A recent Newsweek article written by prominent American lawyer Alan Dershowitz entitled Zelensky’s Lies Can’t Hide Ukraine’s Bloody Role in the Holocaust unfairly condemned Ukraine’s President for calling on Israel to provide Ukraine offensive weapons. Dershowitz condemns Zelensky because according to Dershowitz, Zelensky, “mendaciously denied the role of Ukrainian people in the Holocaust.” Dershowitz claims, “Almost without exception, Ukrainians either participated in the mass murder of Jews or said nothing as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and slaughtered in places like Babyn Yar.” He adds, “Many of those who pulled the trigger were themselves Ukrainian, recruited into the mobile killing squads by the Nazis. Vanishingly few saved Jews. The complicity of Ukrainians in these mass murders was greater than in most other countries.” Really? Is Dershowitz, right? This is worth further analysis.

President Zelensky of Ukraine (credit: https://www.president.gov.ua/en/president/biografiya)

Proper Context Is Needed

Let us begin this analysis by joining with Dershowitz in his admiration for Zelensky and applauding him for nominating Zelensky for a Nobel Prize. Let us further declare our complete solidarity with the Jewish people in condemning the Holocaust and its profound impact on their lives and history, including the death of six million Jews in that regard. Let us welcome the fact that the situation in Ukraine between Ukrainians and Jews has improved measurably as Dershowitz points out. Let us also admit right off the bat that there were indeed Ukrainians who were Nazi collaborators and who deserve our condemnation and prosecution for their inhumane excesses.

Alan Dershowitz (credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/)

Context Is Everything

The problem with Dershowitz’s entire article, however, lies in his willingness to condemn Ukrainians without viewing their conduct in context. Judged against a standard of perfection, as has already been admitted, there is no doubt Ukrainians fell short in World War II and before. But so did almost every other nationality, as we shall point out, including Jews themselves. The key point missed by Dershowitz is how Ukrainians as a people conducted themselves in the war and historically as compared to others. Did their conduct deserve Dershowitz’s condemnation which he has not levelled against those others but only Ukrainians? Let us consider this history in that context. 

750 Years Together

In the Middle Ages, Jews were forcibly expelled  from several countries, including England in 1290, France in the 14th century, Germany in the 1350s, Spain in1492, Portugal in 1496, Provence in 1512, and the Papal States in 1569. As a result of these mass expulsions, the centers of Jewish life eventually shifted from western Europe and Germany to the region between Poland and Russia. In particular, a Pale of Settlement was established within the western edge of the border of Tsarist Russia and Eastern Poland. Jews were welcomed in this geographic region by Poland with a view that the country would prosper economically from their presence. Jews were exiled to the region by Tsarist Russia which excluded them from living in Russia proper from the end of the 15th century. This Pale of Settlement was an area also heavily populated by Ukrainians and geographically consisted of lands that today are part of modern-day Ukraine. That is how the relationship between Jews and Ukrainians started and lasted for almost 750 years.

Peace And Harmony – Much Of The Time

During those 750 years, it must be borne in mind that Ukrainians who lived in the vicinity of the Pale of Jewish settlement were stateless, a national minority that was ruled by foreign powers: either Poles, Lithuanians, or Russians (including the Soviet Bolsheviks) for the most part. Yes, there were years when the relationship was strained, including instances of Ukrainians conducting pogroms on Jewish settlements, and those instances deserve further discussion and context. But those periods were comparatively short when compared to the many years when both peoples lived together in peace and in harmony. What is more, they need to be considered in light of the previous harsh mistreatment of Jews by Western European states. Since Dershowitz focused on what the Ukrainians did during World War II, let us focus there to start providing the context that is missing in those remarks.

Who Collaborated With The Nazis?

As for the war years, let us begin by recalling who else collaborated with the Nazis and their respective roles. Let us recall firstly the role of the Soviet Union, the first nation that collaborated with Nazi Germany from September 1939 to June 1941 enabling Hitler to occupy almost all of Western Europe. Let us remember that Italy, Japan, and later Vichy France all sided with Germany and in the case of Italy and Vichy France, to varying degrees, assisted Germany in its round-up of Jews during the war.

