Let it be clear: I unequivocally condemn Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine. Russia is grossly violating international law and the principles of the UN Charter. The violence and loss of life that have occurred in various parts of Ukraine over the past days is totally unacceptable. With that being said, the Ukrainian people played a major role in the destruction of European Jewry before, during, and after the Holocaust.
According to the American Jewish Committee, Jews in the Ukraine today generally do not face acts of violence or public condemnations of Israel, although there are reports of looting and threats in Zhitomyr. Instead, “Antisemitism in Ukraine exists in its old ‘traditional’ and cultural form: the notion that Jews control all money, the media and government, they are greedy, murdered Jesus, and ‘suck our blood,’” said Samuel Kliger, AJC's Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs. The Eastern Orthodox Church of the Ukraine tends to reinforce classical beliefs of anti-Semitism. It has never expunged the deicide charge from its doctrine and sells copies of the anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion in gift shops.
For many Jews, the Ukraine evokes memories of pogroms, antisemitism and Nazi collaboration. Between 1.2 million and 1.6 million Jews were killed in the Ukraine during the Holocaust. Moreover, Ukraine has been reluctant to reckon with its role in the Holocaust, including the massacres of Jews by Nazis with the help of eager local Ukrainian collaborators. Almost a million Ukrainian Jews were killed between 1941 to 1944 and buried in thousands of mass graves, including 33,771 Ukrainian Jews who were systematically shot dead and executed by machine-gun fire in a two-day massacre in a ravine just outside Kyiv known as Babyn Yar.
The Jews of Kyiv gathered by the cemetery, expecting to be loaded onto trains. The crowd was large enough that most of the men, women, and children could not have known what was happening until it was too late: by the time they heard the machine-gun fire, there was no chance to escape. All were driven down a corridor of soldiers, in groups of ten, and then shot. A truck driver described the scene:
“One after the other, they had to remove their luggage, then their coats, shoes, and over garments and also underwear … Once undressed, they were led into the ravine which was about 150 meters long and 30 meters wide and a good 15 meters deep … When they reached the bottom of the ravine they were seized by members of the Schutzmannschaft and made to lie down on top of Jews who had already been shot … The corpses were literally in layers. A police marksman came along and shot each Jew in the neck with a submachine gun … I saw these marksmen stand on layers of corpses and shoot one after the other … The marksman would walk across the bodies of the executed Jews to the next Jew, who had meanwhile lain down, and shoot him”
This sordid chapter in Ukrainian history is left out of the public discourse, creating a general apathy about the Holocaust. (Ed. note: When I headed a youth village whose students were mostly Russian immigrants, not one of the highschoolers from Kyiv had ever heard of the Babi Yar massacre). Alongside that apathy, Ukrainian lawmakers have pushed to celebrate some Nazi collaborators as war heroes, trumpeting their anti-Communist battles while ignoring their complicity in Holocaust crimes. The Ukraine continues to resist joining the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, the 32-country organization that coordinates international educational efforts. It also has not adopted the IHRA Working Definition of Antisemitism.
In the early 1920s, thousands of Jewish child refugees flooded into Moscow from the Ukraine, fleeing a terrifying series of pogroms. Legendary Jewish artist Marc Chagall remembered giving art lessons to some of the refugees at a Jewish orphanage outside the Soviet capital. He recalled the horrifying atrocities they spoke about — their parents murdered, their sisters raped and slain, and the children themselves chased out in the cold, threadbare and starving. Unlike the Holocaust, this earlier wave of anti-Semitic violence has largely been forgotten by history. Yet at the time, it was front-page news. From 1918 to 1921, more than 1,100 pogroms killed over 100,000 Jews in an area that is part of present-day Ukraine.
One of the earliest recorded pogroms, perhaps the largest single mass murder of Jews in modern history up to that point in time was the pogrom of Proskuriv, a Ukrainian town on February 14, 1919 with 911 listed deaths which historians estimate is only one-third of the actual number of Jews murdered. The Nikolaev Massacre was a massacre which resulted in the deaths of 35,782 Soviet citizens, most of whom were Jews, during World War II, on September 16–30, 1941. It took place in and around the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv (also known by its Russian name, Nikolaev) and the neighboring city of Kherson in (current) southern Ukraine.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum tells the story of one survivor of the Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads of Nazi Germany that were responsible for mass-murder, primarily by shooting) in Piryatin, Ukraine, when they killed 1,600 Jews on 6 April 1942, the second day of Passover: As conveyed by an eye witness survivor:
I saw them do the killing. At 5:00 p.m. they gave the command, "Fill in the pits." Screams and groans were coming from the pits. Suddenly I saw my neighbor Ruderman rise from under the soil … His eyes were bloody and he was screaming: "Finish me off!" … A murdered woman lay at my feet. A boy of five years crawled out from under her body and began to scream desperately. "Mommy!" That was all I saw, since I fell unconscious."
Untold numbers of Ukrainians were collaborators: According to German historian Dieter Pohl, around 100,000 Ukrainians joined police units that provided key assistance to the Nazis. Many others staffed the local bureaucracies or lent a helping hand during mass shootings of Jews. Ukrainians, such as the infamous Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka, were also among the guards who manned the German Nazi death camps. According to The Simon Wiesenthal Center (in January 2011) "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.”
My father, Joseph Jager, of blessed memory, a Holocaust survivor, was born in Košice, Slovakia. His family had originally emigrated from the Ukraine before he was born. After the war, he had heard from distant family members, that Ukrainian Jewish survivors who had returned from the concentration camps to their villages in the Ukraine were murdered by local Ukrainians after expecting to be given their homes back, now occupied by local Ukrainians.
In recent years, the Ukrainian government has not objected to Israel being singled out and condemned by the United Nations and has voted on numerous votes against Israel.
Ukrainian complicity in the genocidal murder of Jews over the past century has been documented without question.
I harbor genuine ambivalence in expressing empathy for the Ukrainian people.