Explaining ‘Ukrainian antisemitism’ and Holocaust diplomacy

Zelensky in Babyn Yar

Zelensky at the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial site in Kyiv, 27.02.2023

To mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ choir released a YouTube video showing Ukrainian servicemen performing a Hebrew song at the site of one of the biggest Holocaust massacres in Europe, which has since been turned into a memorial site. The video features a complex mix of symbols, for a moment, the camera focuses on one of the performer's insignia showing the Tamga, Crimean Tatar coat of arms, next to a Trident, one of the symbols of the Ukrainian state. This video occurs against the context of Moscow claiming they attacked Ukraine to “denazify” the state. 

The symbolism of the video is multilayered: The song, “A Walk to Caesarea” (1942), was written by Hannah Szenes (Senesh), a Hungarian-Israeli poet, and resistance operative working agianst the Nazis who was captured and killed in 1944 in Budapest at the age of 23. The song is associated with the national Holocaust Remembrance Day of Israel, where it is performed annually, implying the authors of the video clip intended to direct their message to an international audience.

The video was filmed in Babyn Yar, an infamous site of mass genocide in Kyiv. Thousands of Kyiv Jews and Roma were murdered by Nazis here and left in ravines, along with Soviet prisoners of war, Ukrainian nationalists and occasionally Nazi collaborators often accused of being Holocaust perpetrators themselves. Babyn Yar has its own two days of remembrance, September 29–30, where citizens mourn the roughly 33,770 Jews killed by the Nazis at this site.  

Given Russia's ongoing invasion of Ukraine, marking this day and the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine was especially important in 2022 and 2023. Internal disputes and antagonisms were put aside as institutions and groups addressed their sorrows together over the current war, rather than over past terrors. 

Zelensky: in search of strong symbolism 

Since Feb 24, 2022 when Moscow attacked Ukraine, Kyiv has been looking for ways to counter Russian propaganda. One of the state strategies in Ukraine is to highlight different genocides that have taken place in its territory. These include the Stalin-made famine of the early 1930s known as Holodomor, the Holocaust, and the current Russian war and occupation that is believed to have cost over 7,000 civilian lives in Ukraine so far.

These days, each Ukrainian official address mentioning Nazi-led extermination of Jews draws parallels to Russian atrocities in Ukraine in 2022.

In international politics, it is almost unthinkable to compare the Holocaust with anything else: insensitive at best and equal to Holocaust denial at worst. This was exactly what Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was accused of doing by several Israeli politicians after his Zoom speech for the Israeli Parliment in the first month of the Russian full-scale invasion. 

But since Zelensky himself comes from a Jewish family which directly suffered from the Nazis, he may think that his personal history gives him legitimacy to draw this parallel.  

It was not Zelensky, however, who initiated the comparisons, and not even him who emphasised his Jewish origin. Right after Russia attacked Ukraine, as soon as it became clear that the Kyiv leadership was not going to flee and its people would fight, the Ukrainian president became an icon for Jewish media who called him “the modern Maccabee” — a reference to the history of Jewish resistance to oppression, including that of the Nazis. 

While Ukrainian Jewish history has been associated with discrimination and persecution, in 2022, many Jews worldwide proudly rediscovered their Ukrainian roots and shared family stories about oppression they faced at the hands of Russia.

Is wartime really the time to revisit history? 

The parallel cited above raises the question of Jewish-Ukrainain relations that remains a source of contention among different segments and generations of Ukrainian society. The truth is that the country has still not reconciled the conflicting narratives about its 20th century history with anti-Jewish pogroms, Nazi-era persecutions, and Soviet-sponsored antisemitism

Certain historical figures, like Bohdan Khmelnytsky, Symon Petliura, or Stepan Bandera who are today perceived as champions of Ukrainian patriotism in mainstream discourse, particularly for their opposition to Russian and Soviet colonialism, abroad are usually associated with major mass massacres of Jews and as such, they left deep traces in Jewish collective memory.

Paradoxically, in their parallels with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian officials, including Zelensky, refer to Jews who suffered in this area, as “you” but not “we.” For example in his speech before the Knesset Zelensky said, “I have the right to this parallel and to this comparison,” referring to the Holocaust and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He added: “Our history and your history. Our war for our survival and World War II,” as if Jews have never been a part of the local society.

Since Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, Jewish studies and Holocaust research, education, and remembrance have been blooming in the country thanks to foreign financing, but also local grassroots initiatives and genuine empathy and interest in the history and culture repressed. 

Internally and internationally, however, it is Russia which is associated with the fight against Nazi Germany (internationally, the former Soviet Union is often referred to simply as “Russia”) while Ukrainians are still widely seen as collaborators: the expression “Ukrainian collaborators” is widely used in media and academia in WWII history discourse, which reinforces the idea that all Ukrainians were collaborators during the war. Ukraine's rejection of its Soviet past and Russia's activities of spreading anti-Ukrainian historical narratives contributed heavily to this state of affairs. In modern Ukraine, the Red Army fighters are perceived as occupiers even though hundreds of thousands of them were Ukrainians themselves.

The Twitter post of Andriy Yermak, the presidential office's main adviser on media issues, drawing parallels between Holocaust and Russian invasion of Ukraine, met mixed reactions from users, such as:

Another wrote:

There have been attempts to review and reevaluate historic figures and formations like Stepan Bandera and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists. But the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine made them once again irrelevant for many and toxic for some as the Ukrainian society faces incessent disinformation attacks from Russia, but also an urgent need for patriotism and inspiration from the national history. 

The fact is that today, Ukraine is now among the least antisemitic countries in Europe

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