Olevsk, a sleepy if ancient town deep in the backwoods of Ukraine, became part of my life in 2003 when I came across a dozen testimonies about vicious pogroms there at the beginning of the German-Soviet war of 1941 to 1945. In the testimonies, survivors and witnesses describe how Jews were beaten, humiliated, and mutilated in the center of town in the summer of 1941. Many of their tormentors and killers were members of the Poliska Sich, a guerrilla force led by one of the most famous Ukrainian nationalist leaders during the war, Taras “Bulba”-Borovets. Taking his nom de guerre from a mythical Cossack leader, Bulba-Borovets ruled Olevsk and its environs during the early months of the German-Soviet war, while Germans were thin on the ground in this remote location. It was only after the pogrom violence and further abuse of Jews at the hands of the Sich that the Germans took over Olevsk in September 1941 and established a ghetto. The Sich then patrolled the ghetto and later provided the Germans with manpower to liquidate the Jewish population.
Discovering these documents, I felt certain that such brutal pogroms must have been included in the literature on anti-Jewish violence in western Ukraine and eastern Poland in the summer of 1941. Following Jan Gross’s powerful 2000 book, Neighbors, other historians tackled the difficult questions surrounding local participation in the Holocaust, and in particular pogroms in that fateful summer. Yet I soon realized that there was no mention of the pogroms in the scholarly literature; Bulba-Borovets, unsurprisingly, failed to mention them in his memoirs.
Five years after I discovered the testimonies, I found myself on an old Soviet bus traveling from Zhytomyr to Olevsk, making the first of three trips to learn more about what had happened there in 1941. Debarking at the town’s rudimentary bus station, I met the duo of Misha and Misha — two of Olevsk’s few remaining Jewish community members. The younger Misha, in his 40s, was the de facto head of the Jewish community. A local acquaintance referred to him as “The Last Jew of Olevsk.” He often helped Jewish visitors pay homage to their families. Younger Misha talked so quickly and peppered his speech with so many rural colloquialisms that my brain rushed to follow. Elder Misha was in his late 50s; he had a kind face and walked with a limp, struggling to keep up, both physically and verbally, with his younger counterpart.
Together, over the course of two days, the two Mishas and I walked around Olevsk. They exposed me to every aspect of local life, from bartering for fresh fruits and vegetables at the outdoor market to watching students rush in and out of the town school, to the haunting silence of Olevsk’s cemeteries. With the past embedded in every stone of the town’s cobbled streets, the stories of Jews and Ukrainians that I had uncovered in dusty archival documents half a decade prior were inescapable. The Polesia forest, a ubiquitous backdrop to Olevsk, seemed to ensconce every scene.
We traveled in one of the only taxis in town to a mass grave outside Olevsk. Driving along the unpaved road to the village of Varvarivka, I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that this was the same road on which Olevsk’s Jews had been taken to their deaths. In Varvarivka, on Nov. 15, 1941 (some sources say Nov. 20), the Germans and the Poliska Sich shot the entire Jewish population—more than 500 men, women and children. Between bumps and bursts of speed, I tried to envision the final moments of an entire community as they took their last steps. We arrived at the destination—a clearing among the trees on the side of the road. There was a small black memorial enclosed in a fence and a small crumbling white wall surrounded by weeds overtaking the cracking cement. According to this late Soviet-era memorial, “German-fascist invaders” killed “peaceful citizens” at this spot in 1941. There was no reference to the Jewish identity of the victims.
Next, we located the Sich headquarters in a former nursery school building in the center of town. After taking control of Olevsk in the first week of July 1941, the Sich conducted its first pogrom, taking 30 to 40 Jewish men and women to the Ubort river to torture them. In his deposition that I had found in the archives, Tevel Trosman explained how the Sich treated the town’s Jews “to gross mockery and humiliation in the mud for almost half an hour.” Another survivor, Iakov Shklover, described how Sich soldiers “giggled and laughed” as they made him and the others stand and then lie down the mud, hitting them with their rifle butts all the while. Others detailed how some soldiers enjoyed beating Jewish women with their guns. A Sich leader is reported in one testimony as having mutilated his victims by dragging a cart over them. By the time the pogrom ended, the Sich had injured dozens; soldiers had murdered the town baker and another local Jew, and they left the bodies to rot in a yard nearby. Shklover recounted how he and several others stole away in the night to bury the bodies in secret and say kaddish. This was not the last of the pogrom violence, though. In a separate incident later that summer, the Sich again tortured the Jews, this time in the yard of its headquarters. Trosman described how the Sich made 300 Jews “tear out grass with their teeth” and pull weeds with their hands. They could hear the laughter of Sich soldiers at the headquarters as they were beaten with whips and rifles.
Neither the younger nor the elder Misha had heard of the pogrom violence until my arrival in Olevsk. They looked at me with dismay and disbelief as I told them what had happened in this place that was turned into a children’s playground after the war. Of course, they knew the Sich had been involved in the mass shooting at Varvarivka—but the preceding torture and humiliation of Olevsk’s Jewish community were new to them.
