally for Ukraine as a whole the question of Holocaust memorialization and commemoration is a national issue and one that needs to be dealt with comprehensively on a national level. For example the anti-Semitism law that was just passed is one way of enshrining for all the principles of what Ukraine believes in terms of countering anti-Semitism. That is a very positive way of showing that Ukraine's leadership takes this seriously throughout all of Ukraine.