There were others. According to the website of the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the Hlinka Guard in Slovakia, the Iron Guard in Romania, the Ustasa in Croatia, and the Arrow Cross in Hungary were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews in their home territory. Bulgaria cooperated willingly with the Germans in deporting Jews from territories the Bulgarians occupied. Romanian gendarmerie and military units directly murdered and deported Romanian and Ukrainian Jews in the re-annexed provinces of Bukovina and Bessarabia as well as in Romanian-administered Transnistria in Ukraine. Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and ethnic German collaborators played a significant role in killing Jews throughout eastern and southeastern Europe. After the German invasion of Norway in April 1940, Vidkun Quisling, a Norwegian fascist, proclaimed himself prime minister and his name became synonymous with Nazi collaboration. Norwegian police and paramilitary formations assisted SS and German police units in the deportation of Jews. Likewise, local civilian and police authorities collaborated closely with the Germans in Belgium and the Netherlands in rounding up and deporting Jews residing in those two countries. This rundown clearly demonstrates that Ukrainian conduct during the war regarding the Jews was not an isolated or singular phenomenon as Dershowitz implies.

Ukrainians Were A Nation Without A State

Again, in considering the role Ukrainians played in World War II, it is noteworthy to remember that they were a nation without a state to protect and defend their political, national, social, or cultural rights. One might ask: given the inability of the Allied nations and other countries to stop Hitler from invading Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, Poland, then all of Western Europe, and thereafter the Soviet Union, how was a national minority like Ukrainians to speak out and defend Jews against the inhuman excesses of Nazi Germany?  After all, Ukrainians themselves fell under the same oppressive Nazi rule. They were expected to become “Untermenschen,” that is, become slaves of Nazi Germany. Let us not forget that they had just emerged from the hell of Soviet repressions including the slaughter, torture, rape, and massive exile of their people into the Soviet Gulag? Nobody came to their defense. Yet, as we shall see, there were Ukrainians who did come to the defense of Jews.

Metropolitan Sheptytsky As One Example

Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky (credit: А.Бедрій “Українська Держава відновлена Актом 30 червня 1941 року” – Нью-Йорк-Лондон-Мюнхен-Торонто:”Українська Центральна Інформаційна Служба”, 1981 р.)

Dershowitz states, “Almost without exception” (Ukrainians), “either participated in the mass murder of Jews or said nothing as their Jewish neighbors were rounded up and slaughtered in Babi Yar.” Regarding this question of saving Jewish lives, Dershowitz would do well to read the book Lvov Ghetto Diary in which Rabbi David Kahane, the former Chief Rabbi of the Israeli Air Force, declares that he was saved by Ukrainian Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky, the head of the Ukrainian church. The introduction to the book states, “Grieving at the slaughter of Jews and distressed that members of his own people participated in it, (Sheptytsky) issued a pastoral letter “Though shalt not murder” and took the audacious step of addressing a letter to Himmler protesting the extermination. No other ecclesiastical figure of equal rank in the whole of Europe displayed such sorrow for the fate of the Jews and acted so boldly on their behalf. Sheptytsky saved the lives of Jews by hiding them in monasteries under his control, and one of those thus saved was the author of this memoir.” What is more, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Metropolitan saved 150 Jewish children.

Other Ukrainians Who Saved Jews

There were other Ukrainians who saved Jews. For example, there are the 2673 Righteous listed on the Vad Vashem website, those documented on the website of the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center in Toronto, or in memoirs published by Ukrainians following the war. What is more, Dershowitz seems oblivious to the work of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter that not long ago jointly commemorated the 75th anniversary of Babyn Yar. The group helped to publish a book about Babyn Yar that points out the tragedy of that place where, “In a two-day period in late September 1941, nearly 34,000 Kyiv Jews were shot to death amidst a bucolic landscape once called the “Switzerland of Kyiv.”  Over the next two years, an estimated 30,000 more Jews were murdered at the ravine, along with about 30,000 other individuals from communities targeted by the Nazis—Ukrainian nationalists, Roma, Soviet communists, the mentally challenged, hostages, and prisoners of war. By the end of the German occupation of Kyiv, over 100,000 people lost their lives at Babyn Yar. The exact figures remain unknown.”

The context of all this betrays that Dershowitz is impressively loose when it comes to the facts he alleges, including the degree of Ukrainian complicity when compared to other nations and his silence about others who perished at Babyn Yar. But he does not stop there.

The Role Of Bohdan Khmelnytsky In Dealing With Jewish History

Dershowitz continues that, “In 1648, Bogdan Chmielnicki led a pogrom that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Jews, including babies, children, and mothers.” He goes on to state, “That was a long time ago, but the statue of this genocidal murderer still stands in the center of Kyiv, (See the lead picture above this story – editor) and his picture still adorns the Ukrainian five-dollar bill.” Again, Dershowitz omits important historical context.

