Reply to a Roger Cohen Opinion Piece on Ukraine and Lithuania

The following is the text of a letter to the editor sent to the New York Times on 8 March 2014 in response to Roger Cohen’s “Ukraine Fights for its Truth.” As it was not published, it is now included here for the record, and for the sake of the continuing discussion. The embedded links, and square-bracketed updates, have been added today.

Even the brightest can have a blind spot. Yet again, razor-sharp, liberal humanist Roger Cohen has been taken in by PR from the ultranationalists in Eastern Europe. Missing from his “Ukraine Fights for its Truth” (INYT, 6 March) — where he discusses both Ukraine and his ancestral town here in Lithuania — is all that is wrong with the revisionist narrative that is based on a far-right rewriting of history known as “Double Genocide.”

That narrative honors local Nazi collaborators and perpetrators and obfuscates the Holocaust into some amorphous mass of “joint Nazi and Soviet invasions.” Here on the ground in Eastern Europe, it gives practical license to the ultranationalists’ trampling of human rights, and their frequent affinity for racism, antisemitism, homophobia and the frightening revival of aspirations for ethnically pure states.

In the case of Ukraine, Mr. Cohen’s enthusiasm for (ultranationalist) Ukrainians writing their own history is a shocking stamp of approval for revisionism that extols Adolf Hitler’s aryan-pure nation-state ideal. The ultranationalists’ heroes Stepan Bandera, and the OUN and UPA, were directly responsible for (at least) tens of thousands of murders of Ukrainian citizens on the basis of ethnicity. This goes beyond a hypothetical American nationalism that would glorify African-American slavery, a narrative that Mr. Cohen would be the very first to object to. Do the people of Eastern Europe not deserve the same universal standards of dignity and values?

Mr. Cohen mentions that his ancestral town here in Lithuania now has a plaque in the central square telling the truth about what happened to the annihilated Jewish population. He doesn’t mention that the hundreds of other towns, whose scions don’t include New York Times columnists, have no such thing. Nor is he bothered that one of the major collaborators of the Holocaust in his ancestral region now has a school and streets named for him (among the various collaborators officially honored here). Just last month, police here interrogated a Lithuanian citizen who had dared write an article disagreeing with the public honoring of that same collaborator in the murder of the Jewish citizens of Mr. Cohen’s ancestral area [update]. But such violations of democracy do not make it into the sugared mentions of the family shtetl back in the old country.

The tolerant, long-suffering, hard working people of Eastern Europe, of all backgrounds, deserve better than for the Soviet yoke — and subsequent dangerous Putinist mischief  — to be replaced by ultranationalist aryanist politics, manipulated history, and restrictions on freedom of speech.

It is time for the Western media to take a rather more critical look at the new East European far right that masquerades so well as centrist for the benefit of naive Westerners.

Dovid Katz (, Vilnius, Lithuania)

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