Jewish Ozzies' Inter.Net
The electronic voice of the Australian Jewish Community


by Philip Mendes

(Philip Mendes is an Assistant Lecturer in Social Work at Monash University and the author of "The New Left, The Jews and the Vietnam War 1965-1972". Lazare Press. Melbourne. 1993).

The Miles Franklin Award is Australia's leading literary prize. Past winners of the award have included such luminaries as Patrick White, Thomas Keneally, Tim Winton, and David Malouf. Yet, the 1995 winner is a book by a 24 year old Brisbane writer, Helen Demidenko, which - in the eyes of many - attempts to justify the Holocaust.

The novel, which depicts the Jewish Holocaust through the eyes of a Ukrainian Nazi collaborator, was described by the award judges as displaying "a powerful literary imagination coupled to a strong sense of history, and bringing to light a hitherto unspeakable aspect of Australian migrant experience".

However, Demidenko's thesis attributing responsibility to Jewish Bolsheviks for the Ukrainian famine and consequently Ukrainian Jew-hatred has provoked criticism from all sides of the Australian political, literary and communal spectrum. Many commentators believe that the book's thesis is historically unsustainable and marred by anti-Semitic prejudices.

Pamela Bone, a liberal-Left journalist with the Melbourne daily The Age, accused Demidenko of arguing that the Jewish victims of the Holocaust deserved their fate. The visiting American academic and lawyer, Professor Alan Dershowitz, alleged that Demidenko justified "the widespread Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust". Another international visitor, Professor Robert Wistrich from the Hebrew University, suggested that the book's thesis was "more dangerous than any form of Holocaust revisionism".

As if the controversy about the book's alleged historical distortions and racism was not enough, further revelations emerged concerning Demidenko's fabricated family background and ethnic identity. Demidenko had claimed to be the daughter of an Irish mother and a Ukrainian taxi-driver father, and to have based the book on her Ukrainian heritage. At the Miles Franklin Award ceremony, she wore a traditional Ukrainian costume, and participated in an ecstatic Ukrainian folk dance.

However, in August, Demidenko admitted that she did not have Ukrainian ancestry. Her real name was Helen Darville. She was the daughter of Harry and Grace Darville, immigrants from England. She said that she had adopted the name Demidenko "in empathy with the characters she was creating". She asked that her book "be judged on its literary merits".

Demidenko's admission of charlatanism led to calls for the Miles Franklin Award to be rescinded on the basis that the work was clearly not a reflection of "the migrant experience". And distribution of the book was temporarily frozen after allegations were made that significant sections of the text had been plagiarized from published works by authors such as Thomas Keneally, Graham Greene, and Robin Morgan.

The allegations of plagiarism were subsequently found to be unsustained, and the book was returned to the bookstores. But, Demidenko's reputation - and that of the judges of the Miles Franklin Award - had taken quite a battering. Australia had witnessed its greatest literary scandal in at least half a century.

In the meantime, the book - reissued under the name of Helen Darville - resumed its place on the Australian best-seller lists. Plans were also made to release the book in the United States although they were later shelved. In addition, proposals for four distinct books on the affair were announced by Australian publishing houses.

My intention here is to move beyond the "Demidenko hoax" headlines in order to examine the important historical questions raised in the book. Themes to be addressed include the historical context of Ukrainian/Jewish relations; the attitude of the Petliura Ukrainian nationalist regime of 1918- 1920 to Jews; the contribution of Jews to the Soviet collectivization of the Ukraine; the role played by Ukrainians during the Holocaust; and the attitude of Australian Ukrainians towards the contemporary Nazi War Crimes Bill. Consideration will also be given to the debate provoked in Australian political and literary circles by the book, and the outstanding questions regarding Demidenko's fabricated identity.

Part One: Demidenko's Story

Demidenko's narrative tells the story of two generations of the Ukrainian Kovalenko family set against the backdrop of the contemporary Australian Nazi war crimes debate.

During the 1930s, the Kovalenkos experience the dreadful famine imposed on the Ukrainian peasantry by Stalin and Jewish communists. As a result, they become "savages" and willingly collaborate with the German invaders. The Kovalenkos participate in the massacre of Jews at Babi-Yar, and also serve as guards in the concentration camps of Treblinka, Belzek, Sobibor, and Majdanek.

