Leading Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff has criticized Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for ignoring Ukrainian complicity in the Holocaust during his visit to Israel this week, and for urging Jerusalem to recognize the Holodomor — a man-made famine in the 1930s that killed millions of Ukrainians — as a genocide.
Speaking to The Times of Israel in the wake of Poroshenko’s trip, Zuroff also took the president’s Israeli hosts to task for not having challenged him publicly on Kiev’s policy of honoring Ukrainian nationalist wartime heroes, many of whom were involved in massacres against Jews.
“What happened is the height of chutzpah,” fumed Zuroff, who heads Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel office. “He comes here, and asks Israel to recognize the Holodomor as genocide, which it wasn’t.”
In 1932 and 1933, the Soviet Union starved millions to death in what more than a dozen countries (but not Israel) have officially recognized as a genocide. Whether that label is historically accurate is the subject of scholarly debate; opponents argue that the man-made famine’s goal was not to annihilate the Ukrainian people per se.
“Jews also died on the Holodomor, as did Russians and Belarusians,” Zuroff said.
In a meeting Monday with Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Poroshenko explicitly called on the Israeli parliament to recognize the Holodomor as “a genocide of the Ukrainian people,” according to a readout provided by his office.
During his visit the same day at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center, Poroshenko seemed to equate the Holodomor with the Holocaust.
“Ukraine, as a state that suffered from the Holodomor of 1932-1933, when millions of Ukrainians were tortured by the communist Stalinist regime that committed genocide against the Ukrainian people, reverently keeps the memory of the Holocaust victims as well,” he said.
“Today, on behalf of the Ukrainian people, I would like to bow my head in memory of every victim of the Nazi regime, in memory of the millions of victims of the Holocaust innocently tortured and killed in dreadful years of the Holocaust in Ukraine and around the world. We cherish the memory of them,” Poroshenko said.
Україна так само трепетно береже пам'ять про жертв Голокосту, як і про мільйони українців, що загинули в роки Голодомору.
Сьогодні в Меморіальному комплексі Голокосту «Яд-Вашем» в Ізраїлі ми схиляємо голову в пам'ять про мільйони жертв Голокосту.
Світла їм пам'ять. pic.twitter.com/WYUywJagfB
— Петро Порошенко (@poroshenko) January 21, 2019
Zuroff, whose doctorate examined US-Jewish responses to the Holocaust, chastised the president for neglecting to mention Ukrainian complicity in the Nazi genocide.
“He didn’t say a word about Ukrainian participation in those crimes, which was considerable. And that’s an understatement,” he stated.
Zuroff, who was born in New York and moved to Israel in 1970, also took umbrage at Israeli leaders praising the Ukrainian head of state for his fight against anti-Semitism.
“Ukraine is one of the few countries where no one has ever been prosecuted for anti-Semitism. And it’s not like there’s no anti-Semitism in Ukraine,” he said.
“The welcome that he got here was just absurd,” Zuroff went on, noting that none of the senior officials Poroshenko met with in Jerusalem challenged him about Kiev’s Holocaust distortion.
“Ukraine is probably the most grievous offender at the moment, and certainly over the last few years,” Zuroff said. “He got a free ride.”
Netanyahu told Poroshenko on Monday that he appreciates his “continued efforts to eliminate hate speech and combat anti-Semitism in Ukraine.”
President Reuven Rivlin thanked his Ukrainian counterpart for his “strong words and actions against anti-Semitism” in his country, including opening a museum at Babi Yar, “to make sure that those terrible events are never forgotten.”
There is no shortage of examples to illustrate Kiev’s effort to glorify Ukrainian nationalists who were involved in anti-Semitic crimes during the Nazi era.
For instance, the birthday of leading Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, whose associates were involved in murder of Jews following the Nazis’ invasion in June 1941, was recently declared a national holiday by the parliament In Kiev.
On the very day Poroshenko visited Israel, a new statue was unveiled in Kiev for Symon Petliura, who historians blame for the murder of 50,000 Jewish compatriots in the 1920s.
“Just before that a book by Sweden’s Anders Rydell which simply mentioned Petliura’s pogroms was banned for import into Ukraine,” Eduard Dolinsky, director-general of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee, told The Times of Israel.
Earlier this month, a bill was introduced in Ukraine’s parliament to honor wartime nationalist leader Yaroslav Stetsko, who advocated for the “destruction of Jews and transferring the German’s methods of extermination of Jews to Ukraine,” Dolinsky said, proceeding to list additional similar cases.
Poroshenko did not mention Ukrainian complicity in Holocaust crimes during his one-day visit in Israel “because it’s election time [in Kiev] and he will avoid touching this in order not to attract criticism at home,” Dolinsky surmised.
According to most recent polls, Poroshenko is likely to lose the March 31 election to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
Israel’s Ambassador to the Ukraine Joel Lion defended the president.
“Poroshenko is fighting anti-Semitism and that is a fact. The Ukrainian administration is doing a lot in this direction,” he told The Times of Israel this week. “You have to make a difference between them and ultra-nationalistic parties, one of them represented at the parliament.”
Last month, Lion himself described Ukraine’s nationalist heroes as “historically a horror for the Jews.”
Figures such as Bandera are widely seen as “heroes who fought for Ukraine’s independence,” but “we see them as the killers of Jews,” he said in an interview.
“A dialogue should be open between us so that we can see that we can talk openly about this bad time period because these issues will always arise in the Ukrainian-Israeli dialogue. This is a very necessary dialogue,” Lion said at the time.
“We expect our Ukrainian friends to understand our emotions. You can store historical memory and open memorial monuments, commit acts of memorialization, but there will always be a perception of the historical memory that was.”
Zuroff, who has long been critical of the Jerusalem’s realpolitik approach vis-a-vis the governments of Eastern and Central European countries, said that he agrees that business and security ties with Ukraine are important.
“But, luckily for Israel, at this point, it’s not a question of bringing people to justice anymore. That not happening anywhere in Europe, except in Germany. So it’s not as if we’re demanding to bring their grandparents to justice,” he said.
“But what we can say to them is this: We don’t hold the crimes of your grandparents against you — you didn’t do them,” he went on. “But at the same time we expect you to tell the truth about the Holocaust.”
JTA contributed to this report.