The Strange Case of Helen Demidenko

by Robert Manne

© all rights reserved

As Quadrant was going to press it was revealed that the winner of this year’s Miles Franklin Award, Helen Demidenko, was the daughter not, as she claims, of an illiterate Ukrainian taxi driver from Cairns but of a Brisbane couple, Harry and Grace Darville, who arrived on our shores from nowhere more exotic that Scunthorpe. Even post-modernist geographers would, I imagine, be obliged to concede in the end that Scunthorpe is not in Ukraine. As I write, efforts to locate Markov Demidenko have proven no more fruitful than similar attempts, half a century ago, to locate Ern Malley’s sister, Ethel.

Even before the most recent surprise, Helen Demidenko’s The Hand that Signed the Paper posed to the Australian literary culture a problem of some difficulty. Rarely has a first novel of an Australian author been more lavishly praised. The book has already received the Australian /Vogel prize for young authors, the Miles Franklin Award and the Gold Medal of the Australian Literature Society. Its admirers praise its stark honesty, its capacity to enter into the minds of those caught up in the business of mass murder and to restore to them their humanity, its understanding of the “ordinariness of evil” and its extraordinary “redemptive power”. Yet rarely has a first Australian novel been more bitterly reviled. Its detractors – which include not only almost all its Jewish readers but also significant sections of the political intelligentsia – see in it little but moral vacuity, vulgarity, historical ignorance and overt anti-Semitism.

Helen Demidenko’s novel must be judged, in part, as fiction. But it is obvious that it cannot be judged exclusively so. For her purposes are thoroughly didactic. To read her is to be offered a history lesson, concerning the connections between the Jewish role in the Ukrainian famine and the Ukrainian role in the Holocaust. Historical criticism of a romance about ancient Rome or Elizabethan England would rightly be regarded as pettifogging and pedantic. But for a novel which deals with two of the most catastrophic events in human history, in so recent a past that some survivors are still with us, and which purports to demonstrate nothing less than a causal link between the grievous suffering of one nation and the attempted genocide of another, rigorous historical criticism in not only appropriate but obligatory.

In this novel Germans exist on the margins; Russians not at all. Only Ukrainians and Jews, and their relations, truly interest its author.

Yet of the history of this relationship she either knows, or pretends to know, virtually nothing. In her book there are only two references to this relationship prior to the 1930s. At one point the book talks of “Jewish colonists”. Jewish colonists? Before the 1930s Jews had dwelt in Ukraine for several hundred years, a period considerably predating the Tsarist annexations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover even Demidenko must know that the Jews were a dispersed people, held together only by a fierce loyalty to their faith, their customs and their historical memory. The Jews had no land. If in the 1930s they were colonists in Ukraine there was no place on earth where they were not. This was, roughly speaking, Hitler’s view.

As it happens, for complex reasons, Jewish vulnerability – to geopolitical turmoil, to the whims of the ruling authorities, to the hostility of their neighbours – was nowhere greater in post- seventeenth century European history than in Ukraine. In 1648-49 the Jews suffered their worst calamity since the Crusades when the bands of Bohdan Khmelnytsky pitilessly slaughtered tens of thousands. In 1768 terrible massacres by bands of Ukrainian peasants, haidamaks, took place. Even in the relatively civilised conditions of pre-First World War Europe, liberal opinion was shocked by the frightful pogroms of Russian Ukraine, especially in 1881 after the assassination of Alexander II and in the period immediately before and during the revolution of 1905. The most terrible massacres of Jews between Khmelnytsky and Hitler occurred in Ukraine between 1918 and 1920. Historians estimate that during their course – which reached their peak in 1919, where some 685 separate outbreaks of major violence took place – between 50,000 and 100,000 were killed and that even larger numbers were mutilated or orphaned.

There is not, so far as I am aware, any historical dispute about the reality of these massacres or, even, their approximate scale. There are, however, sharp disagreements between Jewish and Ukrainian scholars, firstly, over the responsibility for the killings which must be assumed, respectively, by the military bands associated with the Ukrainian nationalist movement and the Russian counter-revolutionary White armies of General Denikin, and secondly, over the direct and indirect responsibility the leader of the Ukrainian military forces, and national hero and martyr, Simeon Petlyura, bears for the massacres. This latter controversy is particularly bitter because of the fact that in 1926, in Paris a Ukrainian Jew, Shalom Schwarzband, assassinated Petlyura, handed himself over to the police, and used his trial to provide evidence to the world of the massacres of the Jews and of Petlyura’s political and personal responsibility for them. After the trial most historically minded Jews were convinced that Petlyura was a pogromist; their Ukrainian counterparts that Schwarzband was a Cheka agent. Nor was this controversy of merely historical interest. When, in 1941, the SS arrived in Western Ukraine they provided for the police formations they licensed to kill the Jews the following slogan: “Revenge for the assassination of ataman Petlyura.”

