KRYYVI RIG, Ukraine (AFP) — Roman Gerstein, an 83-year-old Ukrainian Holocaust survivor, has a blunt riposte for Kremlin justifications of its invasion: “There are no Nazis here.”
For supporters of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s alleged “genocide” of Russian speakers in the country’s eastern regions is comparable with the actions of Nazi Germany.
And that, they argue, requires “de-Nazification.”
Gerstein is having none of that.
A slightly built man wearing an oversized suit, his eyes twinkling behind round glasses, he explained how he had to flee from real Nazis.
“In fact I am one of the few people to have been evacuated twice from Chernobyl,” he said with a laugh.
Gerstein spoke to AFP at the synagogue in Kryvyi Rig, central Ukraine.
The first time he fled was when Nazi Germans occupied his hometown of Chernobyl in 1941, he said; the second was 45 years later, in 1986, when the town was the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident.
Born in 1939, Gerstein was two years old when his father put his family on a boat to Kyiv to flee the Nazis — and from there they caught a train for Tajikistan.
When they finally returned to Chernobyl they discovered that the Jewish community no longer existed.
“Those who stayed behind now rest for good underground,” he said. “Seven hundred people: women, children, elderly.”
Lyubov Petukhova, who turns 100 in November, remembers fleeing with her family from the central Ukraine region of Vinnytsia to Uzbekistan.
In her village of Botvyno all the Jews who remained were “tortured, murdered,” she told AFP in her apartment with a hard stare.
Gerstein and Petukhova are remnants of Ukraine’s once large Jewish community, which has endured a history of pogroms, Holocaust and communist-era purges.
The Jews were almost completely wiped out in Ukraine during the Holocaust, in which Nazis killed a total of six million European Jews.
A 2019 study by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem concluded that there were only between 48,000 and 140,000 Jews left across the whole country.
Another Holocaust survivor, 84-year-old Felix Mamut, recalled how before World War II his extended family included his great-grandmother, her 16 children, and a host of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
But 72 of them were killed in Babyn Yar ravine, the site of a 1941 massacre where Nazis executed more than 30,000 Jews.
Between 1941 and 1944, about 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were massacred, often by shooting, by Nazis who, on the move, were sometimes assisted by local collaborators.
But “we don’t know their number,” Anton Drobovych, director of the National Institute of Memory, told AFP. Collaboration “was never a mass phenomenon” in Ukraine, he said.
Conversely, two to three million Ukrainian soldiers fought and died with the Red Army during the war.
According to Drobovych then, Moscow calling Ukraine a “Nazi” country makes “no sense.” It is a “rewriting of history” aimed at “tarnishing the memory” of the victims and “justifying” Russia’s invasion.
That is especially ironic since after World War II, the Jews of the Soviet Union — of which Ukraine was a part — still had to face “an official policy of anti-Semitism in the USSR,” he added.
‘Worse than Hitler’
Felix Mamut, still agile despite his advanced years, well remembers the Soviet-era persecution.
While his engineer father enjoyed a relatively comfortable situation in Moscow, he later found himself threatened by anti-Jewish purges and so returned hastily to Ukraine, said Mamut.
Gerstein recalls how his brothers and sister were barred from higher education “because of their name” despite excellent academic grades, while promotions at work were out of bounds for Jews.
Since Ukraine’s independence, the situation has greatly improved, he said.
“During the Soviet era, discrimination was enormous, but that no longer exists,” said Gerstein.
“You only have to look at who our president is to understand it,” he added, referring to President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish origins.
“There are no Nazis in Ukraine,” Lyubov Petukhova insists indignantly.
Gerstein, meanwhile, denounced Putin himself as a “Nazi,” a “robber,” and “worse than Hitler.”
Such descriptions of Putin are common now in Ukraine, seven months into the invasion.
With the discovery of mass graves in Bucha and Irpin, north of Kyiv, and more recently in Izyum in the northeast, Kryvyi Rig’s Rabbi Liron Ederi even drew a parallel between Russian atrocities and the Holocaust.
“Except that it is no longer just Jews, but all Ukrainians who are being killed.”