Demidenko's central thesis is that Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis was understandable revenge for the genocidal famine imposed upon the Ukraine by Jews in the 1930s.

Part Two: Demidenko and The History of Ukrainian/Jewish Relations

Demidenko states in her preface: "What follows is a work of fiction...Nonetheless, it would be ridiculous to pretend that this book is unhistorical: I have used historical events and people where necessary throughout the text". In an interview with Caroline Baum on the Australian Broadcasting Commission TV's "Bookchat" (25 June), Demidenko stated that her book was "faction", that is, part fact and part fiction. Demidenko's defenders have argued that her book represents an attempt to present the Ukrainian - as opposed to the Jewish - interpretation of Ukrainian/Jewish relations and history.

Much of the criticism of Demidenko has focused on her failure to address the long history of Ukrainian anti-Semitism that existed well before the 1930s famine.

For example, as early as the 1640s, tension arose between the impoverished Ukrainian peasants and the Jews who served as estate managers and tax collectors for the land-owning Catholic Polish nobles. When the Ukrainians rebelled against the Poles under the leadership of Bodgan Chmielnicki, they killed up to 100,000 Jews and destroyed some 700 Jewish communities.

Similar anti-Jewish pogroms took place in 1768 during the Haidamak rebellion against Russian rule. The worst atrocity took place in the town of Uman where 20,000 Jews and Catholics were murdered.

A third series of pogroms occurred in 1881, commencing in the Ukrainian town of Elizavetgrad (now Kirovograd). Thousands of Jews were killed and wounded in the pogroms which reflected both the economic impoverishment of the peasantry, and the long-standing religious and national animosity directed against Jews in the Ukraine. Further pogroms took place in the Ukraine from 1903-1905.

The American-Ukrainian historian, Orest Subtelny, has summarized the Ukrainian-Jewish relationship in the following terms: "The relationship between Ukrainians and Jews was not - nor could it hardly have been - a friendly one. For centuries, the two peoples found themselves in structurally antagonistic (yet mutually dependent) positions. To the Jew, a Ukrainian represented the backward, ignorant village; to a Ukrainian, a Jew epitomized the foreign, exploitative city that bought his produce cheaply and sold him goods dearly. Ukrainian peasants feared Russian officials and hated Polish landlords; Jews, for want of other means of making a living, often acted as their representatives or middlemen. Culturally, the Jews and Ukrainians had little in common, and their religions only widended the gap between them"

Nevertheless, the Jewish historian Friedman cautions that amidst conflict there were also instances of Ukrainian-Jewish cooperation. Relations between ordinary Ukrainians and Jews were generally amicable. Numerous Jews played prominent roles in the Ukrainian national movement and in the Ukrainian literary renaissance of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There were also examples of successful political collaboration.

Part Three: The Pogroms of Petliura

According to Demidenko, the Jews murdered Simon Petliura - the famous Ukrainian nationalist leader who had tried to establish "ethnic peace". Petliura's assassin Shalom Schwarzbard allegedly acted under instructions from Moscow.

>From 1918-1920, Simon Petliura acted as President of an independent Ukraine. During Petliura's reign, over 60,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms.

Some debate has occurred as to whether Petliura was himself anti-Semitic. For example, his government passed laws guaranteeing Jewish national autonomy, and organized a Ministry of Jewish Affairs headed by Moshe Silberfarb. Petliura also issued an order condemning the pogroms. Yet, most historians argue that Petliura did little to stop the pogroms, and in fact actively encouraged them as a means of mobilizing the population against the Bolsheviks.

In 1926, Samuel Schwartzbard, a young Jewish watchmaker who had lost family members in the Ukrainian pogroms, murdered Petliura in a Paris street. Although Schwartzbard confessed to the crime, he was found not guilty by a French jury. The verdict was interpreted as confirmation of Petliura's responsibility for the pogroms.

Contrary to Demidenko's assertion regarding Schwartzbard's alleged Cheka connections, the evidence suggests that Schwartzbard acted alone to revenge the losses of his people.

