(JTA) — When Vladimir Putin grabbed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the Russian president claimed it was to protect minorities from anti-Semitic fascists whom Putin maintained were behind the revolution that year that ousted his ally in Kiev, former President Viktor Yanukovych.
But a physicist named Josef Zissels, who heads one of the groups representing Ukraine’s fractured Jewish community of 350,000, wasn’t buying it.
In hundreds of media briefings and interviews, Zissels called the revolution “an expression of the Ukrainian people’s desire for independence, Western democracy and an end to the corruption by sellout leaders,” as he put it at one news conference in Kiev in 2014.
That defense of the revolution, coming from a former political prisoner who spent nearly 10 years in a Soviet prison, severely undermined Putin’s narrative.
Two years later, Zissels finds himself at the center of another controversy that confounds good guy-bad guy narratives in Eastern Europe, especially when it comes to anti-Semitism.
Unlike other Ukrainian Jewish leaders who remained neutral as they waited for the dust to settle on the revolution, Zissels emerged as a proud pro-revolution nationalist. Distinguishing himself from other Jewish leaders who used their personal wealth to gain influence, Zissels, a poker-faced man with a wry sense of humor and modest means, accused anti-revolution Jews of “thinking with their pockets.”
Two years on, however, even Zissels is confessing his discomfort at the post-revolution government’s controversial veneration of local pro-Nazi collaborators — amid an explosion of nationalist and anti-Russian sentiment — who were responsible for the murder of countless Jews and Poles during World War II.
In Ukraine, that means the rehabilitation of “heroes” like Stepan Bandera, who last month had a street named after him in Kiev; Symon Petliura, a 1920s anti-Semitic statesman who in May was commemorated on public television, and Roman Shukhevych, a militia leader who will also be honored with a street name in Kiev.
Such veneration has deepened divisions among Ukrainian Jews and heightened their concern over the government’s commitment to democratic values.
“These are not my heroes,” Zissels, the head of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jews, told JTA during a recent interview. “They’re being honored not for anti-Semitic crimes, but for their fighting for Ukrainian independence against Russia. And still I don’t like the naming of streets after them, which has divided Ukrainians and Ukrainian Jews.
“Unfortunately,” he added, “most Ukrainians do like it and the Jewish minority, or any other ethnic minority, should not interfere with the choice of the Ukrainian people as they name their national heroes.”
Speaking out against this trend, Zissels said, “can and will serve Russian propaganda.”
Nearly all of Ukraine’s mainstream political Jewish groups share Zissels’ unease over the veneration of Bandera and Shukhevych. During the war, the two served as leaders, respectively, of OUN and UPA, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Their men butchered thousands of Jews and Poles, including women and children, while fighting alongside Nazi Germany against the Red Army and communists.
Unlike Zissels, however, other leaders are willing to publicly denounce this trend as Jews.
Last month, more than 20 Ukrainian Jewish groups published a statement harshly condemning the state’s honoring of UPA and OUN leaders. Such efforts, they said, are a form of “Holocaust denial” that erases “from our shared history the tragic pages connected with the anti-Semitic activities” of the militias. Zissels’ Vaad did not sign the declaration.
The salutes for these militiamen and others in Ukraine is occurring amid similar debates across Central and Eastern Europe. Fear of Russian aggression, nostalgia and, at times, naked anti-Semitism are inspiring similarly nationalistic gestures in Hungary, which is rehabilitating figures like the Nazi collaborator Miklos Horthy; Lithuania, where the pro-Nazi former ruler Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis is treated as a national hero, and other countries.
But the issue is especially volatile and disconcerting to Jews in Ukraine, a binational state that is home to Europe’s second-largest Jewish population.
Venerating pro-Nazi and anti-Soviet leaders heightens tensions between the ethnic Ukrainian majority and ethnic Russian minority in a politically unstable country suffering an economic crisis. Ongoing fighting in the east between government troops and Russian-backed rebels only adds to the sense of doom. Jews prefer not to be caught between a government that rewrites the past and a Russian antagonist that claims to act in the name of anti-fascism.
During and after the revolution, anti-Semitic incidents have remained rare in Ukraine, where on average only 20 have been reported in recent annual tallies — a total similar to the one recorded in neighboring Russia and a fraction of the annual count in Western European countries with comparable Jewish communities such as France and the United Kingdom.
Ukraine also has a Jewish prime minister, Vlodymir Groysman, who is widely popular.
But “the concern here is that in post-revolution Ukraine, these murderers serve as the cornerstone for a new national narrative,“ said Boruch Gorin, an Odessa-born Chabad rabbi who serves as the chairman of Moscow’s main Jewish museum and editor in chief of the Jewish weekly L’Chaim.
“Now Ukrainian officials are explaining away the UPA’s anti-Semitic nature,” he said. “But in the future, it will come to light, it will be quoted and it will, inevitably, mainstream anti-Semitic hate.”
Eduard Dolinsky, the director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a critic of the government’s honoring of UPA and like-minded groups, sees “a clear connection between initiatives to honor Bandera and his kind, and other forms of disrespect of the Holocaust.” He noted a traveling zoo being set up recently on a Holocaust killing site in Kovel, 260 miles northeast of Kiev, despite preparations in the capital to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Babi Yar massacre by the Nazis and local collaborators.
In a further twist, the honors conferred on Bandera — who was killed by the KGB in 1959 — and other nationalists with a dark past are popularizing theories that Jews in Ukraine were murdered not only because of their race or religion, but as payback for their presumed support for communism and complicity in Soviet crimes, Dolinsky warned.
“Astonishingly, this false narrative is being helped by some Jewish organizations,” he added, referring to Tkuma, Ukraine’s only Holocaust museum. Located in the eastern city of Dnepropetrovsk, the museum in recent years has explored such sensitive themes as Jewish participation in – and suffering from — communist repression against Ukrainians.
Igor Schupak, a Jewish Ukrainian historian and the director of Tkuma, defended the discussion of such subjects, saying they help bring closure to issues connected with Ukraine’s bloody wartime past.
Schupak, like Zissels, maintains that honoring Bandera is “the right of the Ukrainian people.” He also said he thinks it “necessary to speak about the participation of Jews in the implementation of mass repression in 1930s along with the Ukrainians, Russians, Latvians, etc.”
Zissels, who lost one uncle to the Nazis and another to communists, called it “inappropriate” to look into Jewish complicity in Soviet crimes because “communist repression was based on ideology, not ethnicity.”
Notwithstanding, Zissels said he has lived much of his life “on streets named after communist torturers and killers,” some of whom were anti-Semites.
While many Ukrainian Jews do not like this fact, he added, it did not prevent Ukraine “from becoming a country where Jews are visible and successful in every industry and sector of society.”