image Photo: Flash90, Reuters

Zelenskyy reveals family Holocaust history

While it was previously known that family members of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy were killed during the Second World War, he has now shared new details.

By Erin Viner

Volodymyr Oleksandrovych Zelenskyy was raised as a Russian-speaker, born to Jewish parents in 1978 in the largest city in central Ukraine of Kryvyi Rih in what was known as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. His father Prof. Oleksandr Zelenskyy is a computer scientist who heads the Department of Cybernetics and Computing Hardware at the Kryvyi Rih State University of Economics and Technology, and his mother, Rymma Zelenska is a retired engineer.

Zelenskyy’s grandfather Semyon (Simon) Ivanovych, who served as a Colonel alongside his three brothers in the Red Army of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), was the only one of the four young men to survive World War II.

Until now, it was only known that Zelenskyy’s great-grandfather and three great uncles died in the war.

During an interview with CNN, the Ukrainian President revealed that both of his paternal great-grandparents were murdered in the Holocaust.

“His (grandfather’s) father and his mother were killed in a terrible fire. The Nazis set ablaze the entire village where they lived and where my grandfather was born,” he told Fareed Zakaria through a translator.

While he neglected to name the destroyed village where his ancestors were killed, it is well documented that the Third Reich’s armed forces carried out such atrocities in territories under their control.

When asked to comment on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that his army’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine was motivated by a “denazification campaign,” Zelenskyy stated: “When Russians are telling about neo-Nazis and they turn to me, I just reply that I have lost my entire family in the war because all of them were exterminated during World War II.”

While the Ukrainian President held back from specifically mentioning the Holocaust or his own Jewish identity during the interview; in accordance with his upbringing it the former Soviet Union.

According to a Twitter thread shared thousands of times online by Alex Zeldin, who was born in the USSR and goes by Jewish Wonk online, “Soviet policy after the war was one narrative: the Soviet people suffered greatly. The government would not acknowledge that the Nazis targeted the Jews specifically for extermination.”

“They punished Soviet Jews who did not toe the party line,” Zeldin wrote, explaining that, “As a result of Soviet persecution and limiting the distribution of information about the Holocaust, later generations of Soviet Jews came to understand their family history as part of the war, even if it didn’t sound like other experiences (e.g., why did Jews have to hide?).”

Ukraine, which borders Russia to the east and northeast, declared independence from the USSR the same year of its dissolution in 1991.

Zelenskyy also disclosed the existence of “distant relatives” in the United States, Poland and Israel. It was previously known that his father would not let him accept an education grant to study in Israel after he passed the Test of English as a Foreign Language at the age of 16. Even though he later earned a law degree, he made his career as comedian in television and on film. After entering politics in 2018, he was elected Ukrainian President the following year.

Zelenskyy’s CNN interview came in the wake of his address to the Israeli Knesset, when he drew a comparison between the Russian offensive and Nazi Germany’s plan to exterminate European Jewry and characterized Ukrainians as having rescued Jews during WWII.

“The Ukrainians have had their choice 80 years ago” by saving Jews during the Holocaust, Zelenskyy said during his appeal for Israeli military aid, underscoring, “The people of Israel, now you also have a choice.”

“Listen to what is being said now in Moscow, listen to how they are saying those words again: ‘the Final Solution.’ But this time in relation to us, to the Ukrainian question,” he asserted, while citing no evidence in making that allegation or identify who might have used the term.

Putin has used an expression which means “final decision/final resolution” once in the past 30 days, according to Reuters monitoring of his remarks, but not in a context that carried the same resonance or meaning as the Nazi terminology.

Zelenskiyy’s reference drew condemnation from the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center  in Jerusalem in memory of the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany in World War Two. It said such “irresponsible statements” trivialized the historical facts of the genocide.

While Yad Vashem has recognized 2,673 individual Ukrainians as “Righteous Gentiles” for heroic wartime actions, many other Ukrainians collaborated with their Nazi occupiers in committing mass atrocities against Jews.

Among the most notorious wartime massacres in Ukraine: 33,771 Jews are estimated to have been murdered between the 29th and 30th of September 1941 and thrown into the Babi (Babyn) Yar ravine near the capital of Kyiv in what was the first known largest single massacre by the Nazis and their local collaborators during the Holocaust. 50,000 Jews in Odessa were murdered the following month; and up to 43,000 others were killed in Poland at the Majdanek, Poniatowa and Trawniki concentration camps in Poland during the Third Reich’s so-called “Operation Harvest Festival” by the SS and local Ukrainian battalions on 3–4 November 1943.

Both Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Minister of Foreign Affairs Yair Lapid, who were among the more than 100 of the parliament’s 120 members who took part in the video call, indicated that while they did not agree with Zelenskyy’s historical account of the Holocaust, they were prepared to overlook the matter due to the desperate situation faced by his nation.

Prime Minister Bennett made no immediate comment after the Ukrainian leader spoke, although Minister Lapid thanked Zelenskyy for sharing his feelings and the plight of the Ukrainian people with members of the Knesset and the government.”

“We will continue to assist the Ukrainian people as much as we can and we will never turn our backs to the plight of people who know the horrors of war,” vowed Lapid, who also serves as Israeli Alternate Premier.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has maintained continuous contact with Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin; even flying to Moscow for talks at the Kremlin two weeks ago.

While sympathetic to Kyiv’s humanitarian plight, comparison made between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Nazi genocide of the Jewish People has evoked scathing rebuke from Jerusalem.

Israel has condemned the Russian invasion, expressed solidarity with Kyiv and sent shipped unprecedented levels of aid to Ukraine; but has so far held back from fulfilling Zelenskyy’s requests for military assistance.

It is imperative that Jerusalem maintain good relations with Russia, as the two countries utilize a defense coordination mechanism in Syria to prevent clashes between their militaries. Russian forces have been deployed to fight in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime, while Israel frequently launches operations against deployments by Iran and its regional proxies such as the Hezbollah terror group in the neighboring Arab Republic.

Moscow has affirmed ongoing military cooperation with Jerusalem regardless of its war with Kyiv.

The Jewish State has also launched “Operation Returning Home” aimed at rescuing endangered Ukrainian Jews who may want to emigrate into the country of just over 9.3 million; as well as offer safe refuge to some 25,000 Ukrainians who are not eligible for immigration.

Israeli also opened the ₪21 million shekel ($6.4 million or €5.83 million) Kochav Meir (Shining Star of Meir) field hospital in the western Ukrainian city of Mostyska this week, that is equipped to meet the medical needs for dozens of patients on a daily basis.