Linda Kinstler, an academic and journalist, only discovered the truth about her grandfather a few years ago.
“Both of my parents were born in Riga, Latvia, during the Soviet Union,” she tells New Lines’ Amie Ferris-Rotman. “But they came from very different backgrounds.”
Her mother came from an old Jewish family in Ukraine. During World War II, many of her family members were gunned down at Babyn Yar, alongside hundreds of thousands of others, by Waffen SS and Wehrmacht forces. It was one of the largest single mass killings of the Holocaust. Her father’s family was from Latvia. “His father was a member of the Arajs Commando,” Kinstler says, “which was one of the most brutal killing units of the Holocaust in the Baltic states.”
Kinstler only discovered this about her grandfather a few years ago. She wrote about her family’s story in her 2022 book “Come to This Court and Cry: How the Holocaust Ends,” which interrogates the painful politics of remembrance in a part of the world that is only just beginning to grapple with the legacy of World War II. In Eastern Europe, she explains, “It is like World War II happened yesterday. These questions of complicity and guilt and vengeance, and responsibility for what occurred, remain extremely active and inform daily politics.”
“It is like World War II happened yesterday.”
On the battlefields of Ukraine, those questions are more urgent than ever. “Putin framed this phase of the invasion as a campaign of denazification,” says Kinstler, who covered the war for The New York Times. “He’s invoking all of these myths of Ukrainian complicity with the Germans and framing Ukraine as a Nazi nation to justify this war.”
As Ukrainians pursue charges against Russian officials at the International Criminal Court, including Putin himself, it remains to be seen whether any of them will be brought to justice. For many of the tens of millions of victims of Nazi extermination, it is too late. Only a few experienced any kind of justice in court. The same was true for the victims of Soviet oppression. But memory, Kinstler says, can also be a kind of justice in its own way, and the failure at Nuremberg only underscores the need for remembrance — especially at a time when some would seek to rehabilitate men like her grandfather’s commander as heroes of the anti-Soviet resistance, and fewer and fewer witnesses remain.
“We are very much in this much anticipated moment, when the Holocaust is going to pass from memory into history, when the people who witnessed it themselves — who survived it — are, increasingly, no longer with us.”
Produced by Joshua Martin