The Reassertion of Memory: Nataliia Ivchyk Discusses Holocaust Memorials in Ukraine

Green College Staff

The path to the Green College Coach House was among Vancouver’s busiest freeways on January 25th for Nataliia Ivchyk’s lecture, “A Bridge over the Chasm of Oblivion: Creating Spaces of Holocaust Remembrance in Modern Day Ukraine.”

Not a seat was empty and the walls found themselves supporting the remaining audience for Green College’s third John Grace Memorial Visitor in Residence, a residency program set up in memory of the founding Dean of Green College and former Dean of the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, John Grace.

Nataliia was also Green College’s first Holocaust Historian in Residence, visiting from the Department of Political Science at Rivne State University in her native Ukraine. Alongside her personal research into gender and children’s experience in the Holocaust, Nataliia is a co-founder of NGO Mnemonics alongside Maksym Gon, a history professor currently serving in the Ukrainian army, and Petro Dolhanov. NGO Mnemonics is “an organization devoted to citizenship education and the memory of the multicultural history of the Rivne region,” which was awarded the 2022 History of National Socialism prize by the Munich Documentation Center. Over the next hour and a half, Nataliia told the audience the story of her hometown Rivne’s complex forms of public remembrance.

Nataliia started with a memory from her childhood, of walking along a street with her mother. She showed two photos of this street, wide and green with an island through the middle and trees lining the road. The road was the site of one of the worst massacres of Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War. When Nataliia asked her mother what the road led to, her mother, like the vast majority of the town would have, answered that she did not know. At the time, the Holocaust was not part of the collective memory of the war for Ukrainians.

During the time of the Soviet Union, collective memory of the Second World War focussed on the sacrifice and heroism of the Soviet people. The victims of Nazism, Nataliia explained, were seen as a homogenous group of Soviet people in the USSR, with no room for differentiation. Objective coverage of the Holocaust, she said, was simply not possible. The fall of the Soviet Union in the early nineties then led to a period of rapid learning. Soviet atrocities, including the constructed famine in Ukraine in the 1930s came to light, but also the shocking details of Nazi massacres.

In late 1941, in the Sosonky forest near Rivne, the Nazis murdered 17,500 Jews. In 1944, the first monument to Jewish victims was constructed. Nataliia showed the audience a picture of its unveiling. In 1945, the monument was updated to include the Star of David. Then in 1967, the monument was changed to a memorial for Soviet citizens. In 1999, a monument was once again unveiled in memory of the genocide, bringing the Holocaust, as Nataliia put it, back into the collective memory.

The reasserted memory of the Sosonky massacre provides but one example of the shifting nature of what gets memorialized in Rivne; Nataliia showed others following this common trend. Soviet-era monuments were dedicated to the heroism of the Red Army, for example. Following Ukrainian independence, monuments in contrast tended to be about what Nataliia called the “nationalist vision of history,” glorifying Ukrainian partisan movements in the Second World War. Only recently have monuments started to embrace the multicultural past of Rivne.

Remembering this past is Nataliia and NGO Mnemonics’ goal. To close her speech, she went into the details of the work the organization has done in Rivne, creating both symbolic spaces of remembrance throughout the city and a wide array of educational material designed to be accessible for a great spectrum of ages across the whole world. Nataliia lists NGO Mnemonics’ achievements as four documentaries, a virtual map of Rivne, a board game for pupils, a wall calendar, an online project called the Virtual Museum of One Street (the main road in Rivne), virtual exhibitions, a graphic novel, podcasts, lectures and then still in development are summer school courses and an interactive map. All are designed to keep in the public memory the multicultural past of Rivne and remember the history of all the different people who have lived there. The reassertion of the history of the Holocaust in the region serves as a paradigmatic example. Against the backdrop of homogenizing social and political movements, scholars and activists like Nataliia have worked to recover the specificities of the atrocities committed against the Jewish people of Rivne. The knowledge of this past, Nataliia hopes, can help to bring about a more compassionate future.

Dr. Nataliia Ivchyk is a Holocaust scholar active in the field of public history and memory politics. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences at Rivne State University for the Humanities in her hometown of Rivne, Ukraine. Together with Maksym Gon (a history professor currently serving in the Ukrainian Army) and Petro Dolhanov, Nataliia co-founded and is a project manager of NGO "Mnemonics,'' an organization devoted to citizenship education and the memory of the multicultural history of the Rivne region. In 2022, NGO "Mnemonics" was awarded by The Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism prize for the commemoration of the violent history of the twentieth century.

Nataliia's research examines gender and children's experience during the Holocaust as well as memory politics in Ukraine and East Central Europe. She has held a number of international fellowships. Her recent research projects include: "Disgraced Worlds: Jewish Families during the Holocaust" (European Holocaust Research Infrastructure, July 2022), "Gender and Everyday Life in Volhynia and Podolia Jewish Ghettos" (Prague Civil Society Center and Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic and the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies, Germany, 2021) "Life and Agony of the Jews in the Rivne Ghetto: Reconstructing Women's Experiences" (Yad Vashem, Israel, 2018) and "Ghettos in the General District of Volhynia and Podolia in Memories of Jewish Victims and Neighbors" (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2017-18). Her most recent publications include monographs titled Insulted Otherness: Ethno-Confessional Policy of the Russian Empire in Right-Bank Ukraine, 1850-1880 and The Town of Memory – the Town of Oblivion: the Palimpsests of the Memorial Landscape of Rivne (as a co-author), which addresses the gendered aspect of the symbolic space of Rivne.

Post by: Noah Stevens, Green College Resident Member