A few weeks ago, I participated in a fascinating panel on historical revisionism and how it has impacted various ethnic and racialized communities.
Sponsored by Myseum of Toronto, the Pint Sized Conversation event took place at Toronto’s Henderson Brewery and attracted a full house. My co-panelists were Falen Johnson, a CBC podcaster and indigenous woman, Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society, and moderator Ed Conroy from Retro Ontario.
“Historical revisionism” is a loaded term. For the black community, revising the narrative speaks to oppression, colonialism and the lack of any historical perspective when it comes to black history in this country.
For Canada’s indigenous community, this country’s historical failure to deal with First Nations cultural genocide, as outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is a matter we continue to struggle with mightily.
And for Jews, historical revisionism conjures up visions of vile Holocaust denial that tries to wrap itself in a historical coat of legitimacy. Haters such as Ernst Zundel and James Keegstra blot Canada’s history as purveyors of such ugly anti-Semitism.
However, historical revisionism for the Jewish community does not always come in the guise of Holocaust denial. It also arrives as a bastardization of the community’s historical experiences, a purposeful ignorance of the events that took place during the Shoah, which are often born out of sheer anti-Semitism.
The story of Sambir, a town in western Ukraine, is as tragic as any. It was almost 76 years ago, on the eve of Passover in 1943, that 1,200 Jews from Sambir were rounded up by the Nazis, aided by Ukrainian police, and transported to the town’s small Jewish cemetery. There, they were summarily murdered in what has become known as the “Holocaust of Bullets.” Miraculously, of the very few survivors were David and Esther Freiman, the parents of former Canadian Jewish Congress president Mark Freiman, as well as Mark’s brother, Steve.
For the better part of the past decade, Mark Freiman and a small group he heads called the Friends of the Sambir Jewish Cemetery have been trying to establish a memorial at the site of this horrendous tragedy. However, he has run into what can only be called revisionist roadblocks.
After the war, a set of three giant crosses were erected at the site, ostensibly to memorialize the fact that some Ukrainians were killed in the cemetery, along with the Jews. Yet having Jewish victims buried under crosses was an unbearable indignation.
Mark Freiman and his friends have slowly made progress. The Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (UJE), a Canadian non-profit organization, has lent its support to the project. Canadian MPs, Ukrainian officials and even the two patriarchs of the leading Ukrainian churches have all advocated for, and approved, a plan in which the crosses would be relocated to a more appropriate place. Simultaneously, a monument recognizing all the victims of Nazism would be erected at the cemetery. The UJE is willing to underwrite the full cost of the project.
Sadly, in Ukraine, local authorities are able to ignore the wishes of both the church and their national government. Even more sadly, pockets of anti-Semitism still exist to blunt the more liberal consensus that has been emerging in Ukraine.
Unfortunately, all this delivered a great victory to the forces of intolerance, revisionism and anti-Semitism. Local extremist press and social media were replete with boasts of how they were able to halt the initiative. These boasts were accompanied by despicable and obscene anti-Semitic caricatures.
Yet all is not lost. The newly elected president of Ukraine is Jewish and Mark Freiman continues his work. A final decision is forthcoming. We will soon know if this form of historical revisionism will be replaced by truth and acceptance.
For far too long, Jews and Ukrainians were bitter enemies. This project is a step towards change. If it works, it will be a lesson for others to emulate.