Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 31.10.2018
Saide Arifova was a Crimean Tatar woman who saved dozens of Jewish children from the Holocaust, during the Nazi German occupation of Crimea in the Second World War. “Her Heart” is a film by director Ahtem Seitablaiev which is based on her real story, covering the period from the Nazi German occupation of Crimea up to the Soviet Russian occupation of Crimea.
There was a special screening of “Her Heart” in Ottawa on October 30, a presentation of the Ukrainian Canadian Film Festival, in co-operation with Molodist: the Kyiv International Film Festival. The director, Ahtem Seitablaiev, was in attendance and answered questions after the screening. The event was organized by the Canadian Association of Crimean Tatars, and was hosted at House of Commons facilities by two MPs.
The Jewish community of Bakhchysarai tried to save their children by sending them into hiding when the Nazis came. Some of the children found their way to Saide Arifova’s kindergarten, which took on the function of being an orphanage and a home for street children during the war. Saide Arifova took in at least 88 Jewish children, hiding them in plain sight from the Nazis by giving them Crimean Tatar identities. The film “Her Heart” shows how she made a game of it for the younger children, but how deadly serious it was that they remember their Crimean Tatar names, memorize a Muslim prayer, learn the Crimean Tatar language, and bury deep down their Jewish identities.
Saide Arifova would have been rewarded by the Nazis if she had betrayed her Jewish charges. She faced summary execution if she was caught harbouring them. But even under interrogation and torture she did not give in.
When the Soviets came and the Nazis left, what should have been liberation turned to tragedy. The Deportation of the Crimean Tatars took place on 18 May 1944. This crime against humanity by the Stalin regime was so-called ‘collective punishment’ for the supposed collaboration of the Crimean Tatars with the Nazis. Saide Arifova and her entire orphanage of Crimean Tatar children were about to hauled away by the NKVD when she revealed the long-hidden birth certificates of her Jewish charges. She saved Jewish children twice – from Hitler’s terror and from Stalin’s terror – but she could not save herself.
Saide Arifova was deported to Uzbekistan. Only after the independence of Ukraine in 1991 was she able to return home to Crimea, to Bakhchysarai. She died in 2007, not recognized in her lifetime as a Righteous Among the Nations.
The director, Ahtem Seitablaiev, was asked a range of questions after the screening of “Her Heart” in Ottawa. He gave his perspective as a Crimean Tatar, as a Ukrainian citizen, and as an artist. He said that Crimean Tatars have learned to take the long-view, having suffered many periods of foreign occupation in their history. There were attempts to suppress, assimilate, or exterminate the Crimean Tatars under the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Both those empires have come and gone, and the Crimean Tatars endured. Foreign occupiers have come again to the Crimean Tatar homeland, since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine in 2014. But in Seitablaiev’s view, the empire which is “north-east of Ukraine” will also fail to exterminate the Crimean Tatars.
Enormous pressure is placed on Crimean Tatars who are pro-Ukrainian – Seitablaiev estimates that at least fifty percent fall in this category. The most important thing, in his view, is to survive, without being a collaborator with the occupation regime. Not coincidentally, this is the example Saide Arifova shows in the film, “Her Heart.” What Ahtem Seitablaiev says Crimean Tatars need from the outside world is to know that they are supported in their desire to stay within the territory of Ukraine. He says that there are collaborators, of course, but Crimean Tatars are a small community and they will know how to deal with them when the time comes.
Ahtem Seitablaiev explained one of the reasons he is pro-Ukrainian. Referring to Putin, he said that a criminal stops only when he feels pain. Putin thinks that human dignity can be bought. Ukraine proves that is not always true. Ukraine is in the forefront of bringing pain to Putin.
Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars who have not collaborated with Putin regime in Crimea and in Donbas have kept their human dignity. They are worthy of the support the Ahtem Seitablaiev says is what they need right now.
Ahtem Seitablaiev made a special point of mentioning Oleh Sentsov. He referred to Oleh Sentsov as his colleague (Sentsov is also a film director) and as his countryman (Sentsov is also from Crimea). Oleh Sentsov has been a hostage of the Putin regime for four and a half years. #FreeSentsov cards and banners were prominent at the Ottawa screening of “Her Heart.”
The story of Saide Arifova is a story of human dignity amidst the worst degradation of the human condition imaginable. It has powerful resonance with the story of the Crimean Tatars today. Crimes against humanity are being committed by the Putin regime in Ukraine’s southern peninsula now, on a scale not seen since the crimes against humanity committed by the Stalin regime in Crimea in the 1940s.
The solution is liberation. Crimea is Ukraine.