Ukrainian Ambassador Claims His Country Aided Jews During the Holocaust. History Says Otherwise

Apart from a handful of Righteous Gentiles, many Ukrainians hunted down Jews, turned them over to the Nazis and even murdered them with their own hands

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Raisa Maystrenko, 78, stands near a memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Babi Yar, Kyiv in Ukraine
Raisa Maystrenko, 78, stands near a memorial to victims of the 1941 Nazi massacre of Jews in Babi Yar, Kyiv in UkraineCredit: Efrem Lukatsky / AP
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The Ukrainian ambassador to Israel, Yevgen Korniychuk, expressed disappointment on Tuesday at the limitations Israel is placing on accepting refugees from his country and offered a historical justification for expecting more: “We think everyone remembers the Second World War, when Ukrainians helped rescue Jews,” he said.

In making such a statement, Korniychuk joins a host of other Eastern European countries who, in recent years, have downplayed their role in the Holocaust.

First, let’s look at what Korniychuk said, and then at what he didn’t say. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, recognizes 2,673 Ukrainian Righteous Gentiles. That is a respectable number and among the highest statistically, but not relative to the number of Jews who were living in Ukraine at the time – 2.4 million on the eve of the war – or to the total Ukrainian population.

In Israel, there are Jews who owe their lives to a handful of Ukrainians who helped them in their time of need. One of them is the historian Prof. Shimon Redlich. But, what is missing from the ambassador’s remarks is considerably more important. Alongside the handful who rescued Jews, there were many others who did exactly the opposite. They didn’t just fail to help their neighbors but hunted them down, turned them over to the Nazis and even murdered them with their own hands—all with enthusiasm and joy, and without force or invitation.

Korniychuk was preaching to the converted and his statement quickly made its way onto social media networks. When the Tel Aviv municipality illuminated an image of the Ukrainian flag on the facade of city hall, many felt that a red line had been crossed and recalled the role of Ukrainians in the war.

“My grandfather’s entire family were murdered in cold blood. The city of Tel Aviv turned on the lights for murderers, who only wanted to do good for the Nazis,” wrote one of the critics. The Facebook group “The Holocaust in Color” was also upset: Its administrator, Yossi Biran, has in recent days uploaded pictures of Ukrainian collaborators in the Holocaust.

“I’m not here to educate but to recall that in this story there’s a very dark chapter that will continue for many generations in regard to the Jewish people,” he explained. “I wish we weren’t in this situation, and I wish everything would end soon. But I have no excess of sympathy for the Ukrainians.”

The journalist Shimon Riklin pointed to John Demjanjuk as an example. A Ukrainian by birth, Demjanjuk was taken prisoner by the Germans and served as a guard at the Sobibor extermination camp. Many of the guards at the camps were Ukrainian. Judy Nir-Mozes, another journalist, added her voice, saying: “I am trying to remember what the Ukrainians did for the Jews during the World War. How many Jews did they save back then that we have to worry so much about them now?” She added, “All of my mother’s family was murdered. I’ve never heard that they helped them much.”

Some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The role of Ukrainian collaborators in this mass murder varied across regions and times.

Babi Yar Monument in KyivCredit: Shutterstock.com

“Without the massive help of Ukrainian auxiliary police units, the Germans would have had a very difficult time murdering so many Jews so quickly,” Prof. Omer Bartov, author of the book “Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz,” told Haaretz in an interview to mark the opening of a Babi Yar memorial four months ago.

“There’s no doubt that the auxiliary police was critical for the efficient execution of Aktion—whether it was putting Jews into railway cars or murdering them on the spot. In both cases, they needed to be located, collected and led along,” he added.

In addition to collaborating with the Nazis in the extermination camps, there were Ukrainian nationalist organizations that operated independently to murder Jews. Canadian-American historian John-Paul Himka’s new book, “Ukrainian Nationalists and the Holocaust,” describes how Ukrainian nationalist militias raided Jewish hiding places, found those sheltering with local families and in the forests, and handed them over to the Germans or murdered them themselves.

Babi Yar is one of the symbols of the Holocaust. Historical research has shown that while no Ukrainians were involved in the shooting of thousands of Jews there, they did play a central role in the murder. “The job of the Ukrainian police in the slaughter was to locate Jews and secure the site,” Dr. Kiril Feferman of Ariel University and a member of the new Babi Yar memorial’s academic committee told Haaretz.

The Yad Vashem website contains testimony from a senior Nazi officer recounting that his office received many reports from Ukrainians about Jews hiding near Babi Yar. “The number of reports was so great that due to a lack of manpower, the office couldn’t handle them all,” he said.

Nazi collaborators hailed heroes of the nation

Ukrainian antisemitism and the mass murder of Jews has deep roots, stretching back to the 17th century when Bohdan Khmelnytsky, one of the founders of the Ukrainian nation, carried out massacres of Jews. It’s enough to remember that in World War II the Ukrainian national movement “decided to get rid of the Jews before the Nazis arrived,” as Feferman explained. “Although without the Nazis there wouldn’t have been a genocide on the scale there was, the movement sought to drive out the Jews from Ukraine at the end of the 19th century. In the 1930s, they talked about a Ukraine ‘cleansed’ of Jews.”

In Ukraine of today, even while the country’s president is a Jew, sympathy remains for the national heroes who collaborated with the Nazis. Just two months ago, the Israeli Embassy in Kyiv was forced to condemn torchlight processions held in honor of Stefan Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis.

Activists of various nationalist parties carry torches and a portrait of Stepan Bandera during a rally in Kyiv, Ukraine in January Credit: Efrem Lukatsky /AP

“Any attempt to glorify those who supported Nazi ideology defiles the memory of Holocaust victims in Ukraine,” the embassy said in a statement.

The processions didn’t take place in a vacuum. In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament approved a series of laws banning criticism against anyone who fought for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century, “despite the fact that one of the most important movements that struggled for independence actively collaborated in the wave of antisemitism and violence against Jews following the Nazi invasion,” as the Holocaust researcher Dr. Efraim Zuroff told Haaretz in an interview in the past.

In many parts of Ukraine there are memorials and statues that commemorate Nazi collaborators. Bandera’s birthday was recently proclaimed a national holiday.

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