Israel's President Warns Legacy of the Holocaust 'Under Threat' in Europe

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Israeli President Isaac Herzog at an event in Jerusalem last month.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog at an event in Jerusalem last month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Ahead of his state visit to Ukraine Tuesday to mark the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre, Israeli President Isaac Herzog strongly condemned Holocaust revisionism across Europe.

In a column published Sunday on a popular Ukrainian news site ahead of his state visit to Kyiv, Herzog wrote that the legacy of the Holocaust was “under threat” by both the passage of time and the deliberate suppression of facts.

Almost 34,000 Jews were killed within 48 hours at Babi Yar, a ravine in the Ukrainian capital, while the city was under Nazi occupation in 1941. The killing at the site, known as Babyn Yar in Ukrainian, was carried out by SS troops and local collaborators.

“In many places in Europe, we are witnessing a dangerous trend of historical revisionism. Memories are not simply forgotten – they are erased, or even rewritten,” Herzog wrote.

“The past is a painful place. That is why some people feel tempted to glorify World War II war criminals or rehabilitate wartime collaborators. That is why some people are tempted to slip into the same hatreds and prejudices. That is why some people prefer to forget and to make others forget. This is dangerous. It is dangerous because, nearly eight decades after the Holocaust, antisemitism is soaring again. It is dangerous because when the rot of anti-Jewish racism spreads, it ultimately destroys every country it infects.”

Herzog is due to land in Kyiv on Tuesday morning to join with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, to commemorate the massacre, the memory of which was deliberately suppressed during the Soviet period. And while Herzog praised the Ukrainian government both for recently passing a bill outlawing antisemitism as well as for working to establish “one of the world’s largest Holocaust memorials,” its approach to memory issues has been controversial in recent years.

Jewish groups and Israeli officials, for instance, have harshly criticized Kyiv’s promotion, since 2014, of a new official historiography focusing on the rehabilitation of nationalist groups that collaborated with the Nazis.

In 2015, Ukraine’s parliament passed bills prohibiting the denigration of groups such as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, an ultranationalist group founded between the wars. Some of its members took part in the Holocaust, but its leaders have been lauded as national heroes. The group was revived after the fall of communism.

In 2016, under then-President Petro Poroshenko, government officials placed signs memorializing Nazi collaborators at Babi Yar during a ceremony marking the massacre’s 75th anniversary. The following year, a statue to poet Olena Teliha, who worked for a newspaper that supported the ethnic cleansing of Jews and was a member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, was erected there.

Addressing the Ukraine parliament prior to the 2016 ceremony, Israel’s then-president, Reuven Rivlin, excoriated lawmakers for glorifying members of the organization, describing the militant faction as having “carried out pogroms and massacres against the Jews.” He added that they must “not rehabilitate or glorify antisemites.”

One of the few survivors of the Babi Yar massacre visiting the memorial site five years ago.Credit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP

In recent years, multiple Ukrainian streets have been named for Roman Shukhevych, whose troops are believed to have killed thousands of Jews. He and another Ukrainian nationalist, Stepan Bandera, are among the men being feted in Ukraine nowadays as heroes for teaming up with Nazi Germany against the Soviet Union during World War II.

In his op-ed, Herzog also struck a diplomatic note when he said he was “grateful to Ukraine, and to President Zelensky personally, for investing so much thought and energy into fighting hatred and making sure that this ravine remains an open scar for all to see, a memory that must never be forgotten.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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