Part Four: Tsarist Anti-Semitism and Jewish Leftism

Another criticism of Demidenko is that she fails with one single exception to acknowledge the brutal oppression of the Jews in Tsarist Russia, and the political necessities that drove Jews into the hands of the Revolution.

Jews in nineteenth and early twentieth century Russia were not an influential or powerful group. Rather, they were a defenceless and victimized minority who experienced hate from both the rulers and the ruled. In 1898, the Tsar's leading adviser Pobedonostsev told a Jewish delegation: "One third of Russian Jews will die out, one third will leave the country, and one third will be completely dissolved in the surrounding population".

Many Jews - two million or so - did leave the country. Most emigrated to America. A smaller number became Zionists and settled in Palestine. Most Jews maintained their traditional religious and cultural affiliations. Some became secularists and joined the Jewish Labor Bund - a socialist group which demanded Jewish national autonomy in Russia. A smaller number became involved in the Russian Social Democratic Party which soon split into Mensheviks and Bolsheviks.

As in other European countries, Jews joined the political Left because only the Left promised Jews equal rights and freedomfrom discrimination and persecution. A number of Jews assumed prominence in the revolutionary movement due to their disproportionately urban base and high level of literacy. Yet, most well-known Jewish communists were assimilated intellectuals who had rejected and were completely alienated from Jewish communal life and culture.

When the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, six of the twenty one full members of the Central Committee were Jewish - Trotsky, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Sokolnikov, Uritskii, and Sverdlov. Jews also comprised 16.6 per cent of the leading 250 revolutionaries.

However, the overwhelming majority of Jews remained antipathetic to Bolshevism. For example, in the November 1918 elections to the Ukrainian Jewish National Assembly, over half the vote went to conservative groupings and another third of the vote to the anti-Bolshevik Left. Similarly, the 1918 Jewish communal election in Great Russia resulted in 63 per cent support for conservative religious and Zionist parties as against 31 per cent for socialist parties.

Nevertheless, faced with inveterate hostility and pogroms from Ukrainian nationalists and white counter-revolutionaries, most Jews were left with little choice but to turn to the Red Army for survival. Many young Jews volunteered for service in the Red Army. Others acquired leading administrative posts in the Soviet regime. Many joined the Cheka, the secret police used by the Bolsheviks to crush opposition.

During 1919, Trotsky noted with some concern that a disproportionate number of Cheka members consisted of Jews and Latvians. In the Ukraine, approximately 75 per cent of the Kiev Cheka were Jewish. According to Schapiro, as late as December 1937, at least 11 per cent of Cheka members were Jews. Some joined to revenge themselves upon the pogromists, but most were committed communists who regarded their Jewishness as irrelevant.

Yet, the Bolshevik regime was hardly a source of Jewish power. Whilst a small number of Jews served the state apparatus, the regime systematically eradicated all forms of independent Jewish national or religious life and culture. Jews also suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Cheka. One Soviet Jewish historian has estimated that 500,000 to 600,000 persons - of the ten million victims of Stalin's purges - were Jewish. Only Stalin's death saved Russia's two million Jews from almost certain deportation to concentration camps in the Gulag.

Part Five: Jews and the Ukrainian Famine

Demidenko claims that the Ukrainian famine "bled into the Holocaust". She attributes the Ukrainian famine to the leading Jewish Bolsheviks - Marx, Trotsky, Kamenev, Kaganovich and Bukharin. The local perpetrators are also Jewish. They include Dr Judit - the cold and brutal wife of the local Kommissar. There is the unnamed Jewish communist leader from Leningrad who viciously persecutes Ukrainian nationalists. There is also the Jewish and Russian guards in the communist prison in Kiev who gouge out the eyes of their Ukrainian prisoners.

During 1932-33, between three and 6 million Ukrainians starved to death in a famine imposed by Stalin as a means of destroying Ukrainian nationalism.

The impact of the famine on Ukrainians was no less traumatic than that of the Holocaust upon the Jews. The Ukrainian Jewish writer Vasily Grossman identified a number of similarities between the two genocides in his novel Forever Flowing.

