Volodymyr Zelensky has performed a truly great service on behalf of the Ukrainian people. Because of his Churchill-like determination to resist Russian aggression, I have proposed him for the Nobel Peace prize. But he has in the recent past mendaciously denied the role of Ukrainian people in the Holocaust. He has used that argument to forcefully claim that Israel owes Ukraine offensive weapons. Several days ago, he escalated his criticism, saying he shocked that Israel hasn’t capitulated to his demands.
He has never apologized for the following statement he made this past March: “The Ukrainians made a choice 80 years ago, we saved Jews…” He is right the Ukrainian people made a choice 80 years ago, but it wasn’t to save Jews.
Almost without exception, Ukrainians either participated in the mass murder of Jews or said nothing as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and slaughtered in places like Babi Yar. Many of those who pulled the trigger were themselves Ukrainian, recruited into the mobile killing squads by the Nazis. Vanishingly few saved Jews.
The complicity of Ukrainians in these mass murders was greater than in most other countries.
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews were murdered. Nor was this the first time that the Ukrainian people made a similar choice. In 1648, Bogdan Chmielnicki led a pogrom that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews, including babies, children, and mothers. That was a long time ago, but the statue of this genocidal murderer still stands in the center of Kyiv, and his picture still adorns the Ukrainian five-dollar bill. That is now! Ukraine has made a choice: to honor the memory of a mass murderer of Jews.
Between the Chmielnicki murders and the Holocaust, the Ukrainian people made many other choices: they conducted pogrom after pogrom against Jewish families. Antisemitism was rampant throughout the Ukraine. That is why so many Ukrainian Jews immigrated to the United States and elsewhere.
In recent years, the situation in Ukraine has improved measurably. Though there are still a large number of antisemites in Ukraine—including in certain units of the armed forces—the remembrance of the Holocaust has caused many Ukrainians to abandon the traditional antisemitism that plagued the country. They even voted for Zelensky, who is a man of Jewish heritage.
If Zelensky had made a nuanced statement acknowledging Ukraine’s true Holocaust history while saying the situation has improved, I would congratulate him for his honesty. But he knows—after all he is himself of Jewish heritage—that the choice made by the Ukrainian people 80 years ago deserves to be condemned not praised.
It has been said that truth is the first casualty of war, but that is no excuse for perpetrating a lie that has now spread throughout Eastern Europe: namely, that Ukrainians, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians, Romanians and Hungarians saved Jews. It is true that in each of these countries, there were brave men and women who risked their lives in an effort—mostly unsuccessful—to save Jews.
The recent film by Ken Burns about the American role in the Holocaust, singled out a Polish catholic man who I knew named Jan Karski, who risked his life to go into death camps and report to the world what he saw. Others took similar heroic action. Many of them have been memorialized by as righteous among the nations by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum. But the righteous were an infinitesimal percentage among the unrighteous in these countries. Ukraine may have been the worst of all. It was certainly not among the best.
In light of the actual history, Zelensky’s ill-advised lie may well qualify as a variation on Holocaust denial or Holocaust minimization. By denying Ukrainian complicity in the mass murder of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian Jews, he has distorted history and memory.
I hope he understands that even desperate times—and he is certainly presiding over a country during desperate times—do not justify erasing the memory of the Ukrainian Jews who died at the hands of other Ukrainians.
Zelensky is a great man, but great men often have great flaws. He has an opportunity to remedy his deep insult to the memory of the Jews who were killed because of immoral choices made 80 years ago by Ukrainians.
It may be true that some Ukrainians were forced or frightened into becoming complicit with the Nazis, but many more eagerly joined them, precisely because they wanted to murder Jews, not because they had to. History and truth have their claims, and yesterday’s horrors must not be erased in the name of preventing today’s.
It is likely that Zelensky will become a Nobel Peace laureate. It is essential, therefore, for him to correct and acknowledge that the choice made by “the Ukrainians” was a horrible and indefensible one.
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