Let me repeat. Helen Demidenko’s central theme, her only theme really, is the cycle of violence and hatred between Ukrainians and Jews. What, then, does she tell us of Simeon Petlyura? Simply that he was a champion of “ethnic peace”. (As indeed he once had been.) What does she tell us of Shalom Schwarzband? Predicably enough – this through the mocking words of a student from Lvov – that he was a hired assassin “under instructions from Moscow”. And what does she tell us about the pogroms in the Ukraine – the most horrible of which occurred just ten years before the action of her novel begins – down the memory hole.
We are dealing in this novel with complex and tragic events which, under Stalin and Hitler, destroyed the lives of millions of human beings. Does Helen Demidenko not feel, even as a gesture of piety towards the dead, some responsibility towards historical truth?

It seems to me altogether undeniable that the overall effect of Demidenko is to suggest that the Bolshevik regime was inspired by Jews, favoured Jews, dominated by Jews; that the nastiest parts of the communist apparatus were Jewish; and that, under the Bolsheviks, the Jews together with the Russians were the oppressors of Ukraine. It seems to me equally undeniable that, on a mind innocent of historical understanding, the impression this book would leave is that the Bolshevik regime was a largely Jewish concern and the Jews the chief agents of Ukrainian suffering in the 1930s.

For those who understand the fate of the Jews under Lenin and Stalin the accusation of “Jewish Bolshevism” is particularly bitter. What communism brought the Jews of Russia in the 1920s was the persecution of their rabbis and prohibition of their religious practice, the liquidation of all the Jewish political parties and the Zionist movement, and the reduction of hundreds of thousands of shtetl dwellers – pedlars, petty traders, artisans, luftmenschen – to pitiful destitution. What it brought to the “Jewish” Bolsheviks in the 1930s was the murder of virtually the entire Jewish communist apparatus – the leaders of the Jewish section, the Evsektsiya, Dimanshtain, Ester Frumkina and hundreds of others perished in the purge of 1937 – and the murder of Lenin’s closest “Jewish” comrades – Zinoviev, Kamenev, Radek and thousands of their supporters in the party. So Jewish was the Bolshevism of Stalin that, during the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, in conversation with the German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, he promised to remove all prominent Jews who remained in the apparatus. So Jewish was it that, at the same time, even the mention of the fate of Polish Jewry under the Nazis was forbidden in the Soviet press. When the SS arrived in Soviet Ukraine in 1941 its intelligence officers were astonished at Jewish ignorance of their impending fate.

Yet Demidenko’s picture of “Jewish Bolshevism” involves more than an historical falsehood. The twinning of Bolshevism and the Jews lies at the heart of the Nazi worldview. In Mein Kampf, in 1924, Hitler wrote that “Communism is in fact nothing but an attempt by Judaism to take over the world.” When the Wehrmacht moved into the Soviet Union on 22nd June 1941 this time had come. In the cities of Petch and Duben, the Deputy Head of the SS, Reinhard Heydrich, lectured those charged with the responsibility for the mass extermination, the Einsatzgruppen. Jews, he explained, where the source of Bolshevism. Every Jew was a Bolshevik, every Bolshevik a Jew. There was no alternative to merciless annihilation. The Jewish-Bolshevik identification provided the Nazis and their East European collaborators with their warrant for genocide.

Thus far the supporters of this book have dismissed out of hand the charges of overt anti-Semitism, historical ignorance and moral weightlessness which its opponents have levelled against it. We are yet to learn how they will respond in detail when it becomes clear the author of The Hand that Signed the Paper is a teller of untruths who has assumed for herself a false ethnic identity and a psychological bond with war criminals.

My guess is that even those who knew at first reading that this book was deeply suspect will be lectured by literary critics on the importance of being able to separate the tale from the teller. My guess is that the defenders of Helen Demidenko will now try to convince us that someone who has displayed in her own life a Walter Mitty-like incapacity to distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and falsity, is still the kind of novelist who can illuminate for us truths about one of the darkest and most baffling events in our history – the Holocaust.

Perhaps it is now only the echo of the peals of laughter in London or New York about the Demidenko affair which will bring our literary world to its senses. Only then will it realise that what Ern Malley once exposed about the pretensions of poetic modernism and the avant garde in a different age, Helen Demidenko has inadvertently exposed about the pretensions of academic post- modernism and sentimental multiculturalism in our own.

Robert Manne is an Associate Professor in Politics at La Trobe University and editor of Quadrant. This piece is extracted with permission from Quadrant. His most recent book is The Shadow of 1917: Cold War Conflict in Australia.

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