In a controversial speech on Sunday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky sparked outrage when he compared the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the Holocaust as he spoke to the Israeli government.
“This Russian invasion of Ukraine is not just a military operation, as Moscow claims. 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. And everything that makes Ukrainians Ukrainians. Everything that Russian troops are now destroying. Deliberately. In front of the whole world,” Zelensky said. “That is why I have the right to this parallel and to this comparison. Our history and your history. Our war for our survival and World War II.”
“Listen to what the Kremlin says. Just listen! There are even terms that sounded then. And this is a tragedy. When the Nazi party raided Europe and wanted to destroy everything. Destroy everyone. Wanted to conquer the nations. And leave nothing from us, nothing from you. Even the name and the trace. They called it ‘the final solution to the Jewish issue.’ You remember that. And I’m sure you will never forget!” Zelensky added. “But listen to what is sounding now in Moscow. Hear how these words are said again: ‘Final solution.’ But already in relation, so to speak, to us, to the ‘Ukrainian issue.’”
“Ukrainians have made their choice. 80 years ago. They rescued Jews. That is why the Righteous Among the Nations are among us,” Zelensky concluded, later. “People of Israel, now you have such a choice.”
Zelensky’s portrayal of history is patently inaccurate, as demonstrated by the response of multiple Israeli lawmakers.
Between 1941 and 1944, over a million Jews living in the Soviet Union were murdered as part of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution,” with the majority of those murdered in Ukraine.
While Zelensky claimed that Ukrainians “made their choice” and “rescued Jews,” this is only true for the comparative handful of heroic non-Jewish Ukrainians (2,619 as of 2018) who defied the Nazi quest for the eradication of the Jewish people. According to Dieter Pohl, a German historian, approximately 100,000 Ukrainians voluntarily joined police units that directly assisted the Nazis, while others complied in other ways — such as supporting logistical efforts or directly participating in the mass murder of Jews.
Moreover, Ukrainians were among those who joined the systematic effort to erase European Judaism in Nazi death camps. One such example was Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, who was known for extreme acts of cruelty as a guard at the extermination camp in occupied Poland. One survivor of the camp where 850,000 Jews were murdered referred to the Ukrainian ″the worst devil of all at Treblinka,” who was known to beat, stab and mutilate prisoners. According to the survivor, Ivan the Terrible once murdered a prisoner with a carpenter’s drill.
Moreover, Ukraine’s post-war attitude towards the Holocaust seems to lack the anti-Nazi concern claimed by Zelensky. According to the Kyiv Post, The Simon Wiesenthal Center said that Ukraine “has to the best of our knowledge never conducted a single investigation of a local Nazi war criminal, let alone prosecuted a Holocaust perpetrator,” as recently as 2011.
“I appreciate the President of Ukraine and support the Ukrainian people in heart and deed, but it is impossible to rewrite the terrible history of the Holocaust,” Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel tweeted in response to Zelensky’s speech. “Genocide was also committed on Ukrainian soil. The war is terrible, but the comparison to the horrors of the Holocaust and the final solution is outrageous.”
“If Zelensky’s speech was given … in normal [non-war] times, we would have said it bordered on Holocaust denial … Every comparison between a regular war, as difficult as it may be, and the extermination of millions of Jews in gas chambers in the framework of the Final Solution, is a total distortion of history. The same is true for the claim that Ukrainians helped Jews in the Holocaust … The historic truth is that the Ukrainian people cannot be proud of its behavior in the Holocaust of the Jews,” Yuval Steinitz, a Likud MK, said. “None of that changes the fact that despite the outrageous use of the Holocaust, we must continue humanitarian aid to the citizens of Ukraine suffering from the war and pray for its end to come soon.”
“I don’t understand Ukrainian, but if the translation I heard is accurate, Zelensky asked us to treat the Ukrainians like they treated us 80 years ago. I’m sorry, but I think we will have to reject that request. We are, after all, a moral nation,” said Simcha Rothman, a Religious Zionist MK, on the subject of Zelensky’s reference to Ukrainians who saved Jews during the Holocaust.