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29 November, 2013

A red and black sachet with ashes

Why you should not fear your memories


 “Returning, Soetkin took a piece of red silk and a piece of black silk; with these she made a sachet, and then put the ashes in it, and to the sachet sewed two ribbands, so that Ulenspiegel could always wear it on his neck. When she was putting the sachet in its place on him, she said to him:


“Let these ashes, that are the heart of my man, this red that is his blood, this black that is our mourning, be ever on thy breast, like the fire of vengeance upon the murderers.”

“I would have it even so,” said Ulenspiegel.

Charles de Coster. The Legend of Ulenspiegel...


            The story of Ulenspiegel, in which the mother gave her son a small sachet made of red and black silk with the “ashes of the heart” of his father, Claes, to carry throughout his journey of life, is very, very instructive for Ukrainians who have the tragic 20th century behind them. Ukrainians had so much annihilated in that century, which may lead us to the following questions: what does one do with such a terrible experience? Maybe, it is better not to overburden one's memory? Maybe, it is better to leave everything to the historians? Maybe, in order not to traumatize young souls, school curricula should be “sanitized”, maximally freeing them from the nation’s bitter experience?

Charles de Closter's response would be different: “Claes' ashes” must beat by the hearts of their descendants.

This reminded me of an episode twenty years ago. It took place in an old Kirovohrad synagogue. Kirovohrad was formerly named Elizavetgrad after Elizabeth of Russia (1709-1762). An old Jew, who was teaching the history of the Holocaust, gave me a few text-books, published in Israel for Israeli schools. I began leafing through them — I was astonished.  One of them started with the history of oppression and progroms. Elizavetgrad was mentioned in that context: it had once been a place where Jews were limited by the Pale of Settlement to prevent them from competing with Russian merchants, craftsmen etc. Subsequently, one of the first large progroms in all of Russia took place in this city on the steppes. 

The chronology, infographics and textual information — everything in these text-books was intended to pluck the students' emotional strings, to trigger subconscious emotional resistance to injustice and inequity, and as a result to force them to reflect on the following question: “Why us, why has this happened to us Jews, and what do we have to do so that it never happens again?”

I don't know, who stands where, but I am on the side of the authors of that Israeli text-book, who not only confronted their historical memory, but also constructed it. More than that, they did the exact same thing as Ulenspeigel's mother, when she gave him the red and black sachet with the “ashes of the heart” of his father.

It was from my mother in a village on the steppes of Odessa Oblast that I learned of Solovky, the labour camp on the Solovetsky Islands, and of the post-war famine. That was sometime in the early 1960s, and later I heard the stories many times. My mother did not remember the Holodomor of 1932-1933, because she was a young girl of 6-7 years old. Still, what Ukraine lived through in 1947 in her words shocked me by the scale of its terror.  There were even instances of cannibalism — and my mother, a junior school teacher, did not consider mentioning this fact to her own children as  being “non-pedagogical.” She told me about her experiences with no special goal in mind: she  simply told me the truth,  as though she herself had a hard time understanding how she had been able to endure it all. Now I have no doubt that then, in my childhood, in my Demedivka – the village that is slowly dying today - that I also received a red and black sachet from my mother.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Ministry of Education feels that the “sachets with ashes” are useless for young Ukrainian Ulenspiegels. It has recently removed The Yellow Prince, the first novel on the Holodomor by Vasyl Barka from the curriculum. Barka had written it as an emigrant, way back in 1963, somewhere in the mountains of America. The change was presented as concern for the mental health of children. In fact, it is more of a policy shift: the Holodomor should be mentioned as rarely as possible, and history should be “sovietised” overall, those in power insist. In this situation, the removal of The Yellow Prince from the curriculum makes perfect sense: it shows the reality of 1933 as a frightening demonization by the builders of a “new world” who feed people with stories of universal happiness that is almost there while enriching themselves, lying and killing.

It had taken so much time and pain for the truth about the Holodomor of 1932-1933 to reach us through the decades of false silence.  Not before the late 1980s did people start to speak about it openly, and those with political ambitions did so from rostrums. Prior to this, Soviet-controlled literature had hardly mentioned it reminiscent of what my generation heard from our parents. Now, the history seems to be repeating: with fewer locks left, the new key guards are trying to lock them up again. 

That Israeli text-book that I can’t help but think of eventually made me think of more than just the pats. It provoked important questions about history and future that eventually led me to a conclusion that the Holodomor was not simply the consquence of Stalinist tyranny, but Stalin's tyranny was the consequence of the flawed and utopian communist doctrine. The tradgedy broke out at the moment, when the some well-known intellectuals began to think that violence is the best instrument to achieve universal happiness. The communists kept the right to use violence as “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Under specific historical circumstances – the Red-imperial Russia with its strong tyrannical tradition and great contempt for foreigners in the early 20th century – this doctrine was fatal for Ukraine: Russia was terrified of losing a very tasty piece of its empire.  As a result, it opted for the criminal path qualified as Holodomor – holod for hunger or starvation and mor for death or murder in Ukrainian.

Little has changed since: Russia is still afraid of losing the tasty piece.

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