Published On: Fri, Jan 24th, 2020

Did Zelensky snub Holocaust memorial to avoid upsetting Ukrainian nationalists?

Holocaust memorial group Yad Vashem is angry after the Ukrainian delegation unexpectedly withdrew from a commemoration in Jerusalem, on Thursday.

As world leaders gathered in the Israeli city for the Fifth World Holocaust Forum something bizarre happened. At the last minute, Volodymyr Zelensky changed his mind about attending, much to the chagrin of the event’s organizers.

Making it even more strange, Zelensky’s move meant a brief planned meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, didn’t happen. Which was especially peculiar given Kiev had apparently sought the engagement, according to Russian Presidential aide Yuri Ushakov. 

Now, people are asking why the Ukrainian President changed his plans, so quickly, And some suspect it’s because he feared the wrath of “patriots” back home.

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Zelensky’s problem is that it’s now a taboo to criticize Second World War-era Ukrainian nationalist leaders, who were installed as national heroes after the 2014 Maidan. They were Nazi-collaborators, who took part in the Holocaust. Thus, his presence at a commemoration set up to denounce folk of that ilk runs contrary to Ukraine’s new historical touchstones, and national origin myths.

Other Ukrainians, of course, fought with the Red Army, which defeated the Nazis and their Ukrainian allies, who almost exclusively hailed from the Western part of the country. Zelensky, himself of Jewish heritage, is from central Krivoy Rog, a historically Russian-speaking industrial city. Members of his family perished in the Holocaust and his grandfather was a Soviet soldier, during the conflict.

So, while he doubtless personally wanted to attend, something quite obviously held him back.

The Ukrainian delegation ostensibly gave up its seats so that more Holocaust survivors could attend, writing how “seats at the main event should go to those who deserve them the most.”

However, organizers dismissed this as a nonsense excuse, revealing it “had told Zelensky the survivors contacted in previous days had already responded and that it would not be possible to contact others,” adding they had made it clear that “those who had asked to attend the forum got the opportunity.” 

Ukraine’s first Jewish president, fearful of angering powerful neofascists back home, skulked away from Israel Holocaust event,” wrote American journalist Mark Ames, the former editor of Moscow satirical newspaper, The Exile.

While Ivan Katchanovski, of the University of Ottawa, noted: “(The) decision by Zelensky, and (the) entire Ukrainian delegation to chicken out is another manifestation of his weakness and unwillingness to confront historical revisionism of World War II & turning Nazi collaborators and mass murderers into national heroes in Ukraine.”

The World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem also criticized Zelensky’s move. “His decision is puzzling, and it is a pity to take such a step in an event called ‘Remember the Holocaust to fight antisemitism,” it said in a statement.

Representatives of Yad Vashem later went further, accusing Zelensky of “disgusting manipulation,” and labelling his behavior “cynical and confusing,according to Ukrainian news outlet Strana. 

World leaders who did attend the ceremony included US Vice President Mike Pence, Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš, German President Frank Walter-Steinmeier, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, Britain’s Prince Charles and King Felipe VI of Spain.

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