Memorials and Narratives from Esther Gilbert

Photo:  Two stamps on a postcard Martin sent from Ukraine.  Martin wrote:  “Hope you like my juxtaposition of Stefan Bandera – whose men killed tens of thousands of Jews in this region (Volhynia) – and dear old Shalom Aleichem.”  Bandera is now viewed as a Ukrainian national hero; Shalom Aleichem, also from Ukraine, is the pen-name of one of the great Yiddish writers whose stories of Tevye the Dairyman became Fiddler on the Roof.

900 words/4 minute read

There’s a story of two Jews who are arguing over a particular dispute. Not getting anywhere toward resolution, they agree to take their dispute to the rabbi to be settled. The first presents his case and the rabbi thinks it over very carefully and says: “You’re right.” The second presents his case and the rabbi, thinking it over also very carefully, says: “You’re right.” Whereupon the rabbi’s assistant, who had witnessed this exchange says: “But wait, they can’t both be right?” And to this, the rabbi responds: “You are also right!”

The story comes to mind with the discussions in many countries about the historical figures who are portrayed in statues that present them as heroes. “But wait,” many people say, questioning the view that though the figures may have been heroes to some people, they were perpetrators to others, and maybe even their heroism came at the expense of the evil they inflicted on others. Who is right?

I would be willing to bet that in developed countries where statues and memorials are erected, for every statue and memorial to a hero or a cause, there will be those who were wronged by that hero and that cause. Who is right? And whose view, whose “narrative”, should take precedence?

I saw this first-hand in 2011 when Martin and I visited the towns and villages where my parents had been born, now part of northwest Ukraine. In the tiny town of Klesiv, population today less than 5,000 souls, in the forecourt of the train station stand three memorials: one is the Soviet war memorial honouring those who fought with the Red Army against the German invader, inscribed “Great glory to the heroes who fell in the struggle for the motherland, 1941-1945”; the second, erected in 1965, honours those Ukrainian nationalist martyrs who fought with the German Army against the Soviet occupier, “Glory to those who died the death of heroes on the front of the great fatherland war and at the hands of the bourgeois nationalists”; the third, erected in 1991 when Ukraine achieved independence, is dedicated to Ukrainian nationalists killed fighting the Ukrainian Communist regime, postwar 1945-1955.

These memorials honour men who lived in Klesiv, the descendants of whom still live there and lay wreaths. No memorial honours the few hundred Jews of the town they knew as Klesov, who on 26 August 1942 were shipped from that train station 45 kilometres to the town of Sarny where the next day they were taken to a pit in the forest, along with 10,000 Jews of Sarny and a few other nearby towns, where they were all machine gunned to death. Other than a few old-timers, there is probably no one in Klesiv today who even remembers the vibrant Jewish community who lived there. Nor is there a memorial to the Polish citizens of Klesow, the survivors of whom were allowed to move to Poland after the war, giving up their community where they had lived for generations.

So here’s a town where history is not torn down, where families on opposing sides are remembered, and only the lost communities are air-brushed out. Here is a town where the changing views of heroism reflect post-war political history and atmosphere – when the area was first Soviet then German-occupied territory, a Soviet Socialist Republic, and then an independent country. In the towns Martin and I visited, poverty is rife. People have few modern conveniences, but each town has its war memorial. Do the living sleep as peacefully as the dead?

Maybe there’s a lesson here. Maybe the statues and plaques around the world, offensive to some, lauded by others, present an opportunity to learn history, to hear different voices and to be able to listen to them with an open mind. We can learn from history when we learn what happened within the context of how it happened. We can learn from history and grow only when we change our attitudes, our beliefs, our patterns of speech and behaviour. We can learn from history when we can hear the pain of the inhumanity inflicted on our fellow human beings, and also when we can recognise that all humans, even those depicted in statues, are flawed, and are frozen in their times and the prevailing temperaments.

Hatred is not an inherent quality, it is taught. True history can also be taught, without blame, without bias, without victimhood. History is the story of human beings as they have evolved and grown from tribal societies to multi-cultural ones. It is messy. It is nuanced. And it is in the past, such that attitudes and behaviour have changed, and in most cases for the better, in part because people have the courage to ask these questions, to discuss, and to listen with open, empathetic hearts.

Martin wrote this about historical retrospective: “It would be wrong to judge a historical figure solely by the standards of the present day. Every generation has its own morality. The historian is not primarily a judge who drags people from out of their environment and places them before a contemporary tribunal. His first aim is to see whether the people he studies acted for the good of their own society, as they envisaged that good. His second aim is to ask whether the ideas which he is examining are valid in terms of present values.”

Read American History Atlas

mg-social-icons-face mg-social-icons-twi mg-social-icons-yt

Subscribe to Sir Martin’s Newsletter & Book Club