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Ukraine: Holocaust Witnesses Record Their Stories

Kyiv, 10 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Vasily Mikhailovsky owes his life to three Ukrainians.

The first is Anastasia Fomina, his nanny, who in 1941 led him away from the massacre at Babi Yar, where his father was killed, by pretending he was her own son. He was four years old. The second, Nina Gudkova, ran a shelter for homeless children in Kyiv during the occupation, and saved there 12 Jewish children including Vasily. Last is another Vasily Mikhailovsky, who after saving his own Jewish wife and mother-in-law during the war, adopted the orphaned Vasily and gave him his surname.

All three are now commemorated in Jerusalem on the sacred Western wall, where the names of the 'righteous of the earth, those who saved Jews from the Nazis, are recorded, alongside the six million European Jews who were not rescued.

Also in Jerusalem, a monument commemorates Babi Yar, the ravine in Kyiv where more than 33 000 Jews were killed over September 29 - 30, ten days after the Germans occupied Kyiv.

Mikhailovsky now has the medals awarded to Fomina and the elder Mikhailovsky, who have died, as well as photographs of his three saviors. And he has given his memory of them to the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, where they as well as his father who was killed will be immortalized in the most comprehensive archive of any historical event in the world.

Without the willingness of witnesses like Mikhailovsky to speak out, "the anguish and pain would be buried in history, the courage would be buried in history, and the goodness of those who rescued would be forgotten," said Michael Berenbaum, President and chief executive of the foundation, speaking at a Kyiv press conference last week. "What we've gathered is a people's history of an event, and the importance of this material will grow in time as we no longer have access to those who were there."

The Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was set up in 1994 by film director Steven Spielberg. The film that sparked off the project, Schindler's List, tells the story of a German industrialist who rescued some 3,000 Jews.

While making the film, Spielberg was overwhelmed by the number of Jews who approached him wanting to tell their stories. He decided that his list of memories to be saved will be 50,000, to be used for research and education world-wide, and it is hoped, spread the ideals of tolerance and respect for human rights.

The foundation trained interviewers worldwide to talk to survivors about their experiences before, during and after the war. To date the foundation has collected close to 47,000 interviews in 31 languages and 53 countries, from rescuers, Gypsies, liberators and Jehovah's witnesses as well as Jews.

In Ukraine, the work has been particularly thorough. The country's Jewish population, of around 500,000, is one of the largest in Europe. Before the war, It was 2.7 million. Of the estimated 4,000 Holocaust survivors, the foundation has interviewed more than 3,000.

Once catalogued, the digitized material, which if viewed end to end would last 11 and a half years, will be stored in state-of the-art multi-media databases. Users can search by name, concentration camp or biography, and select people from photographs. The interviews will be indexed in short segments, so that users can access information relating to specific questions or words.

The archives will be stored in Los Angeles, with an additional five repositories in museums and research centers in New York, Washington, Yale University and Jerusalem. Berenbaum promised that the material will be freely available to the countries where it was collected, and was in Kyiv last week to discuss how it will be used by Ukrainian schools and mass media.

"It's an amazing project and we are glad of it here, because Ukraine is very rich is these memories," said Leonid Finberg, from the Institute of Judaic Studies. "But it's sad that we are so poor we can't do it ourselves. Even our memories are being taken from us and later we will be forced to demand that these memories of our history come back to us."

The Institute of Judaic Studies was already engaged in collecting an audio and written archive of memories before the Spielberg project started, and had recorded around 100 interviews. Ukraine however has no holocaust museum, nor any concrete plans to establish one, despite the atrocities that took place on its territory.

Eye-witness records for Ukraine are invaluable because of the large patches of the past erased from public consciousness by Soviet manipulation of recorded history. "Not just Jewish topics and history were prohibited subjects but Ukrainian history too, like the famine of the 1930s," said Finberg. "People never told the truth to their children."

Ukraine has a history of anti-Semitism stretching back to before the 1917 revolution, and after the war Jewish survivors were not encouraged to speak out. A Soviet monument at Babi Yar makes no mention of Jewish victims, and Mikhailovsky recalls that when he tried to return there after the war to commemorate the dead on the anniversary of the massacre, he along with thousands of other mourners were turned away by police.

There are a lot of facts connected with Babi Yar that still are not clear," said Mikhailovsky. 'Not just the fascists but afterwards the KGB kept information hidden. In the Soviet era it was unwise to ever say you had been in a ghetto or a camp; it even prevented you from getting a good job. Jews who managed to survive the concentration camps were told that no Jews came out alive; it was implied that they must have been traitors or collaborators to have survived."

Mikhailovsky, who is deputy head of the Kyiv organization of survivors, also worked as an interviewer for the visual history foundation, recording the experiences of 42 survivors. "For many of them, this was the first time they had spoken about it," he said. "Some had made themselves forget that they were survivors, and it was traumatic to go back to those memories. And I was sick after the first interview I took, listening to such horrors."

After years of silence, Holocaust survivors in Ukraine are ready to record their stories before it is too late.

"People asked the survivors a very difficult question, the question they were asking themselves: 'why did you survive when nobody else did?'" said Berenbaum. "Sometimes that was an accusation. Most survivors understood that there really was no reason why they survived except luck. Now they understand one other thing about what they lived through. There is no reason why they survived, but they can confer meaning on their survival by speaking of the past and bearing witness to the future. Therefore they speak now and we listen, record and document."