A video still from "The Lemberg Machine," 2023.

New film tackles Ukraine’s role in the Holocaust

“The Lemberg Machine,” by Ukrainian filmmaker Dana Kavelina, tells the wartime history of Lviv, in western Ukraine. The city, known in German as Lemberg, was first occupied by the Soviets, then the Nazis. 

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When Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, he said that one of his aims was to “denazify” the country. 

That claim has been widely dismissed as absurd. Ukraine is a democratic country now forced to fight for its survival.

But, as in many European nations, some in Ukraine did collaborate with Nazis during World War II. 

How to deal with that history, at a time when the country faces an existential threat, is the subject of fierce debate. 

For Ukrainian filmmaker Dana Kavelina, the only way to counter Russian propaganda is to tackle the politically explosive subject head-on. 

Her short, stop-motion animation film, “The Lemberg Machine,” tells the wartime history of Lviv, in western Ukraine. The city, known in German as Lemberg, was first occupied by the Soviets, then the Nazis. 

The film is haunting and dreamlike. And it doesn’t shy away from the fact that some of the ethnic Ukrainian population took part in the deportation and killing of the city’s then sizable Jewish community. 

“No one really likes to talk about this topic much on the level of dominant politics or dominant culture,” Kavelina said at the arts festival steirischer herbst in Graz, Austria, where the film recently premiered.

“I consider it to be a huge fail for us.”

In Kavelina’s film, a fantastical machine allows a researcher to look back in time to scenes from the 1930s and 1940s. 

She sees mass graves, Jews preparing to face firing squads, and Ukrainians eager to take their apartments once they’ve gone. 

Kavelina understands why the subject is so controversial and anticipates significant blowback over plans to show the film in Ukraine in the coming months. 

Many in the country believe it is playing into Russia’s hands to discuss historical collaboration at all.

“The war is a time when we all become a little bit paranoid about what should be said and what should not,” Kavelina said.

“I had a conflict with a very good colleague of mine who is a composer, and I worked with him on many of my previous films, and he broke all communication with me because I work with this topic. He considers me to be a traitor, almost.”

Kavelina, 28, is not the first artist to tackle this subject since the start of the invasion.

Sergei Loznitsa, a celebrated, Ukrainian director, came under fire for a theater production in Eastern Europe last year that dealt with the same historical period. 

Several actors criticized the play, fearing it would create a negative image of the country. 

But Kavelina said Ukraine has to consider all aspects of its past as it fights for its future.

“It’s very important to build this memory of being also the perpetrators of violence — not only remembering our glorious past, but also remembering the past which is unforgivable.”

If Ukrainians themselves don’t address the fact that there was Nazi collaboration, then Russian disinformation is left to fill the void. 

“Yes, we have been collaborators. Of course. It happened with us then. That doesn’t mean that we are Nazi now, and it doesn’t mean that someone can kill us right now and we should not defend our own country,” Kavelina said. 

Like everyone else in Ukraine, Kavelina’s life has been transformed by the current war — she grew up in the east of the country, but fled at the start of the invasion. Her home city of Melitopol remains under Russian control.

Kavelina herself is not Jewish. But she said that Jewish history is Ukrainian history, and sees the film as a continuation of her earlier work on political memory.

Adrian Karatnycky, co-founder of an nongovernmental organization called Ukrainian-Jewish Encounter, praised Kavelina for making this a focus of her work.

“We’ve always felt that the project of remembering the past should be an obligation of Ukrainians to the Jews who lived on their land and whom they were not able to protect,” he said. 

Karatnycky’s mother lived in Lviv in the 1940s when the city was a melting pot of Jewish, Ukrainian and Polish communities. She was witness to some of the scenes depicted in the film. And, he said, she remembers a playmate being dragged off the street in front of her during the pogroms of 1941, never to be seen again.

While Karatnycky believes it is important these crimes not be forgotten, they in no way suggest that Ukraine has any kind of lasting Nazi legacy — a claim he dismisses as “ridiculous.”

“I think Ukrainians credit the Western world with understanding that there is nothing resembling a Nazi regime.” 

“The Lemberg Machine” ends with a disembodied mouth acknowledging past crimes.

“I know how to wipe the map off the map, to blot out the names of strangers when they do not belong to the names of my people,” it says in Ukrainian. 

If the film has a message, Kavelina said, it’s that anyone can be a perpetrator of horrific acts. Acknowledging this is the only way to avoid repeating them. 

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