Of Note -- HIAS and Holocaust Memory: Vienna and Kyiv
Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Fri, Jul 06, 2007 at 16:57 pm
I have just returned from a weeklong site-visit to HIAS’ refugee programs in Vienna and Kyiv. I came away with a tremendous sense of pride in the work being done to assist refugees from Iran, the former Soviet Union (FSU) and more than 40 other countries around the world.
I also felt a strong “presence” of the Holocaust throughout this trip – beginning with my in-flight reading on the tragic demise of pre-war Viennese Jewry. Of the 206,000 people of Jewish extraction living in Vienna in 1938 (181,000 being members of the Jewish community), over 65,000 were killed and over 130,000 fled in the face of Nazism. Today’s Jewish community in Vienna has approximately 7,000 members.
Below are just a few impressions:
In reflecting on our community’s tragic losses during the Holocaust, I realized that HIAS’ program in Vienna to process Jewish and other religious minority refugees from Iran stands as a bold rejection of the religious persecution and Holocaust denial of the current Iranian regime. Once again, Vienna is a way station between totalitarianism and freedom, just as it was for refugees from the Soviet Union. In fiscal year 2007 HIAS hopes to process as many as 5,000 religious minority refugees from Iran for resettlement in the United States.
Among my meetings with activists in the Vienna Jewish community was a visit to the Holocaust Victims’ Information and Support Center, where archivists discussed their discovery of a cache of community documents from the late 1930s that had recently been found and were in the process of being organized for public use. It was a powerful experience to hold card files listing Jews who had been deported to their deaths, or had emigrated to uncertain futures abroad. The archivists informed me that the documents on emigration contained a “HIAS” stamp demonstrating our intimate involvement in the lives of these people. We will be following up with the Vienna Center to discuss future collaboration as HIAS develops a comprehensive approach to ensuring the preservation of HIAS records and archives globally.
In Kyiv, concern over the rising danger of xenophobia and antisemitism in Ukrainian society was ever-present at meetings with the U.S. Ambassador, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, representatives of the approximately 100,000-strong Ukrainian Jewish community, and at a HIAS-sponsored seminar with Kyiv police officials. These discussions underscored the desperate need for HIAS’ core Kyiv-based program, Legal Protection Service (LPS), a program funded by UNHCR. Through this work, HIAS directly intervenes in compelling refugee cases in Kyiv, seeking both temporary and permanent solutions for these vulnerable men, women, children and families.
In a meeting with a HIAS LPS client from Zimbabwe, I received a copy of a flyer that is eerily reminiscent of antisemitic Nazi propaganda from Der Sturmer. This grassroots hate is not only being ignored by the authorities, but in some cases is even being perpetrated by the police. A case-in-point is a HIAS LPS client, a Congolese asylum seeker, who was chased around Kyiv and almost raped by a drunken policeman.
Finally, before leaving Kyiv, I had the chance to tour the infamous site of Babi Yar – where approximately 100,000 people (70-80% of whom were Jews) were shot dead by the Nazis. It was shocking to see that this holy and profoundly important location for the Jewish world, and indeed for Ukraine, is so widely desecrated. Unlike American Civil War battlefields, the territory of Babi Yar is not identified as a site requiring reverence and the largest monument is a Soviet era sculpture that doesn’t even recognize the victims as being predominantly Jewish. Moreover, even this monument has been vandalized with graffiti; the bones of murdered Jews have been defiled during projects to build a metro station, a television tower and other structures; and the area is landscaped as a lovely park where Kyivites sunbathe, play, litter and ignore the tragedy that unfolded under their feet.
The failure of the Ukrainian and Kyiv governments to appropriately respond to the tragedy of Babi Yar underscored for me the continuing importance of HIAS’ active presence in Ukraine – working with the government, the international community, the local Jewish community and civil society to create the kind of country that will meet its humanitarian obligations to individuals fleeing persecution and safeguard the Jews who continue to make Ukraine their home.
Ultimately, my trip to Vienna and Kyiv demonstrated both the lingering impact of the Holocaust on contemporary Europe, as well as the possibility of creating dynamic programs that promote the security and freedom of Jews and other vulnerable migrants. Our activities with crucial Jewish and non-Jewish partners show that 60 years after the defeat of Nazism, our work is still vitally needed in this part of the world.