Together, we entered the nursery yard. I looked down at the dirt, once a scene of horrific violence. I then noticed a golden plaque in honor of Taras Bulba-Borovets and his men on the wall of the nursery building. The Sich headquarters were located at this place during the first few months of the war—when the pogroms occurred—and a local chapter of the right-wing nationalist Svoboda party had wanted to honor the Sich. Certainly, leaders of anti-Jewish violence and ethnic cleansing of Poles have been memorialized in other towns and cities in Ukraine. But rarely is the irony of commemorating a perpetrator as striking as when it is done at the scene of his crime.
Elder Misha brought me back to Olevsk to speak with a relative of a survivor whose testimony I had found in the archives. She was the daughter of the survivor’s second marriage after the war—her father’s first wife and children had all been murdered in Varvarivka. She told me how her father had miraculously escaped thanks to a tip by a local ethnic German. She did not know that his story had ever been recorded and wept when I showed her his hand-written testimony from the archives. We ended our day in the old Jewish cemetery, among crooked tombstones covered in weeds. In the sanctuary, we found old religious manuscripts and artifacts under layers of dust and dirt—the same ones that the Jews killed next to the Ubort river used to read.
On the bus ride back to Zhytomyr, the enormity of my experience was almost too much to bear. The tears of the survivor’s daughter; the rotting tefillin in an abandoned cemetery; the black memorial that conceals the identity of the dead; and the beautiful Ubort river and Polesia forest. I knew I had to return.
Twice more, in 2011 and 2012, I visited Olevsk, always helped by the younger Misha. The golden plaque honoring the Sich at the site of their pogroms was eventually removed as a result of local political upheaval. But in its stead, a new monument was built just down the road from where the pogroms took place. Also a pet project of Svoboda, it was unveiled in August 2011 with party leader Oleh Tyahnybok in attendance. The unveiling sparked some heated debate in the local paper over the place of the Sich in Olevsk’s history—but no discussion of the pogroms in which the town’s Jews were killed.
Thanks to the help of a local journalist, I interviewed two people, Maria Kolomiets and Mykola Dovhosilets, who witnessed the Sich taking Olevsk’s Jews to their deaths, with beatings and humiliations along the way. I also spoke to Aleksei Makarchuk, who had been a teenager during the war. After telling us his story about how he escaped deportation at the hands of the local police and his service in the partisans, Makarchuk described watching the pogrom by the Ubort river. Makarchuk interrupted as we were ending the interview, “I want to add something else … down by the river, they forced the Jews to eat grass like sheep. … They were beaten with rods and made to go into the water, then drink the water. This was done by the banderovtsy [the Sich]. I saw this with my own eyes. I saw this with my own eyes.” His memories matched details I had found in the testimonies written more than 60 years earlier about the July pogrom.
The memory of Bulba-Borovets and his Sich has figured prominently in Olevsk and regional politics over the past five years. In the city of Rivne there are plans to build a new monument for Bulba-Borovets—commander of the Sich, not to mention this summer’s bike race named after the Sich. Olevsk itself has more plans, including: naming a park after the Olevsk Republic or Bulba-Borovets; naming a square after Bulba-Borovets; and creating an exposition about the Sich in a local museum (with plans to build a separate museum in the future). There have celebrations of the Sich throughout the Volhynia region this summer. Moreover, the Sich force has caught the interest of the Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. This past April it passed a resolution to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the founding of Poliska Sich.
This development on the national stage should come as no surprise to anyone following the Poroshenko government’s divisive policies on historical memory. The driving force of this policy of whitewashing nationalist activities during the war is the Institute of National Memory led by nationalist activist Volodymyr Viatrovych who believes the OUN-UPA only saved Jews during the war and did not participate in any pogroms. These ideas are being realized quickly: a monument to pogrom leaders has been unveiled in Uman; a Ukrainian nationalist pogrom leader—and importantly, decorated Wehrmacht soldier who aided the Germans in suppressing the Warsaw uprising—Petro Diachenko, was celebrated by the Rada last year; and the Kyiv city government just voted to name a street after far right-wing nationalist leader, Stepan Bandera, to name a few initiatives. “Decommunization” and the invocation of Western or European values serve as cover for this nationalist memory manipulation.
There has been too little debate about these policies in Ukraine. Ironically, many Ukrainians might believe that Bulba-Borovets and his Sich offer a safe choice for memorialization because they are traditionally considered less radical than competing nationalists. But they would be wrong. The Jews of Olevsk, tortured and tormented throughout the summer of 1941, and eventually shot by the Germans and the Sich together, deserve to have their voices heard before new monuments are raised in honor of those who killed them. If the Ukrainian government is so keen on building new memorials, I would suggest one at the Ubort river that lists the names of the murdered, why they were killed, and by whom.
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Jared McBride is а lecturer in the history department at UCLA.