On Dutch Holocaust day, Zelensky asks Netherlands to also mourn dead Ukrainians

Unusual plea polarizes Dutch public’s reactions to Ukrainian president’s state visit, opens debates on his Jewish ancestry and his country’s wartime record

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet Dutch King Willem-Alexander in The Hague, the Netherlands on May 4, 2023. (The Office of the President of Ukraine)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meet Dutch King Willem-Alexander in The Hague, the Netherlands on May 4, 2023. (The Office of the President of Ukraine)

On a rare state visit to the Netherlands on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took a bold diplomatic license: He asked that Dutchmen think of his countrymen as well as their own during the kingdom’s national memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust and World War II.

This plea by Zelensky during his visit, which coincided with the May 4 memorial day, is in line with his broader messaging that juxtaposes Ukraine with the Allied Forces of World War II, and draws parallels between the yearlong Russia-Ukraine war and issues that foreign audiences may find more relatable.

In the Netherlands, this message certainly resonated with audiences open to it. But amid growing fatigue in the West of the protracted trench war, it also backfired with a wide array of others, ranging from nationalist politicians to left-leaning Jewish community leaders, who objected to what critics viewed as an attempt to piggyback a national commemoration.

Part of what irked Zelensky’s critics was how directly he bundled the Dutch memorial day together with the Ukraine conflict. Another part was that he appeared to generalize the Dutch day of mourning, which was instituted in 1945 and is widely seen as pertaining mainly to World War II victims and members of the Dutch armed forces and envoys who fell thereafter in the line of duty.

“When today, as always on the fourth of May, at eight o’clock in the evening, you will honor the memory of all those whose lives were taken away by wars – World War II and others – please also remember Ukrainians – men and women, adults and children, who would have been alive now but for this aggression. The war we didn’t want, the one we have to make the last. We’ll do it,” Zelensky said in a speech at the Dutch parliament.

Ronny Naftaniel, a former chair of the Central Jewish Board of the Netherlands, reacted to the visit on Twitter, writing that whereas Zelensky “is welcome in the Netherlands also on May 4” and is “fighting for the freedom of his country, the war in Ukraine should not be confused with the memorial day. Leave the wreath laying and the 2 minutes of silence out of it.”

Zelensky’s speech prompted criticism both from the leader of the anti-Islam Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, who boycotted the speech and from Arnoud van Doorn, a Muslim member of the City Council of the Hague, who wrote: “On the day that we commemorate victims of warfare, Zelly comes begging for more weapons. This clown is greeted like a hero,” van Doorn wrote on Twitter.

Left-leaning Dutch lawmaker Alexander Hammelburg defended Zelensky, writing on Twitter: “There is nothing wrong with commemorating friends dealing with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war in Ukraine and commemorating my murdered family members in the Holocaust, and fallen Dutch soldiers and civilians – all in the same time.”

Zelensky’s Jewish heritage also featured in the debate about his visit to the Netherlands.

On May 4, “some people don’t want to see today the Jewish Zelensky, the grandson of victims of Nazism,” Ernst Lissauer, a veteran parliamentary correspondent, who is Jewish, said about Zelensky’s critics.

But some of the critics noted the fact that in modern-day Ukraine, including under Zelensky, streets and monuments are being named for Nazi collaborators, whom many Ukrainians view as patriots because they fought the Red Army.

“It’s a straightforward provocation to host on May 4 the Ukrainian president under whose leadership Stepan Bandera was promoted to a national hero,” economist Gerrit Zeilemaker wrote on Twitter, in reference to the leader of a rebel militia that fought alongside Nazi soldiers.

During World War II, Bandera led the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, whose men killed thousands of Jews and Poles, including women and children, while fighting alongside Nazi Germany against the Red Army and communists. Bandera’s supporters claim that they sided with the Nazis against the Soviet army in the belief that Adolf Hitler would grant independence to Ukraine.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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