top of page
ARCHIVES  Danyliw Seminar 2017

Diána Vonnák

Max Planck Institute, Halle, Germany

Diána Vonnák is a doctoral candidate in the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in her final year. She finished a year-long ethnographic fieldwork in Lviv, looking at cultural heritage conflicts and ‘others’ heritage’ in Lviv. Her dissertation seeks to explore how the war changes the stakes of cultural politics in the city, locating the current developments in the past three decades of independent Ukrainian history.



Unlikely Alliances: Orthodox Jews and Ukrainian Nationalism

against a Holocaust Memorial in Lviv

Once a major Jewish centre, Lviv has become known within and beyond Ukraine as an ethnic nationalist centre, where major streets are named after Nazi collaborationists and public attitudes towards the Jewish past range from ignorance to indifference. In September 2016, however, a Holocaust memorial was opened in Lviv, as part of the Space of Synagogues project. The project seems to defy these stereotypes, and signal that there is more to Western Ukrainian memory politics than ethnic nationalism.


The project was hotly contested: It enjoyed the support of Hesed Arieh, the largest progressive Jewish organisation of the city; it was sponsored by a German and a local NGO, and the Lviv City Council. Its fiercest opponent a small, local orthodox Jewish community — with powerful allies among the Ukrainian far right as well as conservative architects and restaurateurs. The paper explains these surprising alliances. Rather than assuming public attitudes to the difficult history of the Holocaust to be shaped by ethnic belonging, the paper shows how incommensurable visions of the local determine such attitudes, and cleave the groups involved.


Understanding how religious Jews ally themselves with the patriotic right is crucial: it helps to elucidate the Ukrainian right beyond predictable attributions; it shows how discourses of national unity can become attractive for minority groups. It also explains how historical narratives are tweaked to make Ukrainian perpetration ignorable for Jews. On a more abstract level it points at how minority opinions cannot but be shaped by majority views. Both supporting organisations and opposing ones stress how they fit in a respective majority: Hesed Arieh the cosmopolitan, ‘European’ discourse backed by municipal authorities, the Orthodox community that nation-wide consensus that trivialises the Holocaust in light of Ukrainian suffering.


This local conflict assumes an international dimension. Both sides rely on institutional connections, foreign funding and international media. Opponents portray it as a violation of human rights or UNESCO standards; proponents hope it to act as an exemplar in Ukraine and a gesture towards the EU. Their rhetoric creates a dynamics I call structural amplification, following Marshall Sahlins. It scales up the conflict by placing it in a metonymic relationship with much broader wholes: global issues are contained in its micro-context. Local actors enter the stage to protect core translocal values they claim to be authorised to represent, and their claims gain significance precisely through referencing this larger scale.


This conflict is not a Jewish versus gentile one, nor an ethnic nationalist vs liberal cosmopolitan one. Instead, these discourses are appropriated by clusters of stakeholders, neither of whom is purely ‘local’ or ‘international’, ‘Ukrainian’ or ‘foreign’. By showing how structural amplification keeps both sides embedded in nonlocal discourses and networks I claim that relying on international values, funds and actors makes it possible for those involved to carve space out for alternative versions of the ‘local’ in Lviv. Doing so, the paper shakes up customary narratives about Ukrainian memory politics.

bottom of page