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Claiming “De-Nazification,” Putin’s actions recall other Nazi crimes

As Russia invaded Ukraine, beginning at five in the morning, Vladimir Putin’s statement that his purpose was to “de-Nazify” Ukraine clearly disgusted Ukraine’s first-ever Jewish President.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy — whose three great-uncles were murdered in the Holocaust — responded on Twitter that Russia attacked Ukraine just “as Nazi Germany did.”

“As of today, our countries are on different sides of world history,” Zelenskyy said. “Russia has embarked on a path of evil.”

The framing of Zelenskyy as a Nazi has been going on for a while. In October, the former president of Russia and current deputy chairman of its Security Council, Dmitry Medvedev, published “an expletive-laden article aimed at Ukraine and at President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, describing his country as a vassal state of the U.S. with whom it is impossible to negotiate,” according to Stephen Blank, an expert on Russia and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Medvedev compared Zelenskyy to the Sonderkommando.

“He accused the Ukrainian people of losing their identity (which for him and his colleagues is Russian) and described Zelenskyy as disgusting, corrupt and faithless, having repudiated his (Jewish) identity to serve rabid nationalists. This, Medvedev continued, meant Ukraine’s head of state resembled a Jewish Sonderkommando, a reference to those incarcerated Jews forced on pain of death to dispose of gas chamber victims during the Holocaust. Negotiations with such people and such a state are, therefore, “pointless,” he said,” Blank wrote in an online journal published by the Center for European Policy Analysis.

In a speech in Jerusalem in 2020, Zelenskyy told the story of his grandfather, who survived the Holocaust while his brothers perished.

“He survived World War II contributing to the victory over Nazism and hateful ideology. Two years after the war, his son was born. And his grandson was born 31 years after. 40 years later, his grandson became president. And today he stands before you,” Zelenskyy said.

Zelenskyy said in a harrowing video call yesterday with world leaders that this may be the last time he is seen alive. He said he was the #1 target, with his family #2.

Meanwhile, historians expressed pain in seeing the Holocaust deployed to justify marching into a neighboring democratic country to take it over.

“Agonizing to watch Ukraine suffer, and maddening to see the Holocaust nakedly instrumentalized by the Russian diplomatic campaign,” James Loeffler, professor of Jewish History and Director of Jewish Studies at the University of Virginia, tweeted.

One and a half million Ukrainian Jews died in the Holocaust. Babi Yar, a ravine near Kiev, was the site of one of the largest mass murders during the Holocaust — 34,000 Jews killed in less than 48 hours. The killing continued at the site for the next two years, and “Babyn Yar” or “Babi Yar” looms large in Jewish communal memory.

“Between 1941 and 1943, the Nazis shot between 70,000 and 100,000 people at Babyn Yar, including almost the entire Jewish population of Kyiv, making it a significant point on the devastating map of the Holocaust,” according to the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which was inaugurated last October.

Natan Sharansky spoke at the opening ceremony, along with Zelenskyy. “Babi Yar is the biggest mass grave of the Holocaust — the most quickly filled mass grave,” Sharansky, the chairman of the supervisory board of the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial center, said.

“It’s hard to breathe at this place — thousands of children took their last breath here,” Zelenskyy said. “It’s hard to stand here — thousands of bullets knocked people down here in Babi Yar. The earth was trembling from the convulsions of people who were still alive and trying to get out.”

This week, like Zelenskyy, Ukrainians on the ground saw eerie parallels between Putin’s early-morning invasion and the Nazis invading in 1941.

“The war has started. Hitler started war at 4 a.m., Putin at 5 a.m. Not much of a difference. Being woken up by explosions I know how Soviets felt on the 22nd of June 1941,” the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov tweeted.

That chilling essay by Dimitry Medvedev was, in retrospect, a predictor of Putin’s terrifying statements and actions this week.

Blank’s conclusion is worth rereading. “Putin’s Russia — like its Soviet ancestor — has now validated Solzhenitsyn’s famous insight that the state for whom lies are a tool is ultimately a state engulfed in violence.”

I kept thinking back to one hot summer day about a decade ago, when I was stopped by two teenage boys as I walked out of a shopping mall in Tel Aviv. They asked me what I thought of elections involving Putin. I really didn’t know, I said. “You should know,” they said. “We will tell you about it.”

I couldn’t follow their super-fast, Russian-inflected discussion of political developments and political figures I wasn’t familiar with. I didn’t fully understand as they parsed various lies, waving their hands for emphasis, but I listened. As I waited for the bus, I watched as they stopped shopper after shopper to discuss the intricacies of Russian politics. Their insistence stuck with me.

Putin was a thug who threatened the entire world, and those teenagers knew it. All of us should have known — and should have noticed.

Aviya Kushner is The Forward’s language columnist and the author of “Wolf Lamb Bomb” (Orison Books) and “The Grammar of God.” Follow her on Twitter @AviyaKushner

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