Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.
January 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This was the day chosen by the United Nations General Assembly 15 years ago as it marked the day in 1945 when the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death/Concentration Camp was liberated by the Soviet Red Army. First to break down the gates were Ukrainian soldiers led by Tank Commander Ihor Pobirchenko.
As General Vasyl Petrenko, who entered the camp a day later recalled 50 years later, “I saw 82 children, from three to 14 years old, wracked by criminal medical experiments. I saw women and children who resembled skeletons, who couldn’t even smile in a human manner. They had tears in their eyes, but they couldn’t even sob.”
Only about 7,000 prisoners were alive when the camp was liberated. Earlier 60,000 had been taken out in what has been described as a death march. Unlike the camps liberated by Western allies, who took care of the survivors, Soviet authorities left them to fend for themselves. “Stalin and his inner circle were not eager to protest the killing of Jews because they were anti-Semites,″ Petrenko said.
The Auschwitz concentration camp was actually a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II. It consisted of Auschwitz I, the main camp in Oświęcim; Auschwitz II–Birkenau, a concentration and extermination camp built with several gas chambers; Auschwitz III–Monowitz, a labour camp created to staff a factory for the chemical conglomerate IG Farben; and dozens of subcamps.
It was the largest Nazi death camp. An estimated 1.3 million people were imprisoned at Auschwitz. About 1.1 million people of those were killed, of which 1 million were Jews. Exact numbers aren’t known because the Soviets confiscated the camps archives and never released them.
It was genocide on an industrial scale. Most Jews were killed right upon arrival as they were separated into two groups – one being those who were left alive for slave labour and the greater majority who were stripped naked and marched into “shower” rooms which were actually equipped with Zyklon B gas. Their bodies were burned in crematoriums. It should be noted that while Hitler was responsible for the deaths of millions of people of various nationalities, Jews were specifically targeted and that’s what makes the Holocaust a genocide.
However, members of other nationalities, including Ukrainians, were also imprisoned at Auschwitz. Stepan Bandera’s brothers Vasyl and Oleksandr, were killed there. Among the Ukrainian survivors were Stefan Petelycky, who later wrote a book entitled “Into Auschwitz, for Ukraine”; Ivan Lahola, who later settled in Edmonton, Father George Kowalsky, who organized the construction of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Calgary to honour the Mother of God whom he credited with helping him survive that Hell on Earth; and Ukrainian community activist Petro Bashuk. On the 70th anniversary of the liberation in 2015, his daughter, Oksana Bashuk Hepburn wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press in which she described his experience.
“When the Gestapo police finally branded him with a concentration number in Auschwitz, he had to endure the “welcome” line. It comprised running the gauntlet with hundreds of katsetnyky, or prisoners, as they were beaten with batons. This experience was shared by other who came to live in Winnipeg, including (Ed: historian) Dr. Michael Marunchak, (Ed: long-time editor of Winnipeg’s Postup newspaper) Rev. Semen Izyk, Petro Petelytsky, Theodor Chimko… Anyone who fell was dragged off and punished; anyone who abstained got the same. Fear and terror ruled. The camp’s commandant had decreed: You are nothing; I am the law. Too often, those who were unable to deal with the sadism any longer sought a quick, merciful end on the electrified enclosures. My father lost many friends in the mills of death, as the concentration camps were called,” she wrote.
As a prelude to the commemoration of the anniversary at Auschwitz itself, Israel’s Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, organized the 5th World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, which was attended by over 40 world leaders. Among the keynote speakers was Russian President Vladimir Putin who used his speech to take swipes at Ukraine and Eastern European NATO members, while making false claims about Russian casualties in World War II. Among other points in his speech, he stated that 27 million “Russians” died in World War II and that 40% of the Jews killed during the Holocaust were from the Soviet Union. The 27 million figure he cited applies to all Soviet citizens – including members of the nations subjugated by Moscow. Ukraine lost 8 million, Belarus 3 million, which was proportionately much higher relative to their populations than that of Russia itself. As for his claim that 40% of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were from the USSR, it promptly led the Canadian Jewish News to run an article headlined “Putin Delivers False History at Yad Vashem Event”, citing experts who debunked his claims. Recently, Putin has been attempting to rewrite the history of World War II denying Moscow’s complicity in Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, which came as a direct result of the non-aggression pact between the USSR and Nazi Germany under which the two totalitarian dictatorships agreed to carve up the territory of inter-war Poland. Instead he blames Poland for starting the war. The fact that he was given this platform to spout off Russian propaganda led to the presidents of both Poland and Lithuania to boycott the event.
For his part, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy decided to give up his seat and that of the Ukrainian delegation so that Holocaust survivors could attend. “We learnt that many of the Holocaust survivors have not been able to visit the World Holocaust Forum. Our delegation gave them our seats, as many Israeli ministers did. These people deserve these honours most of all. We will participate in all events and hold scheduled meetings,” Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, said in a tweet.
Yad Vashem criticized the decision calling it “puzzling.” Actually, Yad Vashem’s statement is puzzling as it decided to single out Zelenskyy while ignoring the fact that Ukraine’s President was simply following the lead of Israeli’s Minister of Environmental Protection Ze’ev Elkin, who announced, after hearing that a limited number of the 800 seats at the Forum ceremony were set aside for survivors, that he would give up his seat for a survivor and called on his fellow ministers to do the same.
But if Yad Vashem’s statement was puzzling, Russia Today’s comment on this was totally outrageous. RT claimed that Zelenskyy gave up his seat because he did not want to offend nationalists at home. RT also quoted one of its Canadian proxies, Professor Ivan Katchanovski, of the University of Ottawa as saying “(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.”
Katchanovski, it should be noted, has gained notoriety for claiming the snipers who killed the “Heavenly Hundred” at Euromaidan on February 20, 2014, were not from Viktor Yanukovych’s security forces, but right-wing nationalists in alliance with Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna Party, who perpetrated the act as a “false flag” to topple the regime.
When he first presented this claim at a symposium on “Negotiating Borders” organized by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta, on October 17, 2014, Bohdan Harasymiw, one of the organizers of the conference, derided Katchanovski’s paper as having neither theory nor analysis, while another participant, Taras Kuzio, dismissed Katchanovski as anti-Ukrainian, noting that his opinions mirrored those of Vladimir Putin and Russian propaganda organs. When asked by New Pathway – Ukrainian News to comment on Katchanovski’s most recent tweet, Dr. Harasymiw stated: “So, by Katchanovski’s logic, the Israeli cabinet ministers are in the same boat as Zelenskyy. Yes, Mr. Katchanovski has spent his entire academic (so-called) career smearing Ukraine and everything associated with it in its current manifestation. He is a mouthpiece for the Kremlin. So Taras Kuzio’s characterization is something I’d agree with. To my mind, he’s a propagandist, not a scholar.”
The furor over President Zelenskyy’s noble action is just another example of how Russian propaganda grossly distorts facts in order to tarnish any Ukrainians who oppose Moscow’s imperialist ambitions. To put today’s Ukrainian-Jewish relations into their proper perspective, we would like to quote Yaakov Dov Bleich, an American-born rabbi recognized as Chief Rabbi of Ukraine since 1990: “All of the recent attacks on synagogues and Jews have taken place in the east where the Russian extremists are operating. Meanwhile, in the West, where there are supposedly ultra-nationalist extremists, all has been quiet. The Ukrainian Jewish Community is definitely more afraid of Putin and these pro-Russian hooligans than of Ukrainian anti-Semitism.”
How true. And let us point out that Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s unselfish act in giving up his seat for Holocaust survivors honored their suffering. Vladimir Putin’s speech served only to dishonor them.