Ukrainian president, delegates give their seats at Holocaust event to survivors

Yad Vashem says Volodymyr Zelensky’s gesture is ‘puzzling,’ since museum has made efforts to enable those who lived through Nazi genocide to attend international ceremony

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City on January 23, 2020 (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the Western Wall, in Jerusalem's Old City on January 23, 2020 (Shlomi Cohen/Flash90)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced Thursday that he and his delegation will give up their seats at an international Holocaust event in Jerusalem so that survivors of Nazis’ genocide of Jews could attend instead.

Four of Israel’s government ministers have also said they will let survivors take their places at the event.

The Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem is being held in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

At least 47 world leaders or senior diplomats, including 26 presidents, four kings (from Spain, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg) and four prime ministers were in town for the event, officials have said.

Preparations at the Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial museum, ahead of a visit of more than 30 heads of state and ministers from around the world as part of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum, January 19, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Army Radio reported last week that only 30 of some 800 seats at the ceremony were reserved for actual survivors of the Holocaust, causing consternation among some uninvited survivors and their families. On Thursday, Simmy Allen, a spokesman for Yad Vashem, said “some 100” survivors were expected.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, interviewed in his office in Kyiv, on January 18, 2020 (Press service of the Office of the President of Ukraine)

“We learnt that many of the Holocaust survivors have not been able to visit the World Holocaust Forum,” Zelensky tweeted in English. “Our delegation gave them our seats, as many Israeli ministers did. These people deserve these honors most of all.”

“We will participate in all events and hold scheduled meetings,” noted Zelensky.

The Ukrainian president, who is Jewish, also Thursday visited the Western Wall.

In Kiev over the weekend, Zelensky had told The Times of Israel firmly that “I will attend the ceremony” even though he believed he should have been invited to address it.

“For me personally, it doesn’t matter whether I speak. But so many people who died in this tragedy [of the Holocaust] were Ukrainian Jews — starting with Babi Yar… The statistical information that we have shows that one in four of the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust were Ukrainian. That is why, for Ukrainians, it is very important to honor the victims of the Holocaust. I think it would be fair, therefore, that the president of Ukraine would give a speech.”

However, Yad Vashem said the announcement by Zelensky was “puzzling” as it has complied with requests regarding survivors.

“This morning, the Ukrainian president announced his withdrawal, claiming that he is transferring to a Holocaust survivor,” the memorial center said in a statement.

“It was explained to the president that we have assented to survivors who approached us in recent days. Therefore, his decision is puzzling, and it is a pity to take such a step in an event entitled ‘Remember the Holocaust to fight anti-Semitism.’”

After Army Radio reported last week the dearth of places for survivors at the forum Yad Vashem in an official response said, “The event is not a public ceremony but rather a gathering of leaders.” It noted that some 100,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel and it would have been impossible to invite even a fraction of them.

An original cattle-car used to transport Jews to the camps, part of the Memorial to the Deportations display at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Wednesday the Ynet website reported that Environment Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, Science and Technology Minister Ofir Akunis, Justice Minster Amir Ohana, and Housing Minister Yifat Sasha Bitan had all volunteered to give up their places to any Holocaust survivors who want to attend. Former minister Ayelet Shaked, government secretary Tzachi Braverman, and acting director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office Ronen Peretz also said they would hand over their tickets to survivors.

The Foreign Ministry has called the event the third-largest gathering of international leaders in Israel’s history, after the funerals of Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres.

The proceedings — both a Wednesday gathering at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence and the larger Yad Vashem event on Thursday — were to be broadcast live.

The guest list includes US Vice President Mike Pence, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zolensky, Britain’s Prince Charles, and many more leaders from Romania, Italy, Austria, Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Croatia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Sweden, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Finland, Bosnia, Iceland, Armenia, Australia, Canada and other nations.

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