Mothers trail winter scarves and leashes and slow-walk exhausted children while mounting bus stairs not knowing where their journey will take them, carrying shock, grief, and most likely hatred in their hearts but profoundly relieved to be safe and their children protected from the bombing. The observer’s heart breaks for them and spins in grief and shock over yet another tragedy we humans have wrought for ourselves.
In some respects these emotions of the riveted bystander are simple. Sympathy is simple. Decrying evil and crying out for decency is simple.
But society, recollection, and sentiment seldom are simple. As I bear witness to this historical moment in Ukraine my mind occasionally drifts toward my own family’s flight from that same land associated with the equally dark realities of another era. Ukraine once hosted a very large Jewish population and over the millennia, many stunning massacres of tens of thousands have occurred as well as smaller pogroms such as those that plagued my own family. When Jews’ thoughts turn to Ukraine, they may lurch toward the most troubling of memories, often passed down from earlier generations. The Nazis initiated the best known Ukrainian massacre in Kyiv, of 33,771 Jews in the Babyn Yar ravine on September 29-30, 1941. People were shot with machine guns and dumped into the ravine. The wounded were buried alive side by side with the dead. The vast number of victims also included non-Jewish Ukrainians, Russians, Roma and others, including psychiatric patients. This massacre was one of many massacres of Jews, in that era and early. Babyn Yar was not even the largest. The Syrets Concentration Camp was later set up at Babyn Yar.
Ukrainians were both assistants and victims of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish campaign but they were among the perpetrators in pogroms and other massacres, some conducted by those–like Bogdan Chmielnik who killed more than 100,000 Jews in 1648–who still are honored with public statuary in Ukraine as we in the US honor Civil War generals or Presidents who led the slaughter of Native Americans. Because of these bloody events in Ukraine and the antisemitism that fueled them, Jews that escaped carried bitter memories of their homeland.
Some recent research suggests that antisemitism in Ukraine is currently low compared with other parts of Europe and of course the country now has a Jewish president who has broad popular support. Some dismiss the election of a Jewish president as insignificant and point out rightly that America—crowded with white supremicists–elected a Black president. The comparison may be apt. America is both increasingly progressive with respect to civil rights (though currently back-sliding) while it continues to harbor deep veins of racism and antisemitism. We hang on to democracy by the skin of our teeth. America holds the two populations uneasily in one hand and American Jews, with more knowledge of historical Ukraine than of the current population, wonder if Ukraine might be the same two-headed animal, given the long history of antisemitism.
Human beings tend to divide the world of other humans into tribes who are seen as good and bad; gradations are lost. We must always be mindful of thinking about life–especially our own “tribe”–in such tightly closed categories. These tribal divisions account for some of the astounding atrocities of human history during which one either belonged to a powerful group (“good”) or was outside (deserving of death, not human). The list is long: Rwanda, Kosovo, Serbia, Nazi Germany, among many others.
Yet tribal affiliation also protects us in times of great threat. The Ukrainians now need to see each other in simple terms, as brothers and sisters, and not to concern themselves with who is braver, kinder, more principled, or more clever. In order to cohere and fight effectively, they need to be tightly allied and free of preoccupation with imperfections and gradations. They must be a single tribe so they can defeat the murdering invaders. We applaud their inclination and ability to bomb, maim, and kill invaders. We, too, see them as a single heroic group.
As in the present context, on occasion it is necessary and valuable to look at the bones of a situation and not every shred of clothing; In this case, the bones are indeed the opposing forces of good and evil represented by Ukraine and Putin’s Russia. This is true even if the good is inevitably imperfect—as humans always are—and the evil is carried out by lethally-armed young men many of whom are themselves unwilling conscripts for whom we can feel compassion and refrain from celebrating their suffering and deaths. My own grandfather escaped Ukraine rather than be conscripted into Czar Nicholas II’s army—where he would be assigned to do violence against his own people and to serve as the Czar’s cannon fodder.
Tribalism is both sides of the coin: the setting for nationalist and racist aggression and the defense against it.
The challenge now is to know all the gradations of human experience, present and past—not to forget them but not to let them move us to false equivalence. We need to take sides while remaining cognizant of moral complexities. I heard a television interview with a Ukrainian fighter expressing pity for the Russian soldiers sent into deadly battles by generals that this man saw as so indifferent to their lives that some of their deaths were not even recorded.
When people look back on the current holocaust in Ukraine, most will remember the bravery of the Ukrainian people and the generosity of the Polish, among others, but a few will be troubled by the barriers some Black African students encountered getting onto trains to evacuate and some will think with bitterness that west Europe opened its arms to Ukrainian refuges but not to Syrians or North Africans and the US currently treats Central American refugees as criminals and is highly suspicious of valid and urgent asylum claims. These are realities and we must try to deal in reality, to hold in mind both the heroic and the imperfect within our societies and ourselves while recognizing at times the urgency to take sides.