Monuments to tyrants — in Ukraine, and in the United States

Several years ago on a visit to Kiev, the capital of Ukraine and the (approximate) home of my great-grandparents, I was surprised to see a large majestic statue of the Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki — a 17th-century political and military leader who led a rebellion that inspired the massacre of tens of thousands of Jews in Ukraine and Poland. The Chmielnicki Massacres were considered among the bloodiest tragedies in all of Jewish history, until they were overshadowed by the Holocaust. But Chmielnicki — for all that he is vilified in Jewish history — is a national hero in Ukraine.

It is an understatement to say that this statue made me uncomfortable. It highlighted that the national narrative of Ukraine is one in which my own history is not acknowledged, as someone who was responsible for the murder of people in my ancestors’ community is accorded such honor.

As a tourist, I did not expect for my narrative to be included in the national Ukrainian story. But I did imagine how a Jew in Kiev might experience the statue. How could one walk by this statue every day on the way to work or school, and not internalize the message: A nation that erects a statue like this to someone who murdered my people is not a nation that values me or my people or our welfare. One of my reactions to this memorial was an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I did not have to live in a place that would show such honor to a tormentor of my people.

There are many reasons why the struggle in Charlottesville last weekend was a struggle of right and wrong, rather than right and right or wrong and wrong. Only one side denied the humanity of large percentages of the American population. Only one side expressed hatred for groups of people based on their essential characteristics. Only one side expressed a longing for a time when a class of Americans was denied civil rights. And of course, only one side perpetrated terrorism and murder.

But the monument issue that precipitated the conflict is also a struggle of right and wrong. My Ukraine experience gave me just the tiniest taste of what it would be to be African-American and to live in a city like Charlottesville, Richmond, New Orleans, or other cities with Confederate monuments. It is up to the American people to decide who gets venerated with public statues, and increasingly, Americans on both left and right are agreeing: those who led troops into battle to support the enslavement, imprisonment, physical abuse, rape and murder of African-Americans are not deserving of veneration. Increasingly, Americans on both right and left are agreeing (in conservative writer Rich Lowry’s phrase): “mothball the monuments” and remember that era of history in museums, not in public art.

A scan of a sentence in Nathan Hannover's 1653 book "Yeven Metzula" about the massacres of Jews during the Khmelnytsky Uprising: "I write of the Evil Decrees of Chmiel, may his name be obliterated... in (5)'408 to '411." National Library of Israel scan of Nathan Hannover's "Yeven Metzula", printed in Venice, 1653. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Khmelnytsky_Uprising#/media/File:Yeven53.png
A scan of a sentence in Nathan Hannover’s 1653 book “Yeven Metzula” about the massacres of Jews during the Khmelnytsky Uprising: “I write of the Evil Decrees of Chmiel, may his name be obliterated… in (5)’408 to ‘411.” National Library of Israel scan of Nathan Hannover’s “Yeven Metzula”, printed in Venice, 1653. (Wikipedia)
About the Author
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg is the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, a teacher and musician, and an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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