In the Medieval 1600s Roman Catholic Poland sought to continue its economic domination of lands worked by Ukrainian Orthodox peasants as serfs, often under the management of Jewish plantation lessees working under the Polish gentry. These Ukrainian serfs were required to provide unpaid labor to their overlords in the form of corvee, for example, 133 days of corvee per year, while other peasants just strove to make a living by working long hard hours as paid laborers on such Polish estates. At times Polish lords were demanding and pressed Jewish land managers to produce as much as possible, leading in turn to the Jewish managers to press for more work out of the Ukrainian serfs and peasants. At other times Jewish lessees set out to exploit their leased lands that sometimes-contained entire Ukrainian villages to extract as much as possible from them. At the same time, Polish nationalists sought to Polonize Ukrainians while Polish religious leaders sought to convert the Orthodox peasants to Catholicism. When this exploitation no longer became bearable, Ukrainians revolted. This was not a pogrom. It was an anti-colonial war. Ukrainians lashed out at their Polish oppressors, and anyone viewed as collaborating with them, among them Jews and even Ukrainian Catholic clerics serving in the “Uniate” Greek Catholic Church, as they were regarded as having betrayed Orthodoxy. In many respects, Jews were caught in an untenable situation, as they were despised by the Polish landowners who used them as middlemen in the management of their estates and resented by Ukrainian peasants who were frequently abused.

Bohdan Khmelnytsky, as Hetman of the free Ukrainian Zaporizhian Cossacks living on the right bank of the Dnipro River, joined in this struggle to emancipate Ukrainian peasants from Polish exploitation and rule by pursuing a war of national liberation to create a free Ukrainian Cossack state. In this war between the Poles and the Ukrainians, the Jewish population sided with the Poles. While tens of thousands of Jews perished, so did tens of thousands of Ukrainians and Poles. The outcome was that Poland managed to fend off the uprising. Serfdom was finally abolished in Poland and throughout Europe, but only some 200 years later.

Jews In Ukraine Today

Dershowitz continues his attack on Ukrainians by making the claim that there are large numbers of antisemites in Ukraine today, including in certain units of the armed forces. But according to a Pew poll on the question of antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine was found to be the country most friendly to Jews. The poll indicated that only 5 percent of Ukrainians would not like to have Jews as their fellow citizens. Indeed, according to the Jerusalem Post, “Ukraine today boasts the lowest rate of antisemitic sentiment in eastern Europe and probably most of western Europe too.” All this is borne out by the fact that Zelensky was elected with a huge majority across the country, notwithstanding the fact that everyone knew of his Jewish background. Similarly, a lot of other Jewish Ukrainians have been elected to the Ukrainian Parliament and have held senior government posts, including being the Prime Minister of Ukraine as well as governors of various regions.

As for certain units in the armed forces, it is true in the initial phases of the war with Russia there were volunteer units composed of far-right members who joined in the fight. But these units were broken up and reorganized and the remaining acceptable elements were incorporated into the Ukrainian army. What is more, the far right was decimated in the last elections in Ukraine and today has little influence on Ukraine or the war. Dershowitz would do well to speak with Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich, the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine about this subject. Rabbi Bleich, who is from Brooklyn, is a staunch defender of Ukraine today and like Zelensky himself sees a vibrant future for Jews in the future of the state.

One needs to go no further than to read the book Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder to understand the fact that the Soviet and Nazi regimes collaborated in World War II to the detriment of Jews, Ukrainians, and many other countries and nationalities and that historical context is critical to understanding the period.

President Zelensky Deserves Better

If anything, it is evident from this review of Ukrainian actions during World War II, and historically before then, that those actions should always be considered in the context of what others did at the same time. In that context, it is grossly unfair for Alan Dershowitz to call Volodymyr Zelensky a liar about Ukrainian history. Indeed, it is Dershowitz and not Zelensky who needs to correct and acknowledge the error of his views on this subject.

Andy J. Semotiuk is President of the Centre for Eastern European Democracy, and a member of the New York, California, Ontario and B.C. bars. A former U.N. correspondent, for three years Mr. Semotiuk served as a Member of the Tribunal Panel of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. He writes for Forbes on immigration matters and practices U.S. and Canadian immigration law in Toronto.

Copyright CEED 2022. All rights reserved. No copy or reprinted circulation of this article, apart from the hyperlink to the article on the CEED blog, is permitted without the written consent of the CEED blog editor.

Recommended Posts