Empathy and History // Heartfelt feelings, yes; falsified facts, no

Audiovisual installation in Babi Yar dedicated to the victims

A line in Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Israeli lawmakers stopped me cold.

Like most people, at least those of us outside of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, I have admired the Ukrainian leader’s courage, spunk and determination to resist the unprovoked Russian invasion of his country.

Despite the brutal onslaught against Ukrainian cities and their residents, Mr. Zelensky has inspired Ukrainians to fight back against a powerful military and has burst the bubble of Mr. Putin’s assumption that taking over its neighbor would be a cakewalk. For thousands of Russian troops, it has become a graveyard.

Via videolink, the Ukrainian president addressed the European and British Parliaments and the US Congress, to declare his unyielding stance and to ask for moral support and military aid. Tailoring his plea for support to each forum, he called on the European Union governing body to “prove that you are indeed Europeans”; regaled the Brits with references to Shakespeare and Britain’s role in World War II; and, to the American legislators, invoked Pearl Harbor and September 11.

And, addressing Knesset members on March 20, he invoked the Holocaust, asserted that the Kremlin seeks a “final solution” to its Ukrainian problem and quoted Golda Meir: “We want to live, and our neighbors want to see us dead. That doesn’t leave us a lot of room for compromise.”

But then he uttered the words that discombobulated me—and, not surprisingly, others:
“Ukrainians,” President Zelensky said, “made their choice 80 years ago. We saved Jews.”

There were indeed Ukrainians who protected Jews. Yad Vashem, in fact, includes some 2,600 Ukrainians among its list of “Righteous Among the Nations.”

But the “choice” countless other Ukrainians made was to murder Jews.

Shortly after the Nazi occupation, in 1941, of what was then “the Ukraine,” a part of the Soviet Union, there were atrocities against local Jews. Around 100,000 Ukrainians joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis. Many others lent helping hands during mass shootings of Jews. Ukrainians like the infamous “Ivan the Terrible” of Treblinka were among the guards who manned Nazi death camps.

The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police helped round up the tens of thousands of Jews who were murdered at Babi Yar.

Ukrainian Jew-hatred already had a long history. At least 100,000 Jewish corpses lay in the wake of the pogroms of 1648-49 under Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnicki. Tens of thousands of others were murdered in 1768 in the Massacre of Uman.

Some 600 pogroms took place thereafter, in 64 Ukrainian cities. Between 1918 and 1921, there were 1,236 violent attacks on Jews in Ukraine, many by soldiers under the reviled Symon Petliura, who served for two years as president of the Ukrainian People’s Republic.

(A Kiev street is named for Petliura; there is a memorial to him in Vinnitsa; and his bust graces a pedestal in Rivne. And in the middle of a Kiev traffic circle stands an imposing statue of a man on a horse; its plaque reads: “Bogdan Chmielnicki: Hero of the Ukrainian People.” An issue worthy of addressing once peace comes to the country.)

So it was no surprise that, in 1941, many Ukrainians welcomed the Nazis to their land, and became eager accomplices in their occupiers’ murderous acts.

None of which, of course, has any bearing whatsoever on how we should regard the contemporary victims of the Russian onslaught against Ukraine. Anti-Semitic sentiment may persist in Ukraine, but none of us has any right to consider any of the country’s beleaguered citizens today—who, after all, elected a Jewish president and whose parliament passed a law criminalizing anti-Semitism—to be unworthy of our concern or aid.

No Ukrainian today can be held responsible for the sins of his forebears. We are rachamanim bnei rachamanim, and must be pained by misery endured by others.

But our rightful feeling of Ukrainians’ pain cannot be permitted to obscure any fact of history.

Knesset member Simcha Rotman, I think, had a poignant reaction to Mr. Zelensky’s plea that Israel treat Ukrainians the same way Ukraine treated Jews during the Holocaust.

“I’m sorry,” he said, “but I think we will have to reject his request. After all, we are a moral nation. A light among nations.”



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