As his country is hit with horrors unseen since World War II, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelensky used Holocaust terminology in his virtual speech to the Knesset last Sunday.
“This is a large-scale and treacherous war aimed at destroying our people. Destroying our children, our families. Our state. Our cities. Our communities. Our culture,” Zelensky said. “Everything that makes Ukrainians Ukrainians. Everything that Russian troops are now destroying. Deliberately. In front of the whole world.”
He then described Russia’s military actions as a “final solution.” The charged term, coined by the Nazis as a euphemism for genocide, set off a debate on whether his choice of words was appropriate. “I admire the Ukraine president and support the Ukrainian people in heart and deed, but the terrible history of the Holocaust cannot be rewritten,” Israeli Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tweeted. “The war is terrible but the comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust and the final solution is outrageous.”
Zelensky’s use of Holocaust terminology, quoting Ukrainian-born Israeli leader Golda Meir, bombs falling on Uman, and a world indifferent to his country’s suffering, was really an emotional appeal that was tailored for an Israeli audience. Before each foreign leader and legislature, he used specific examples that connected Ukraine to a respective country.
“For every person who works diligently, who lives honestly, who respects the law, we in Ukraine want the same for our people. All that is a normal part of your own life,” he said in his March 16 virtual speech to Congress. “Americans, in your great history you would understand Ukrainians. Understand us now. We need you right now.”
On the same day, he addressed German lawmakers, speaking of the siege imposed by the Soviets on West Berlin in 1948 in his case for a no-fly zone above Ukraine. “If you remember what the Berlin Airlift meant to you, which could be realized because the sky was safe. You were not killed from the sky as now in our country, when we cannot even make an airlift! When the sky gives only Russian missiles and air bombs.”
Then there was his speech to the British House of Commons on March 8, which was compared to Winston Churchill in its defiance of the aggressor, while quoting that country’s most famous playwright.
“We have to fight the helicopters, rockets. The question for us now is to be or not to be. This is a Shakespearean question. For 15 days, this question could have been asked. But now I can give you a definitive answer. It’s definitely yes, to be,” he told the packed chamber from a screen. “And I would like to remind you of the words that the United Kingdom has already heard, which are important again: We will not give up and we will not lose.”
In the context of his speeches to other countries, there is room to argue that Zelensky was being consistent in his approach. But unlike his audiences in Washington, Berlin, and London, Israelis have a detailed understanding of history. They do not take kindly to hyperbole and simplistic comparisons.
“Zelensky’s claim that the Ukrainians were righteous gentiles who saved Jews in the Holocaust is sick historical revisionism,” Israel Hayom columnist Caroline Glick wrote. “The Ukrainians were active, enthusiastic Nazis. Ukrainian Jewry wasn’t annihilated in Poland, but in Ukraine, by their neighbors.”
Jerusalem Post reporter Lahav Harkov also noted the unintended effect of Zelensky’s speech among Israelis, particularly his argument that Ukrainians had saved Jews during the Holocaust. “Israelis know the history of the Holocaust very well. The Ukrainian Auxiliary Police rounded up Jews to be massacred in Babi Yar, Lviv, and Zhytomyr. About 80,000 Ukrainians volunteered for the SS, compared with 2,600 Ukrainians documented as having saved Jews. And before that, some of the worst pogroms in Jewish history were perpetrated in what is now Ukraine.”
But then, Harkov noted that the nation that has a long view of history can discern between Zelensky’s choice of words and whether his country is worth supporting. “In fact, Israeli public opinion is strongly in favor of Ukraine in this war, despite its bloody, violent history with Jews.”
Israel did not send the Iron Dome system to Ukraine because while it is effective against homemade Hamas rockets, it is unlikely to work against Russian missiles. It has attempted to mediate a ceasefire at Zelensky’s request, voted against Russia at the United Nations, supplied humanitarian aid, constructed a field hospital, and accepted refugees.
Unfortunately, in social media, words matter more than actions. A bad-faith influencer latches on Zelensky’s use of Holocaust terminology, the presence of the Azov Battalion (a neo-Nazi fringe element in the Ukrainian military), or his country’s honoring of Cossack leader Bogdan Khmelnitsky and Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, among others. The tweet is then picked up by supporters of Russia, retweeted, commented, liked, and, in the process, giving Ukraine the appearance that it has an equal share in the blame for this war.
A positive influencer recognizes the intent behind Zelensky’s words. “It delves straight into a bigger question of moral clarity and truth: Can we look reality in the face right now, and fail to declare the invasion evil?” Rachel Sharansky Danziger wrote. “Dare we hide behind equivocations and diplomatic phrasing, when thousands of people in Russia, with so much more to lose than we do, are brave enough to yell the truth?”
The daughter of the Ukrainian-born refusenik also recognized that Zelensky’s choice of words was poor, but should not detract from the overall message. Israeli leaders echoed this sentiment.
“We have the human, Jewish and Israeli obligation to help them. Our assistance on Ukraine’s borders and inside the country is impressive,” Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai said. “We must also assure asylum for the refugees. We have done and will continue to do everything in our power.”
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid also spoke of his country’s support for Ukraine and compassion for Zelensky, based on his situation. “I have an old principle of not arguing with people in distress. His people are dying. He is at war. You see Mariupol’s buildings crumble. I will not start correcting him,” he said in an interview with Yedioth Aharonoth.
In the meantime, Russia’s “de-Nazifying” of Ukraine claimed a Jewish victim. Last Friday, Kharkiv resident Boris Romanchenko, 96, was killed when a Russian missile struck his apartment block. The Buchenwald-Dora International Committee tweeted that his grandchildren reported his death.
“Boris Romanchenko worked intensively on the memory of Nazi crimes and was vice-president of the Buchenwald-Dora International Committee,” the organization tweeted.
Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba noted that Romanchenko survived the camps of Buchenwald, Peenemünde, Mittelbau-Dora, and Bergen-Belsen. “He lived his quiet life in Kharkiv until recently. Last Friday a Russian bomb hit his house and killed him. Unspeakable crime. Survived Hitler, murdered by Putin.”
By Sergey Kadinsky