Last Sunday, while a group of Yeshiva University students and faculty were boarding a flight to Vienna to assist Ukrainian refugees displaced by the Russian invasion, their school hosted two speakers tasked with narrating accounts of despotic regimes, so that their crimes are not repeated in our time. Too late for that, as homes, schools, and hospitals are deliberately targeted by Russia in its effort to demoralize Ukrainian resistance.
“This is a moment for ourselves. What will our role be in the story of humanity? Will we write ourselves into this story?” YU President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman asked. “This is one of those moments. We are calling our students and our community to be involved. We are sending our students to Vienna to work with the refugees.”
The seven-day mission is led by Vice Provost Dr. Erica Brown and Rabbi Josh Blass, a mashgiach ruchani at the rabbinical seminary. The university selected 27 students for the mission in which they are arranging housing, distributing aid packages, and organizing Purim activities for children.
The panelists who spoke at the virtual forum were Ruslan Kavatsiuk, the deputy director of the Babi Yar (Babyn Yar) Memorial in Kyiv, and former Prisoner of Zion Natan Sharansky. Former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski was also billed as a speaker but was not able to attend the virtual presentation.
“I was in Israel and meant to stay there for a few weeks. I took the earliest flight to Kyiv to be with my family, and the next day rockets fell on my town of Hostomel, a suburb of Kyiv,” Kavatsiuk said. Located to the northwest of the Ukrainian capital, the town has a freight airport and experienced fierce fighting, as its defenders held off the invaders for nearly two weeks. On March 7, Hostomel Mayor Yuriy Prilypko was killed by Russian soldiers while delivering bread to trapped residents.
“It is occupied by Russian forces. Yesterday my neighbors escaped, and 36 homes were blown up; the rest of the homes were completely robbed, and Russian soldiers live there,” Kavatsiuk said. He fled with his wife and children to western Ukraine, where he spoke via Zoom. “I am officially homeless but I am thankful. I am thinking of how to be useful to my people and my country in this time of war.”
Two weeks before Russian forces crossed into Ukraine, Kavatsiuk led the effort to redevelop the massacre site in a way that speaks to his young compatriots. In a New York Times report last October, Babi Yar was described as a “Tech-Savvy Holocaust Memorial” for its use of modern technology to commemorate 33,000 Jews who were killed in two days in September of 1941 by Nazi German troops and Ukrainian collaborators.
“It is 130 hectares [over 320 acres]. Most of it looks like a wooden area or a park. Our job as a memorial was to reestablish this memory and build a number of museums and artistic installations with art as a language to speak to new generations, and also technology,” he said. “We had a symbolic synagogue in the form of an open book. The next was creating a memorial with the names of the victims; we’ve discovered more than 28,000 names. There is an audio installation saying the names of the victims. It is a very moving, emotionally powerful memorial.”
Last week a Russian missile hit the television tower near the memorial. As it burned, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted about the destruction of Babi Yar. Although it was later evident that the memorial was not damaged, imagery of the Holocaust is very reminiscent of the ongoing war. “Unfortunately, because Russia cannot win this war by military forces, they are terrorizing our people,” Kavatsiuk said. “My neighbor went out two days ago, he dropped this video of a civilian car that hit a tree. A woman and her children with numerous shots to her head. He is filming them closely so that any of their relatives would see what is happening.”
Sharansky spoke as a native of Donetsk, the eastern Ukrainian city that has been the base of pro-Russian separatists since 2014. At age 25 in 1973, he became a refusenik for teaching Hebrew and applying for aliyah. Five years later, he was arrested and sent to Soviet prison camps, where he maintained his spiritual resistance for nine years. He was released in a prisoner exchange, making aliyah and rising to power as a Knesset member, minister, and chair of the Jewish Agency.
“He believes that it is his mission not to restore the Soviet Union because he doesn’t believe in the Soviet Union, but the Russian Empire,” Sharansky said of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “It is clear that Ukraine is a critical point in rebuilding this empire. He has done more to mobilize Ukrainians than anyone in history. It is not a war between Russia and Ukraine. It is a war between ruthless dictatorship and the free world. Now it is a real dictatorship.”
Sharansky was asked whether the reign of Putin is comparable to the Brezhnev and Stalin periods. “It’s impossible to control people by fear the way that the Soviet Union did. Today I would be very hesitant to say that it’s not the Soviet Union. There was no Internet, there was no satellite TV. But what happened in the last ten days, Facebook suddenly disappeared. Most Russian people don’t make a special effort to read from the West. They do not know that it is a war. There is a new law that those who are publishing ‘fake news’ can be punished by 15 years in prison.”
He noted how a simple mention of the “military operation” as a war can lead to imprisonment, but there is one critical difference. “Fear is coming back to people, and they are afraid to speak on international calls. The only difference is that people can leave. There is no ban for Russian citizens to leave. Most of my dissident friends have left.”
Returning to the memorial and Putin’s claim that he is liberating Ukraine from neo-Nazis, Sharansky called it laughable. “It’s such a ridiculous statement. The Ukraine people did something that almost no other country did: They elected a president who is openly and proudly Jewish.”
Babi Yar is a symbol of modern Ukraine recognizing its past, in contrast to Soviet and Russian attempts to write history to fit a specific narrative. “I was on a mission to bring Jewish materials to the Soviet Union,” said Mark Weitzman, Chief Operating Officer for the World Jewish Restitution Organization. “The description was very generic. ‘Here lie Soviet citizens.’” The fact that the victims were Jews, killed for being Jews, was added to the memorial after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Dr. Shay Pilnik, Director of the Fish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at YU, spoke of the memorial as a bridge between Ukrainians and Jews. Kavatsiuk echoed this sentiment. “It’s one of the biggest reasons that I’ve joined the leadership of the memorial: to tell the whole story of the Holocaust,” he said. “Most of our team is not Jewish. Except for a couple of people, we are all Ukrainian. All these narratives that are conflicting, we feel it on ourselves. It is very important to continue this work.”
Besides naming the victims, Kavatsiuk’s team named the murderers and their roles in the massacre, as Ukrainian visitors confront their nation’s past. He regards his effort as an example of how Ukraine differs from Russia, where unpleasant moments of history are not discussed in public. “Our societies have built very different roads,” he said.
When asked what the audience can do to help Ukraine, Kavatsiuk urged the public not to buy Russian oil and to write to elected officials. “In Russia it doesn’t work, but in western democracies it does. Ukraine is led by a Jewish president. It is not a Nazi country. It is a normal democracy. It is important to be united around the truth.”
Sharansky recognized that Israel could do more to support Ukraine as it strives to maintain its diplomatic relations with Russia, which has troops in neighboring Syria. “There is a criticism and I’m one of those, for not being able to give defensive weapons to Ukraine. We became dependent on President Putin. That’s why our authorities are very cautious in undermining this balance, the constructive relationship with Putin.” But among individuals in both countries, the rift is widening.
“In the last two weeks, there were many friendships broken, because in Russia these lies are working. It is a unique test that we are all going through. For the rest of your life, you will remember if you failed or if you succeeded.”
By Sergey Kadinsky