Ukraine’s Jewish President and His Country’s Struggles with Its Past

January 23, 2020 | David Horovitz and Volodymyr Zelensky
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Formerly an actor and comedian, Volodymyr Zelensky took office as president of Ukraine in May. Zelensky is Jewish, has relatives in Israel, and has visited the country several times to see family as well as to perform. In an interview with the Israeli journalist David Horovitz, he discusses some of the current controversies in Ukraine, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, regarding the darkest parts of 20th-century history. Horovitz writes:

[Zelensky] speaks at length about the Holodomor, the Soviet-imposed . . . famine of 1932–33, which killed millions, and with great respect for the victims of the Holocaust—and the need to bring a belated, honest historical account of these events into the open. He acknowledges but says less on the issue of Ukrainians’ participation in Holocaust crimes, preferring to highlight the actions of Ukraine’s righteous Gentiles, and the relative marginality of overt anti-Semitism in modern Ukraine.

[After speaking with Zelesnsky], I visited the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War—built in the Soviet era as the Museum of the Great Patriotic War. An English-language guide at the section on the Babi Yar massacre was, significantly, telling her group that while others were killed there, “only Jews were killed for being Jews.” This simple, terrible truth contrasts with the norm in the Soviet era, when the fact that the Jews were targeted by the Nazis for genocide was not acknowledged. The Soviet memorial at Babi Yar, where 33,771 Jews were marched from their homes to be shot dead in the ravine on September 29–30, 1941, commemorates atrocities carried out against the Soviet people in general.

In the interview, Zelensky explained his plans to build a new memorial at the site:

First, a memorial will be constructed for all the Jews executed at Babi Yar. This is a large project, which includes a historical museum. . . . We should also remember that more than 2,500 Ukrainians were recognized by Yad Vashem as righteous Gentiles. Many of them are no longer alive. But some of them are still with us. Many of those people saved Jews, hid them, helped them to escape from the procession that went to Babi Yar. So we will definitely find a place in the memorial for them.

Zelensky also comments on the controversies surrounding streets and public spaces named after Ukrainian nationalists who participated in the mass murder of Jews:

[Since] we have so complicated a history, [we should endeavor to] build a common history. Let’s find those people whose names do not cause controversy in our present and in our future. Let’s name the monuments and streets for those people whose names do not provoke conflict. Nowadays, we have our own modern heroes—people who have made history, scientists, people in space exploration, great sportsmen, writers—who are widely respected in all parts of Ukraine. Let’s keep politics out of it.

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