Less than a week into President Vladimir Putin’s campaign of ‘denazification’ in Ukraine, a Russian missile struck the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site, which marks the spot on the edge of Kyiv where more than 33,000 Jews were shot in huge pits by Nazi death squads and their Ukrainian collaborators in September 1941. The strike was directed at a television transmission tower and killed five people.
Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky – who is himself Jewish – said: “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ for 80 years, if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site of Babyn Yar?” The British ambassador to Ukraine Melinda Simmons condemned the strike, saying “In case anyone bought Putin’s ‘denazification’ objective, here’s the stark staring proof of its sickening hollowness”.
A key feature of Jewish history is the ability to survive against all odds, and President Zelensky is doing his utmost to follow this tradition. “The enemy has identified me as the number one target,” he said in a video message as Russian troops began attacking Kyiv. Regardless of the personal danger he faces, Zelensky is determined to remain in the Ukrainian capital. His defiance is all the more striking given his background as a popular entertainer and comedian. Nobody, least of all he himself, could have predicted that he would be thrust upon the world stage during Europe’s biggest military crisis since World War II.
Zelensky is a native Russian speaker from eastern Ukraine, who has had to brush up on his Ukrainian since running for the presidency in 2019. His grandfather served in the Red Army during the last war, fighting against Nazi Germany. His grandfather’s three brothers, along with their parents and all their families, were shot during the Holocaust. Zelensky grew up in what he has called “an ordinary Soviet Jewish family” – from which we can infer that his family was subject to discrimination in all spheres of life and would have hidden their Jewishness as far as was possible. This may well be why he has not drawn attention to it over the years.
“How can I be a Nazi?” Zelensky asked in response to Putin’s declared goal of denazification, without specifically mentioning his background. “Explain it to my grandfather, who went through the entire war in the infantry of the Soviet army, and died a colonel in an independent Ukraine.”
The subject is highly relevant in Ukraine, which – like much of Eastern Europe – has a significant contingent of extreme right-wing nationalists. Zelensky has attempted to project a strong patriotic front against Russia, while tempering the far right, which seeks to honour nationalist heroes – many of whom were Nazi collaborators – through statues, marches and other tributes – a policy promoted by his predecessor Petro Poroshenko.
In spite of a strong perception of anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Zelensky has said that his Jewishness was simply not an issue during the election. “Nobody cares. Nobody asks about it,” he remarked. At the time of his election, Ukraine’s prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman, was also Jewish, making Ukraine the only country in the world other than Israel to have a Jewish president and prime minister.
Nor has Zelensky’s background prevented him from being embraced as a symbol of the nation during the current crisis. “If Zelensky has now become synonymous with the blue-and-yellow flag of his country, it might signal an unexpected outcome of this conflict that has found Jews feeling finally, improbably, one with a land that has perpetually tried to spit them out,” wrote Gal Beckerman, senior editor at US magazine The Atlantic.
Although the years since the end of the Soviet Union have seen a worrying rise in right-wing extremism in Ukraine, they have also enabled a flowering of Jewish life and culture, enabling synagogues and Jewish community centres to open up. A 2019 poll by Pew Research Center found Ukraine the most accepting of Jews among all Central and Eastern European countries.
The Nazi analogy seems more fitting in relation to Russia than Ukraine, as Zelensky himself pointed out at the start of the invasion, writing, “Russia treacherously attacked our state, as Nazi Germany did in [the Second World War] years. As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history.” And the Ukrainian government’s Twitter account last week shared a cartoon image of Adolf Hitler smiling and touching Putin’s cheek. “This is not a ‘meme’, but our and your reality right now,” it said.
Russia’s claims that Ukraine is committing genocide against Russian speakers are equally ironic, given that genocide was a recurring feature of Ukraine’s tragic twentieth century history – genocides that the Soviet Union (led by Moscow) refused to recognise.
During World War II, German soldiers murdered 1.5 million Jews in the territory of present-day Ukraine, often with the collaboration of Ukrainian militias and help from local auxiliary police. A lesser-known Jewish genocide had been perpetrated two decades earlier, during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Around 100,000 Jews were murdered, predominantly by Russian forces loyal to the Tsar, as well as by local and Ukrainian nationalist armies.
The last century also witnessed two genocides of the non-Jewish population of Ukraine. In the early 1930s, millions of Ukrainians died of starvation during the Holodomor – when Soviet leader Joseph Stalin attempted to subdue the ethnic Ukrainian population by purposefully restricting food supplies during a famine. And during the Nazi occupation, non-Jewish Ukrainians were also brutally murdered in a bid to clear the land to make way for lebensraum, or living space, for ethnic Germans.
Yet another irony of Putin’s claims of genocide is that Russian speakers have more freedom in Ukraine than they do in Russia, where the authoritarian regime suppresses political dissent – Putin is far more afraid of democracy than he is of Nazism.
This video from Ukraine’s chief rabbi, Moshe Reuben Asman, in Kyiv is a heart-wrenching plea to Russians not to repeat the complacency of the Nazi era. “Come to the light,” he urges, “if you are complacent, if you don’t speak out, you too are guilty of war crimes”. Even if you don’t understand Russian, you can feel his passion and his pain. Never again.
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. As my research for a new book set in Ukraine continues, articles published here will focus on three tumultuous periods in particular: the Second World War, the Russian Civil War and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14.