Ukraine’s Jews prepare to commemorate the Holocaust as Russian war drums thunder

Ukrainian troops seen during drills in Kiev, Jan. 22, 2022. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images via JTA)

The escalation of the conflict, which coincides with the anniversary of January 27, prompts some to seek lessons in the tragic history of their families.

(JTA) — The military clash between Russia and Ukraine escalates as Jews in both countries prepare to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27, the day Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz in 1945.

The coincidence is an annual reminder of the complicated heritage shared by Russia and many countries in its orbit.

But for some Ukrainian Jews, it’s also a mental note to stay alert, plan for the worst — and prepare to get out of harm’s way quickly amid growing fears of an invasion by the hundreds of thousands of Russian troops. that President Vladimir Putin has amassed in recent weeks along the border.

The situation reminds Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, 71, leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, of his mother, a survivor of the Holocaust.

“His relatives, who all perished, stayed even though they had a chance to flee, preferring to stay with the property of their ancestors,” Dukhovny said.

There are also reasons for optimism, Dukhovny said. There is a feeling that the United States and the United Kingdom, which have warned Russia against an invasion of Ukraine and are considering sending troops to the region, are “not giving up on Ukraine”, he added. “So I’m ready for anything. And if the worst really happens, we have a homeland: Israel.

Israeli officials are also considering an armed struggle scenario in Ukraine, according to Haaretz. On Monday, the Israeli newspaper reported that Jewish Agency officials met with government officials to discuss the possibility of airlifting eligible Jews to make aliyah, the Hebrew word for Jewish immigration to Israel, outside Ukraine.

Such plans have existed since 2013, when the Ukrainian government fell following a bloody revolution against the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, whom critics have called a corrupt Russian stooge. In 2014, Russia invaded and annexed the Crimean peninsula, citing, among other reasons, the alleged nationalism of Ukrainian “neo-Nazis” who Russia said threatened the region’s 10,000 Jews.

Thousands of Ukrainian Jews have left Ukraine for Israel since then, many of them from areas affected by the fighting. Ukraine, with a population of around 42 million, has around 56,000 people who identify as Jewish, according to a 2020 population survey by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research.

Russia also supported the rebels who in 2014 set up secessionist enclaves near the Ukrainian-Russian border, in Donetsk and Lugansk, areas that remain outside Ukrainian sovereignty to this day.

The 2013-2014 conflict inflamed nationalist sentiment on both sides of the border, which some observers say complicates life for Ukrainian Jews. The country’s Jewish population is mostly made up of native speakers of Russian, not Ukrainian, and is considered by many ethnic Ukrainians to be “Muscovites”, a commonly used euphemism with anti-Semitic undertones.

A guide explaining the Holocaust to visitors at the Tkuma museum in Dnipro, Ukraine, May 20, 2014.
A guide explaining the Holocaust to visitors at the Tkuma museum in Dnipro, Ukraine, May 20, 2014. Cnaan Liphchiz

Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, was elected in 2019 to replace the post-revolutionary government of extremist Petro Poroshenko. An affable comedian, Zelensky was backed by supporters who hoped his centrist politics would help rebuild a conflict-shattered economy and restore relations with Russia.

But the collapse of peace talks and the effects of COVID-19, which thwarted any attempt to grow Ukraine’s economy amid Russia’s attempts to hold it back, dashed those hopes and hurt Zelensky’s popularity. . Elected with a majority of more than 70%, he now enjoys a popularity rate of around 30%.

The deployment of Russian troops since November may be an attempt to exploit or aggravate this weakness – or simply one of Putin’s periodic attempts to shake Ukraine’s cage as part of a long-term strategy to psychological attrition.

The current round is likely to do more damage to Ukraine’s attempts to project stability than previous attempts. Foreign embassies, including that of the United States, have begun evacuating the families of staff or non-essential personnel while other embassies, including that of Israel, have contacted their citizens in Ukraine to be registered on extraction lists in the event of the outbreak of hostilities. (Ukraine called the evacuations “premature” and a “show of excessive caution.”)

But on the streets in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, “there are no signs of war, only snow,” Dukhovny said. “The reality is normal, but there is a snowball effect when you hear about what the embassies are doing, etc. We feel that something terrible is coming.

As a rabbi, he tries to “calm the members of my communities without giving them a sense of false security,” Dukhovny said. “We have to be vigilant and keep our eyes open, but we can’t panic or it will be just as dangerous as doing nothing.”

Due to COVID-19, which is generating a fifth wave of infections in Ukraine, many synagogues are operating primarily online, regardless of any additional concerns of violence from Russia, Dukhovny added.

In the east of the country, closer to the Russian border, Ukrainian troops are also deployed in response to Russian movements. The army, sometimes with civilian volunteers, reinforced its trenches in strategic places near the border, according to France 24, in another historic return to the wars of the 20th century.

Igor Schupak, the director of the Tkuma Holocaust Museum in the city of Dnipro, can’t help but see parallels between the current conflict and the one his institute is dedicated to commemorating and documenting.

“We’re in a propaganda war, where there’s constant talk about where Russia is going to invade, where they might strike,” Schupak, 60, told JTA on Monday. “It’s almost funny, but the logic is mostly reminiscent, I’m afraid, of the tactics of the Nazis in the 1930s: generating fear of violence before actual violence to weaken the rival.”

A Ukrainian soldier gives a thumbs up as he stands in a snow-covered trench on the front line with Russian-backed separatists near the village of Zolote in eastern Lugansk region, Ukraine, January 21, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier gives a thumbs up as he stands in a snow-covered trench on the front line with Russian-backed separatists near the village of Zolote in eastern Lugansk region, Ukraine, January 21, 2022. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Aware of security concerns on the ground, Schupak declined to say whether he had noticed any war preparations in or around Dnipro.

The rationale for the envisioned violence is also similar to that put forward by the Nazis, Schupak explained.

“It is presented as designed to guarantee the rights of ethnic Russians. Just like Germany talked about Silesia,” Schupak said.

But, he added, “those who look too closely for parallels will always find them.”

For now, Schupak and his team “are continuing as planned, making final preparations for our International Holocaust Remembrance Day events and ceremonies with survivors and witnesses.”

And what will Schupak, a vocal critic of Russia and supporter of Ukrainian sovereignty, do if he finds himself on the path of a Russian invasion?

“I don’t know. I’ll have to wait and see, and decide on when,” he said.

By Cnaan Liphshiz