Ukrainian Jewish Leaders Talk of History Old & New: Babyn Yar Memorial, Evacuating Refugees - The Jewish Voice
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Ukrainian Jewish Leaders Talk of History Old & New: Babyn Yar Memorial, Evacuating Refugees

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Regarding help to those fleeing the country in the wake of a continued Russian onslaught, Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said: “I’m making this very clear that all of the Jewish communities are doing this, and nobody is asking if you’re Jewish or not. The buses leave from the synagogues, but they’re open to anybody that wants to come.”

By: Mike Wagenheim

It’s a war that feels somewhat biblical, and Ukraine’s chief rabbi is taking lessons from the Torah.

“When our forefather Jacob met with his brother Esau, he prepared himself with three things: He prepared the doron, which means he prepared a big present for Esau; tefillah, he prayed; and milchama, he prepared for war. And what I’ve been saying and telling crowds that have been speaking to us is that we have to prepare the same things,” Kyiv Chief Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich said during a seminar this week for the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ).

“Run to give charity to people—to try and help the evacuation and resettling process through the many organizations that are active out there. That’s number one. The second thing is prayer. President [Volodymyr] Zelensky called me and asked me to reach out to the Jewish community throughout the world to pray for Ukraine, for the people of Ukraine, for the armed forces of Ukraine.

Babi Yar: The Emmanuel (Amik) Diamant Collection. Credit: The Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library of Israel.

“The third thing is war,” he continued. “I don’t want the American people to get up here and start fighting a war, but I think it’s important for the representatives of the United States government—whether it’s Congress, the Senate or the administration—to understand that there is full support for whatever they’re doing until now,” said Bleich, who painted Russia’s military as a paper army and asked for America’s assistance in implementing a no-fly zone before Russia choked an increasing number of cities off of food and basic provisions.

Ruslan Kavatsiuk, deputy CEO of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, provided an update after the center was reportedly hit by Russian fire in the early days of the invasion.

“Last week, there was an attack with rockets and the site of Babyn Yar was hit with missiles. With one rocket, they hit the TV tower that is based in Babyn Yar and with another, they hit the avant-garde old sports center that we planned to use as part of the Holocaust memorial. It was completely burned down and another building that stands next to it is the building that we worked already with for an architecture solution.”

“We were going to build there a museum for the history of the oblivion of Babyn Yar during Soviet times, and the rocket hit 10 meters from that building,” explained Kavatsiuk. “It’s the only historical building that stood in the area of Babyn Yar 80 years ago, when the biggest single mass shooting of the Second World War happened—when 34,000 Kyiv Jews were shot in two days by German soldiers, with help of some locals. As soon as Ukraine wins this war and we go back to Babyn Yar, we will keep this building that was ruined and this will also be part of the history of Babyn Yar and the history of this war.”

He said that his staff was continuing most of its historical research, though most of the historians have moved out of the area or the country. One, he said, is homeless after his apartment building was among those bombed by Russia in Kharkiv.

Both Kavatsiuk and Bleich described efforts by them and volunteers in Ukraine to provide protection to the Righteous Among the Nations—those men and women recognized as having provided safe haven to Jews during the Holocaust while endangering their own lives, along with their descendants.

“Last week, we got out the children and grandchildren of one of the Righteous Gentiles that saved Jews during World War II. This is a very, very special thing for us. I think that we are so indebted to these people—that if there’s any way that we’re able to repay in some sort of form this favor, we need to,” insisted Bleich.

He spoke of a hotel near his synagogue in Kyiv that houses such people for free before they can board transportation out of the city the next morning.

‘He’s been preparing for this type of propaganda’

Both took severe issue with one of Russia’s purported reasons for its invasion of Ukraine, which is to “de-Nazify” the country. Kavatsiuk, who stated that most of his staff at Babyn Yar aren’t Jewish, pointed to the lessons learned in Ukraine since the horrors of the Holocaust, as well as the reforms made by the government and society since.

“There were 1.5 million Jews killed in the territory of current Ukraine during World War II, and we know that they were in many, many cases, local collaborators took part. And we want to understand how we deal with it and how we never let anything like it happen again,” he said.

“This is one of the important things that we do in Ukraine. There is a new law that forbids anti-Semitism, and we have criminal responsibility for that,” he continued.” And in Russia, if anyone has research that shows the collaboration of Russians during World War II—if anyone even speaks publicly about it—it’s a criminal offense. People get to jail for that. This is a demonstration of how different Ukraine and Russia are about the Holocaust, and about how we treat our past, and what we want to become. I think that the country that needs to go through some kind of de-Nazification is the current regime of the Russian Federation.”

Kavatsiuk pointed to Ukraine’s overwhelming election of a Jewish president and the lack of viability of far-right parties in Ukraine’s current electoral system. Bleich initially indicated that he didn’t feel the topic was worthy of a response but offered one anyway.

“The Russian propaganda machine has been preparing for this for probably 20 years already—at least since 2007, when Putin made his paradigm shift and took over all the mass media,” explained the rabbi. “He’s been preparing for this type of propaganda, and I think it’s sickening. And I’ve seen some of the stuff that the Russian propaganda machine is turning out on Jewish websites—talking about Jews being attacked in the Zhytomyr and pogroms that are happening in Ukraine today, which are totally, totally untrue.”

A memorial at Babi Yar in Ukraine, the site of a September 1941 massacre carried out by German forces and Ukrainian collaborators during their campaign against the Soviet Union in World War II. Credit: Meunierd/Shutterstock.

“It’s being picked up. Thank G-d for the Internet—that information can be verified within seconds today. We feel the last 30 years, Ukraine has helped us develop a Jewish community with paying for schools and government help with anything and everything that we ever needed,” said Bleich, who pointed to round-the-clock efforts by the Jewish communities around the country to evacuate those who need to leave, regardless of their religious status.

“That includes Kyiv, where every single day buses are leaving from the synagogue. But this is happening in many other cities, too. We were very instrumental in helping Odessa evacuate Tikva Children’s Home and their community,” said Bleich, referencing the facility sheltering homeless, abandoned and abused Jewish children of Odessa, and neighboring regions of the former Soviet Union.

He added: “I’m making this very clear that all of the Jewish communities are doing this, and nobody is asking if you’re Jewish or not. The buses leave from the synagogues, but they’re open to anybody that wants to come.”


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