For example, "The peasants went to cities to beg 'in the name of Christ'. Soup kitchens were opened to feed them, and students collected donations. And here, under the government of workers and peasants, not even one kernel of grain was given them...And in the cities the workers were given eight hundred grams - a pound and a half - of bread each day. And the peasant children in the villages got not one gram. That is exactly how the Nazis put the Jewish children into the Nazi gas chambers: 'You are not allowed to live, you are all Jews'. And it was impossible to understand, grasp, comprehend. For these children were Soviet children, and those who were putting them to death were Soviet people...Why this massacre?".

Although Demidenko attempts to attribute responsibility for the famine to leading Jewish Communists, the Jewish presence in the leadership of the Bolshevik Party had infact sharply declined by this time. Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev had all been purged. The only remaining Jew in the Soviet leadership was Stalin's loyal servant, Lazar Kaganovich.

To be sure, Jews continued to be disproportionately represented in the ranks of the Ukrainian Communist Party, comprising 13.4% of the party membership as opposed to 4.9% of the total population of the Ukraine. And some leading Ukrainian Communists such as Khatayevich, Kulyk, Lifshits, Hurevich, and Ravich-Cherkassky were of Jewish origin. Yet, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Jews as an ethnic group or even Jews as individual Bolsheviks played a significant role in the Ukrainian famine.

For one, accounts of the famine by survivors or leading historians - such as Robert Conquest - attribute clear responsibility for the millions of Ukrainian deaths to the Soviet leader Stalin who was of Georgian origin.

For another, the two leading figures in the Ukrainian Communist Party at that time - Stanislav Kossior and Vlas Chubar - were respectively of Polish and Ukrainian origin.

It is, of course, possible that some Ukrainian oral histories may suggest otherwise, but as Demidenko's book itself reflects, there is a powerful tendency in Ukrainian folklore to associate all Bolsheviks with Jews and all Jews with Bolshevism, regardless of the reality. This attribution of collective guilt to all Jews for the alleged crimes of a few is in fact revealingly similar to the age-old allegation that the Jews killed Christ. Both allegations have been responsible for promoting deadly anti-Jewish violence.

Part Six: Ukrainians and the Holocaust

Demidenko provides a reasonably accurate portrayal of Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust.

The Ukrainians initially welcomed the Germans as allies who had historically supported Ukrainian national aspirations. Spontaneous pogroms against the Jews broke out in the first weeks of the German occupation. Ukrainian militias were then formed to participate in the mass extermination of Jews at Babi Yar and elsewhere. Ukrainians also acted as guards at a number of the most infamous concentration camps.

Demidenko portrays the Ukrainian collaborators as primitive, brutalized peasants who knew no better. Some certainly were. But, others who led and participated in the anti-Jewish massacres were educated teachers, priests, pharmacists, and even judges.. The reference to Ivan the Terrible as a victim of Jewish atrocities in the famine is simply plain fabrication.

The Ukrainian community has rightly criticized Demidenko for stereotyping all Ukrainians as anti-Semitic murderers. Most Ukrainians did not participate in the Nazi extermination operations. And a small, but significant number of Ukrainians including most notably the leader of the Ukrainian Uniate Church in Galicia - the Metropolitan Andreas Sheptitsky - risked their lives to save Jews.

Yet, Ukrainian anti-Semitism remained endemic. When Jews returned home from concentration camps in 1944, further pogroms took place. As late as the 1960s, popular Ukrainian literature - as reflected in Anatoly Dimarov's novel Shlyakhami Zhittya and Trofim Kichko's pseudo-academic polemic Judaism Without Embellishment - depicted Jews as liars and cheats who oppressed honest Ukrainians.

However, relations between Jews and Ukrainians improved in the 1970s and 1980s as a result of the solidarity that developed between Jewish and Ukrainian dissidents in Soviet prison camps. The Ukrainian nationalist movement, Rukh, which campaigned for Ukrainian independence, strongly opposed anti- Semitism.

Whilst some popular anti-Semitism persists in the Ukraine, no mainstream political party promulgates anti-Semitism. The 1991 statement by the former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk accepting some Ukrainian responsibility for the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar and asking for Jewish forgiveness suggests in fact that the Ukrainian anti-Jewish tradition may be drawing to a close.


Return to J.O.I.N. Articles Page

Copyright © 1997 J.O.I.N.