A plea for remembrance as Ukraine faces horror
The death of a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor in Ukraine by a Russian airstrike is beyond an unspeakable tragedy. It is a moment of deep reflection and a time to face a painful history.
Borys Romanchenko survived multiple concentration camps in World War II and devoted his life to ensuring the memory of Nazi crimes, serving as vice president of the Buchenwald-Dora International Committee.
Buchenwald was one of the worst of the notorious camps, one of the first such murderous sites established in Germany in 1937, in a Holocaust that would eventually steal the lives of 6 million Jews and 5 million others.
Romanchenko also survived the concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen during World War II, according to the Buchenwald Memorial. He faced death many times, and yet he lived on.
Currently, Ukraine has 10,000 Holocaust survivors, many of whom, according to The Blue Card, an organization that provides assistance to survivors, are “isolated, frail and … homebound.” These are men and women who saw the worst evil imaginable.
It is vital at this moment in Russia’s war against Ukraine that we pause and remember what the Soviet Union did to Jews during World War II and the decades that followed.
Up to 2.7 million Jews died during the Holocaust on occupied Soviet territory, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which says that the Soviet Union’s largest Jewish population lived in Ukraine on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Prior to World War II, some 3 million Jews lived in the Soviet Union — about one third of them were murdered in the Holocaust.
Please remember the history: Between 1939 and 1941, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies in a now infamous non-aggression pact (the Nazi-Soviet Pact). They jointly invaded Poland in 1939, destroying the country and killing off its intellectuals.
Stalin and Hitler were partners in evil in the run-up and first years of the war. Without their embrace of each other, World War II might never have happened.
Yes, the Germans changed their mind about Stalin, and invaded the former Soviet Union. And yes, the killing of Jews continued after the German army’s surprise invasion on June 22, 1941.
Russia has tried, at times, to re-write history and pretend that it was a liberator seeking freedom. The truth is that it was not until the Germans invaded the Soviet Union that Stalin changed his mind about Hitler. And while the Soviets did participate in the liberation of Auschwitz, they had ample time and responsibility to stop the construction of concentration camps, the destruction of Poland and the devastation of Europe.
And please never forget that Ukraine has faced a horrific past.
When I stood at Babyn Yar in 2012, I, like so many millions of visitors, faced history, looking down at the ravine where 34,000 Jewish men, women and children were gunned down in a Nazi massacre on the northern edge of Kyiv in September 1941 — the same place that Russian forces bombed early in the current war. I thought about how the Soviets were silent even when the guns were heard in that ravine.
And I think about this war, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, saying just weeks ago, after the Russian airstrike on Babyn Yar, “What is the point of saying ‘never again’ if the world stays silent when a bomb drops on the same site…”
I think of the “refuseniks” — Soviet Jews and dissidents who were denied permission to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s. I think of the blatant anti-Semitism that continued in the 1980s and beyond — the pogroms, the persecution and the protests.
We must never stop teaching our children about the history of Jews, and about the sinister relationship between what today is Russia and what was once Nazi Germany, and about the decades of Russian brutality against so many peoples in Syria, Chechnya and around the world.
And we must never stop thinking about Borys Romanchenko, who might have lived beyond his 96 years were it not for Russian aggression. We must remember.
Tara D. Sonenshine is professor of public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. She served as U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs in 2012.
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