Ukrainian Jewish leaders express support for U.S. Ukrainian Catholics in WWII memorial controversy

PHILADELPHIA (OSV News) -- Jewish leaders in Ukraine have issued a letter of support for the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, saying calls to immediately remove a World War II monument in one of the archeparchy's cemeteries are "inconsistent with a format for discussions on historical subjects in the twenty-first century."

The Sept. 9 letter from Vaad of Ukraine, a Kyiv-based association of some 265 Ukrainian Jewish communities and organizations, was addressed to Jewish community leaders of Philadelphia, including Michael Balaban, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia; and Jason Holtzman, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

Vaad, Ukraine's largest Jewish organization, also sent copies to the Anti-Defamation League of Philadelphia, the American Jewish Committee of Philadelphia/Southern New Jersey and the archeparchy.

The letter was signed by Yosyf Zisels, co-president of Vaad of Ukraine; Leonid Finberg, vice president of Vaad of Ukraine and director of the Center for the Study of the History and Culture of East European Jewry; and Anatoly Podolsky, vice president of Vaad of Ukraine and director of the Ukrainian Center for the Study of Holocaust History.

The text, a copy of which was obtained by OSV News, addressed in detail concerns by the various Philadelphia-area Jewish leaders over a 30-year-old monument in St. Mary's Ukrainian Catholic Cemetery in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

Erected during the 1990s, the black, cruciform monument -- which bears the Ukrainian trident and a lion, an ancient symbol of the Galicia region -- honors World War II Ukrainian soldiers who (under occupation by Nazi Germany, which regarded Ukrainians and other Slavic peoples as subhuman) fought in Germany's 14th Waffen-SS "Galicia" Division, later known as the 1st Division of the Ukrainian National Army in 1945. Similar memorials exist among the Ukrainian diaspora throughout the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom.

For decades, the Ukrainian soldiers' participation in the division has been the focus of extensive inquiry by academics and investigators, with researchers noting soldiers joined the division as a means of attaining Ukrainian independence amid repression by both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. During the 1980s, three separate commissions in Canada, Australia and Britain found little to no evidence of the soldiers' participation in Nazi atrocities.

Recent coverage of the monument by The Philadelphia Inquirer and the American Jewish news outlet the Forward revived debate over the historical legacy behind the monument.

Since then, a number of groups, including the American Jewish Committee, have called for the removal of the monument. On Sept. 12, Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak ordered the monument to be temporarily enclosed. He noted in a Sept. 8 statement the archeparchy planned "to engage in an open, scholarly and compassionate dialogue" with area Jewish organizations and stressing that "the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia values its relationship with the Jewish community and intends to address the issues at hand with the depth and seriousness that they deserve."

In their letter, Vaad leaders said Archbishop Gudziak is "without any doubt one of the chief creators of interconfessional and interethnic peace in Ukraine."

They affirmed, "The leaders of the Jewish community of Philadelphia correctly understand that the issue of this monument can be complex, considering its legal, historical, and cultural aspects."

The Vaad leaders said that "the history of Jewish-Ukrainian relations is rife with tragic episodes, and it therefore requires a cautious and balanced approach, if these efforts are really to be constructive, not destructive."

They noted the monument, which was erected 30 years ago, "does not bear any SS symbols.

"The coat of arms with a lion and three crowns has no relation to the SS or Nazism," they said. "It is the territorial symbol of Galicia, the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the city of Lviv."

The Vaad leaders particularly noted in their letter the conclusions of the Commission of Inquiry on War Criminals in Canada, also known as the Deschenes Commission, which in its 1987 report found that "neither the Ukrainian National Army nor the Waffen SS 'Galicia' Division took part in the Shoah (Holocaust) as military formations."

In addition, the Vaad leaders said, "Some of the materials referenced in the published articles have no scholarly foundation and rather resemble KGB falsifications."

"To us, the initiative to uncritically begin these processes in pursuit of justice in your land does not seem constructive. It can lead to an aggravation of relations between descendants in an effort to solve a problem that has no solution," they wrote. "We advise you to concern yourselves with the pursuit of understanding, and not the pursuit of justice, because in history, that is practically impossible to achieve."- - - Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.