KYIV — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky will be attending this week’s events in Jerusalem commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, his office confirmed on Sunday.
Zelensky told The Times of Israel that he had always wanted and intended to attend. He had, however, delayed his final confirmation because he needed to be sure that all matters would first be handled relating to the return by Iran to Ukraine of the bodies of Ukrainian nationals killed when Iran mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian airliner on January 8.
It had been rumored that Zelensky might follow the lead of his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda and boycott the gathering; neither leader has been invited to speak at the main January 23 event at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. Duda criticized the fact that representatives of the US, Russia, France, the UK and Germany would all speak while his request to address the forum was denied. The Polish announcement came amid an escalating dispute between Warsaw and Moscow over allegations of collaboration with the Nazis and responsibility for the outbreak of World War II.
In an extensive interview with The Times of Israel on Saturday, Zelensky said he thought it would be “fair” for the president of Ukraine to be asked to speak at the event. “The statistical information that we have shows that one in four of the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust were Ukrainian,” he noted.
But “the most important thing for each country is to honor the memory of its Holocaust victims. It’s very important to go, whether we [leaders] speak or not,” he said. “I know the Israeli side has a different format; we were not invited to speak. But in any case, I will attend this ceremony.”
In the interview, Zelensky also detailed plans to start the construction this year of a memorial at Babi Yar for the Jews executed there.
“This is a large project, which includes a historical museum, where the whole story of the 150,000 Jews who were executed at Babi Yar will be told,” he said.
He also spoke warmly of Israel, where he has visited often and has relatives. “I respect Israel as hugely special, especially given all the sensitivities around it,” he said. “The Jews managed to build a country, to elevate it, without anything except people and brains… There are many countries in the world that can protect themselves, but Israel, such a small country, can not only protect itself, but facing external threats, can respond… And despite being under the threat of war, they enjoy every day. I’ve seen it.”
The Times of Israel now understands that a Ukraine business office in Jerusalem will not be opened during Zelensky’s visit.
Zelensky, Ukraine’s first Jewish president, is a former comedian, actor and producer who played the president of Ukraine in a TV sitcom called “Servant of the People” and was elected the actual president of Ukraine last April.