Ukraine is ‘not Nazi’, say Holocaust survivors Putin

Ukraine is ‘not Nazi’, say Holocaust survivors Putin


Roman Gerstein, an 83-year-old Ukrainian Holocaust survivor, has a blunt response to the Kremlin’s justifications for its invasion: “There are no Nazis here.”

For supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s alleged “genocide” of Russian speakers in the country’s eastern regions is comparable to Nazi Germany’s actions.

And that, they argue, requires “denazification.”

Gerstein has none of it.

A slender man in an oversized suit, his eyes sparkling behind round glasses, told how he had to flee real Nazis.

“In fact, I’m one of the few people who have been evacuated twice from Chernobyl,” he said, laughing.

Gerstein spoke to AFP at the synagogue in Kryvyi Rig in central Ukraine.

The first time he fled was when Nazi Germans occupied his hometown of Chernobyl in 1941, he said; the second was 45 years later, in 1986, when the city was the scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

Gerstein, born in 1939, was two years old when his father took his family on a boat to Kyiv from the Nazis – and from there took a train to Tajikistan.

When they finally returned to Chernobyl, they found that the Jewish community no longer existed.

“Those who stayed behind are now resting underground forever,” he said. “Seven hundred people: women, children, old people.”

– “Rewrite History” –

Lyubov Petukhova, who will be 100 in November, remembers fleeing with her family from the central Ukrainian region of Vinnytsia to Uzbekistan.

In her village of Botvyno, all the remaining Jews were “tortured, murdered,” she told AFP in her apartment, staring.

Gerstein and Petukhova are remnants of the once-large Jewish community in Ukraine, which has experienced a history of pogroms, holocaust and communist-era purges.

Jews were almost completely wiped out in Ukraine during the Holocaust, in which Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.

A 2019 study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that there are only between 48,000 and 140,000 Jews left across the country.

Another Holocaust survivor, 84-year-old Felix Mamut, recalled that before World War II his extended family included his great-grandmother, her 16 children, and a multitude of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

But 72 of them were killed in the Babyn Yar Gorge, the site of a 1941 massacre in which Nazis executed more than 30,000 Jews.

Between 1941 and 1944 some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were massacred, often by gunfire, by Nazis, sometimes aided along the way by local collaborators.

But “we don’t know their number,” Anton Drobovych, director of the National Institute of Memory, told AFP. Collaboration “was never a mass phenomenon” in Ukraine, he said.

Conversely, two to three million Ukrainian soldiers fought and died with the Red Army during the war.

According to Drobovych, it “makes no sense” for Moscow to refer to Ukraine as “Nazi country”. It is a “rewriting of history” aimed at “smearing the memory” of the victims and “justifying” Russia’s invasion.

This is particularly ironic given that the Jews of the Soviet Union – of which Ukraine was a part – were still subject to “an official policy of anti-Semitism in the USSR” after World War II, he added.

– “Worse than Hitler” –

Felix Mamut, still agile despite his advanced age, remembers the persecution in the Soviet era well.

While his engineer father enjoyed a relatively comfortable situation in Moscow, he later found himself threatened by anti-Jewish purges and rushed back to Ukraine, Mamut said.

Gerstein recalls how, despite excellent school grades, his brothers and sisters were barred from higher education “because of their name,” while professional promotion was taboo for Jews.

The situation has greatly improved since Ukraine’s independence, he said.

“During the Soviet era, discrimination was huge, but it doesn’t exist anymore,” Gerstein said.

“You only have to look at who our president is to understand that,” he added, referring to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Jewish origins.

“There are no Nazis in Ukraine,” says Lyubov Petukhova indignantly.

Gerstein, meanwhile, himself called Putin a “Nazi,” “robber,” and “worse than Hitler.”

Such descriptions of Putin are common in Ukraine now, seven months into the invasion.

The Rabbi of Kryvyi Rig, Liron Ederi, even drew a parallel between Russian atrocities and the Holocaust, with the discovery of mass graves in Bucha and Irpin north of Kyiv and more recently in Izyum in the northeast.

“Only that not only Jews, but all Ukrainians are killed.”

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