Israel President Isaac Herzog was in Ukraine Wednesday to attend a memorial service marking the 80th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre.
In 1941, Kyiv, the capital of what was known then as Soviet Ukraine, was the home to an estimated 160,000 Jews—accounting for 20 percent of the city’s population. In the summer of that year, the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and realizing they were headed to Kyiv, 100,000 Ukrainian Jews fled or joined the Soviet Army.
The 60,000 that remained were mostly those too old or too young to flee (the elderly and young families). In mid-September, the Nazis rolled in, and the Soviets fled. Ten days later, under the guise of blaming the Jews for some German deaths in the city after an explosion (Soviet mines left behind had detonated—but it was a handy excuse for the Nazis to target the Jews), more than 33,000 Jewish men, women, children, and elderly were marched outside the city and systematically executed in the Babi Yar ravine over two days. The Nazis would kill thousands more Jews (and also Romas and Soviet POWs) in this same manner between 1941 and 1943—an estimated 100,000 people are believed to have perished in the Babi Yar ravine.
Herzog said the world must “never forget (the) terrible” slaughter. “We must learn from history. The whole of humanity and Europe, in particular, cannot tolerate any form of antisemitism—not at protests, not in the erasure and denial of history, and not in the glorification of murderous figures from the past.”
Herzog pointed out there is a long and distinguished Jewish history in Ukraine—many notable Jewish and Israeli statesmen, Zionists, and religious leaders have been Ukrainian. And diplomatic ties were established between Ukraine and Israel 30 years ago after Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet empire.
However, Herzog said, “The Jewish people have also had a tragic and painful history here in Ukraine. From pograms in previous centuries to the horrific massacre at Babi Yar…In my view, this past leads us to the present, a present in which Ukraine bears the important responsibility for the memory and history of the space and culture of the Jewish community that lived here throughout the ages.”
President Herzog met with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, and invited him to visit Israel in the future, and the Ukrainian president agreed in theory.
“Israel is a friend and partner of ours and everything concerning diplomacy, trade, security, politics, and humanitarian issues. It is very symbolic that your first visit as president is to us here in Ukraine. I see this as a symbol and a great honor. I am confident that our meeting will strengthen the partnership between us,” Zelensky told Herzog.
Herzog praised Ukraine for passing a law last month banning antisemitism. He also met with the Ukrainian prime minister and discussed ways Israel and Ukraine could fight antisemitism and strengthen economic cooperation between the two countries.