Last Friday, 27 January, was Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 78th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops on that day in 1945. The sombre anniversary was commemorated across Europe in many different ways. Most movingly, in Kyiv, the choir of the Ukrainian armed forces performed a haunting song called Eli Eli (my God, my God) in a ceremony at Babi Yar – the ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were shot after Nazi troops invaded Soviet Ukraine in 1941.
The song was written by Hannah Szenes, a Jewish poet living in Palestine, who volunteered to join the British forces during World War II. She and her unit were dispatched to Croatia and joined a local partisan unit in 1944. Attempting to enter Hungary to save her mother, who was at the time still living in Budapest, she was captured and later executed by the Nazis. Before leaving on her mission, Szenes had entrusted a notebook to a friend, which included Eli Eli, a song that she had written in 1942.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky attended the ceremony. Zelensky’s own great-grandparents died when the Nazis burned down their village, and his grandfather was the only one of four brothers to survive the war as a Red Army soldier. In a video statement to mark Remembrance Day, Zelensky called on the world to “overcome indifference”.
“We know and remember that indifference kills along with hatred. Indifference and hatred are always capable of creating evil together,” he said. “That is why it is so important that everyone who values life should show determination when it comes to saving those whom hatred seeks to destroy.
“Today, we repeat it even more strongly than before: never again to hatred; never again to indifference. The more nations of the world overcome indifference, the less space there will be in the world for hatred.”
Other Ukrainian government officials were more direct in their condemnation of today’s war. A leading presidential advisor, Andriy Yermak, wrote on Twitter that the Holocaust “should have served as a warning to prevent new crimes against humanity. But today, in the very centre of Europe, a genocide of Ukrainians is occurring. We will neither forgive nor forget anything.”
Meanwhile, Russian president Vladimir Putin took advantage of Holocaust Remembrance Day to reiterate his phoney claims justifying the invasion of Ukraine. "Forgetting the lessons of history leads to the repetition of terrible tragedies," he said. "This is evidenced by the crimes against civilians, ethnic cleansing and punitive actions organised by neo-Nazis in Ukraine. It is against that evil that our soldiers are bravely fighting."
At the same time, the Kremlin continued its attacks on independent news media reporting on the war, branding the popular news site Meduza as undesirable. The designation means that anyone who aids or promotes Meduza – by speaking to its journalists (based in Latvia), or even sharing or liking its content – could face prosecution. By silencing independent media, Putin hopes to drown out all opposition to his own war propaganda, which is trotted out on state television and in the Russian press.
In Poland, around 185 miles from the Ukrainian border, survivors of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other mourners gathered at the site of the Nazi concentration camp to commemorate the anniversary of its liberation.
“Standing here today at the Birkenau memorial site, I am horrified to hear the news from the east. That there is a war there, that the Russian troops that liberated us here are waging a war in Ukraine. Why? Why is there such a policy?” Auschwitz survivor Zdzislawa Wlodarczyk said.
The director of the Auschwitz museum, Piotr Cywinski, echoed President Zelensky’s call to overcome indifference. “Being silent means giving voice to the perpetrators. Remaining indifferent is tantamount to condoning murder,” he said, comparing Russian war crimes in towns such as Bucha and Mariupol with Nazi atrocities.
Rabbi Refael Kruskal, vice-president of Odesa’s Jewish community and the son of a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, has helped evacuate over 4,000 people from Odesa. The city had a Jewish population of around 45,000 before the Russian invasion. “People always say never again, never again, but this year it is actually happening again,” he told France-based Euronews. “I never had to run away from Ukrainians, but I helped my entire community flee Ukraine because of Russian bombs.”
Moscow’s former chief rabbi, Pinchas Goldschmidt, has urged Russian Jews to leave the country while they still can, warning that they may become scapegoats for difficulties caused by the war in Ukraine. Goldschmidt – who resigned in July because of his opposition to the war and lives in exile – pointed to numerous historical precedents for today’s rising antisemitism.
“When we look back over Russian history, whenever the political system was in danger you saw the government trying to redirect the anger and discontent of the masses towards the Jewish community,” he told The Guardian. “We saw this in tsarist times and at the end of Stalin’s regime.”
Antisemitism was rife under the tsars, and waves of pogroms in 1881-1906 were condoned by the tsars, if not actually encouraged by them. Often the police were ordered not to intervene, and sometimes even joined in the antisemitic attacks and looting. Up to two million Jews left Russia as a result of the pogroms. Attacks on Jewish communities peaked in 1919 during the Russian civil war, in Ukraine in particular, when numerous different factions fought for control of the land. All of them committing acts of violence against Jews who were blamed both for food scarcity and rising prices, and for supporting the Bolsheviks.
Discrimination and antisemitism prompted many Jews to back the Bolshevik regime, which banned religion of any kind and proclaimed all citizens as equal – although the reality was a far cry from the rhetoric. Official government-led antisemitism remerged in 1953 under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in the form of the Doctors Plot – an alleged conspiracy by a group of mostly Jewish doctors to murder leading Communist Party officials. The plot was thought to be a precursor to another major purge of the party, and was halted only by Stalin’s death.
Once again, as a backdrop to today’s ugly war, history is repeating itself. “We’re seeing rising antisemitism while Russia is going back to a new kind of Soviet Union, and step by step the iron curtain is coming down again. This is why I believe the best option for Russian Jews is to leave,” Goldschmidt said.
Jews are increasingly being blamed for Russia’s difficulties in the war – Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky is Jewish, of course. The Russian government and state-controlled media, as well as many on the far right, routinely repeat antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. Foreign secretary Sergei Lavrov in May trotted out the unfounded claim that Hitler was part-Jewish, in a crude attempt to portray Zelensky as a Nazi.
Goldschmidt served as Moscow’s chief rabbi for over 30 years until he resigned in July, prompted by fears that the city’s Jewish community would be endangered if he stayed, after he refused to voice support to the war and gave assistance to Ukrainian refugees. He had already left Russia in March, two weeks after the invasion of Ukraine began.
“Pressure was put on community leaders to support the war, and I refused to do so. I resigned because to continue as chief rabbi of Moscow would be a problem for the community because of the repressive measures taken against dissidents,” he said.
Goldschmidt first urged Russian Jews to flee the country in October after the assistant secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Aleksey Pavlov, proclaimed the Jewish orthodox Chabad movement to be a supremacist cult. Chabad is the largest Jewish sect in the former Soviet Union.
“Now we are under pressure, wondering if what was published in the newspaper — this interview with a top security official — represents the start of an official wave of antisemitism. I think that would be the end of a Jewish presence in Russia. Official antisemitism would drive every Russian Jew out of the country,” Baruch Gorin, a spokesperson for the Russian Jewish community, said at the time.
Since July, Russia has been engaged in a legal battle with Israel over its attempts to close down the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency, an Israeli quasi-governmental organisation that promotes Jewish immigration to Israel and organises Jewish cultural and educational activities in Russia. Moscow’s efforts call to mind earlier crackdowns on the organisation and on Jewish communal life during Soviet times.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Goldschmidt estimates that between a quarter and a third of Russia's Jews have left the country or are planning to do so. More than 43,000 Russians and 15,000 Ukrainians emigrated to Israel last year.
In all, some 200,000 Russians have left the country since the war began, many of them as a result of Putin’s mobilisation drive in September. Jews comprise a disproportionate number of Russia’s middle class and the exodus marks a considerable brain drain for Russia, with a large contingent of business and cultural leaders, intellectuals and creatives fleeing the country.
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.