Before the Holocaust, one of the best-known tragedies in Jewish memory was the uprising led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky in the 17th century – when nearly half the Jews in Ukraine were slaughtered. But in modern-day Ukraine, Khmelnytsky is a national hero. Streets and a city are named after him, and his face even appears on the five hryven banknote.
Before coming to Ukraine, I visited the new Jewish museum in Warsaw, where a section is devoted to Khmelnytsky’s murderous campaign against the Jews. The story is beyond belief: Jewish women were sold into slavery. Children were murdered together with adults. People were skinned or buried alive. Cats were sown inside the stomachs of Jewish women.
So why is he so loved in Ukraine? To find out, I phoned Ukrainian historian Ivan Svarnik, who has written about Khmelnytsky and is also the director of the Lviv Oblast public library. He was recommended by the Lviv Town Hall.
Khmelnytsky, as Mr Svarnik described him, was a strong military leader who laid the foundations for Ukrainian independence. It was thanks to him that Poland lost control over Ukrainian land.
“And why did he murder Jews?” I asked.
It was because the Jews exploited the Ukrainians, said Mr Svarnik, insisting on using the Russian word “jid”, which is a racial slur.
“Polish noblemen leased the churches to the Jews. Whenever they felt like it, the Jews would open the churches, but sometimes they wouldn’t open them, and this angered the people,” he said. “Jews also owned the taverns, and they sold vodka on credit – when people couldn’t pay, they confiscated their property.”
Mr Svarnik added that the number of Jews that Khmelnytsky murdered was exaggerated, because you cannot trust Jewish sources.
“If so many Jews were killed, then none of them would have been left,” he said.
I ended the conversation politely, but I thought that maybe 400 years in the future, someone might talk about Hitler Street and say that Jewish writers exaggerated the number of Holocaust victims.
The story about Jews locking churches is a complete myth, said Hanna Wegrzynek, a historian at the Polin Jewish museum in Poland. However, it is true that Jews were often the lease-holders of inns that sold alcohol, and that Jews often worked as tax collectors.
“For Ukrainians, the Jews were connected with oppression,” Ms Wegrzynek said. “They often knew the Jew who collected taxes better than the nobleman [for whom he collected the taxes]. That was the problem.”
It is estimated that approximately 20,000 of the 50,000 Jews who lived in Ukraine then were murdered during the Khmelnytsky uprising.
After independence, most streets in Ukraine were renamed. In Lviv, at least 1,000 streets changed names, said Yulia Kalysh, a secretary of the Street Renaming Commission at the Lviv Town Hall. Any street that had a Russian or a Soviet name was given a Ukrainian one. Peace Street was renamed because “peace” was a word that people associated with Communism, Ms Kalysh explained. It replaced with Stepan Bandera Street, in honour of the Second World War Ukrainian leader who sided with Hitler.
Khmelnytsky Street – one of the biggest thoroughfares in Lviv – was left unchanged. As a leader of a peasant rebellion, Khmelnytsky was respected by the Communists, and he is still loved by the nationalist government today.