'The slogan Never Again is very relevant'

Top Zelensky adviser opens up about his Jewish roots, urges greater Israeli support

Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak reveals that his relatives were killed in Babyn Yar; says president sleeps 4-5 hours a night and keeps up activities despite fear of assassination

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky, speaks to Israeli reporters, March 24, 2022 (screenshot)
Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Vlodymyr Zelensky, speaks to Israeli reporters, March 24, 2022 (screenshot)

A senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke at length about his own Jewish heritage during a conversation Thursday with Israeli journalists.

Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, conducted the hour-long briefing in Ukrainian, using an interpreter. Until, that is, he was asked about his Jewish heritage.

Yermak switched to English only for this response, speaking directly to the Israelis.

“My father is Jewish, he was born in Kyiv,” said the 50-year-old, dressed in the military fleece that Ukraine’s leadership has donned throughout the war with Russia.

“Some of my relatives were killed in Babyn Yar,” he stressed, referring to the ravine in Kyiv in which over 33,000 Jews were slaughtered by Nazi Germany and its local allies in September 1941.

“It was a shock when one of the first shells hit the city of Uman, and the next week, another shell killed the family with children who were visiting the Babyn Yar memorial,” Yermak continued. “The millions of people who died do not deserve for their memory to be burned.”

A Jewish man looks at the buildings near the synagogue of Uman, central Ukraine, on March 9, 2022. (Daphne Rousseau / AFP)

“The slogan ‘Never Again’ is very relevant,” he stressed.

Earlier this month, Yermak wrote about the history of Ukraine’s Jews in a Times of Israel op-ed, and compared Ukrainians under attack from Russia to Jews murdered by Nazis.

“The Jewish people know all too well the threat of being eradicated,” he wrote. “Today, Ukraine is Israel.”

During Thursday’s conversation, Yermak also spoke about Borys Romanchenko, the 96-year-old Holocaust survivor killed by a Russian airstrike in Kharkiv. “He managed to survive in this hell of Nazi concentration camps, and then died at 96 from a Russian bomb. This is a surreal reality. This has no justification.”

A 1944 file photo of part of the Babyn Yar ravine at the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine where the advancing Red Army unearthed the bodies of 14,000 civilians killed by fleeing Nazis, 1944. Einsatzgruppe C was responsible for one of the most notorious massacres, the shooting of nearly 34,000 at Babi Yar, a ravine northwest of the Ukrainian city of Kyiv, on Sept. 29-30, 1941. (AP Photo, file)

Yermak added that his family maintains contact with Jewish relatives in Israel, the US, and Belgium.

Zelensky, Yermak’s boss, is also Jewish and lost his great-grandparents in the Holocaust.

Throughout the briefing, Yermak sought to draw parallels between Ukraine and Israel, arguing that the kinship should make Jerusalem more firmly pro-Ukrainian.

“I think we have so many things in common,” he said. “There are so many sacred places for Jewish people in Ukraine. So many places related to big tragedies of the previous century that it would very strange for Israel to stay on the sidelines.”

“Israel is linked very closely in terms of family, in terms of history, and in terms of all other aspects of our lives.”

Zelensky at war

Yermak revealed details about Zelensky’s routine during the fighting.

When the invasion started, said the aide, he rushed to join Zelensky. “By 6:00 a.m,  I was already in the office. When I came, the president was already there and since that moment, we are really in the same location, in the presidential office.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a press conference in Kyiv, on March 3, 2022. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Zelensky sleeps only 4-5 hours a day, according to Yermak.

Despite working 20-hour days, Yermak said, Zelensky maintains his concentration. “He stays very energetic. He energizes other people who are around him.”

Ukraine’s president speaks with up to 10 world leaders a day and meets with military and intelligence officials daily, where the president often hands out decorations to soldiers.

Despite the ever-present fear of Russian assassins, Zelensky makes a point of visiting wounded soldiers in hospitals, said Yermak.

“During all these days,” Yermak stressed, “I have never seen the president being at a loss. I haven’t seen him scared, I haven’t seen him of two minds about what he needs to do.”

“He’s a true leader and inspiration, that’s not by chance.”

Ukraine’s presidential chief of staff Andriy Yermak speaks at a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Feb. 12, 2020. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Yermak also reflected on his own emotions during the war: “I’ve never felt any fear, because I know I’m doing this for my country, for my family, for the future of our land. For our people.”

“Of course, in the evening I feel very saddened when I see the destroyed cities,” he continued. “Sometimes we have to hide our emotions, and do the things we need to do.”

Zelensky’s senior aide described the period before the Russian invasion as one of marked tolerance between ethnicities and religions.

Though the circumstances are now far grimmer, that unity has persisted, Yermak maintained. “It doesn’t matter- Ukrainian Jews, Ukrainian Russians, original Ukrainians, other nations — everybody is together. Everybody is united around the president. Everyone is fighting every day.”

“[Ukraine] is a great nation in the center of Europe, and this is a great nation which wanted to be free, to be independent,” he continued. “And I’m sure that our history will be so great, as great as the history of Israel, and the relations between our countries, the relations between our people, will be stronger, and we can always say that we are real friends.”

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