One of Ukraine’s most prominent Jewish leaders stood in the snow next to the massacre site at Babi Yar on Wednesday and begged Russian President Vladimir Putin not to unleash a new wave of death and destruction against his country.
In a video message posted to Facebook ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, over 80 years since German troops shot nearly 34,000 Jews at the site, Rabbi Moshe Azman – one of several claimants to the disputed title of chief rabbi – described how members of his family were killed during the Holocaust and the German siege of Leningrad, Putin’s hometown.
“Therefore, today, when there is a tense situation on the border, I want to appeal to the president of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin, to world leaders, with an appeal: do everything to stop the war,” he begged.
“These people who were killed here are the result of that terrible war. We need to remove all our ambitions, and do everything to prevent war. I beg you. I pray that God, the Lord of the World, will give the right thoughts to all world leaders, so that they will do everything possible so that there is no war, but there is real peace. Let it be now. Please, hear me.”
Following the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and fomented a Russian-backed insurgency in the country’s east, which has claimed more than 14,000 lives and displaced millions. And while the conflict has largely ground down to static trench warfare reminiscent of World War I, Western countries now fear Russia, which has amassed more than 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border, is planning a new assault against Ukraine.
Russia denies such an attack, but says it could take unspecified military action unless a list of demands are met – including a promise from NATO never to admit Ukraine into the Western military alliance.
Azman, during an appearance on an Israeli Russian-language news show earlier this week, also appealed to Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar to intercede with Putin in an effort to prevent an incursion.
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“Look, the Jews have always been for peace. The Jew is a peaceful person. But peace must be made in a real way, in order for peace to be lasting, not according to Molotov-Ribbentrop,” he said, referencing the secret Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact of 1939 splitting Europe into spheres of influence.
“I am today, on this broadcast, proposing to the respected Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is the chief rabbi of Russia, that we somehow influence the peace.”
While Azman did not respond directly to a request for comment, Shimon Briman, a Russian-language Israeli journalist and historian who spoke to Azman told Haaretz that the two rabbis have not yet spoken directly about the issue.
Putin and his proxies have long referenced Jews in their rhetoric regarding Ukraine. Following the 2014 ouster of Yanukovych, the Russian leader raised a fabricated “rampage of reactionary forces, nationalist and antisemitic forces going on in certain parts of Ukraine” as a possible justification for military intervention.
During the ensuing conflict, Russian news reports described fictional attacks on Jewish citizens and claimed that Jewish newspapers and schools were being shuttered. Some Jewish communal leaders in Ukraine have even accused Russia of staging antisemitic provocations for propaganda purposes.
The fighting displaced large numbers of Ukrainians, including Jews, with more than 30,000 people moving to Israel from Ukraine between 2014 and October 2018, according to Israel’s Aliyah and Integration Ministry.
Reuters contributed to this report.