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Putin says he’ll ‘denazify’ Ukraine. Its Jewish president lost family in the Holocaust.

Days before taking office in 2019, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky put flowers on the grave of his Jewish grandfather, who fought the Nazis in World War II. (Facebook/Volodymyr Zelensky)
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Days before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky assumed office, he made a trip to his hometown of Kryvyi Rih. There, he visited a cemetery and laid flowers on the grave of his grandfather, Semyon Ivanovich Zelensky, who fought in the Soviet Union’s Red Army during World War II.

It was May 9 — Victory Day in Ukraine — and a day of “thanksgiving,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

“[Semyon] went through the whole war and remain[s] forever in my memory one of those heroes who defended Ukraine from the Nazis,” he wrote. “Thanks for the fact that the inhuman ideology of Nazism is forever a thing of the past. Thanks to those who fought against Nazism — and won.”

This touching statement would seem strange this week if one were to believe Russian President Vladimir Putin’s pretext for invading the country. One of the goals of the “special military operation,” as he called it, was to “denazify” Ukraine.

Putin says he will ‘denazify’ Ukraine. Here’s the history behind that claim.

The claim is ridiculous on its face. Not only is Ukraine’s leader Jewish, many of his relatives were killed by Nazis in the Holocaust.

In January 2020, during the commemoration in Israel of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Zelensky told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu two stories of some of his country’s bravest heroes during the war: a Crimean Muslim woman and a Catholic priest who each saved scores of Jewish children.

Then, he said, he had one more story “about a family of four brothers.”

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“Three of them, their parents and their families became victims of the Holocaust. All of them were shot by German occupiers who invaded Ukraine,” he said. “The fourth brother survived. … Two years after the war, he had a son, and in 31 years, he had a grandson. In 40 more years, that grandson became president, and he is standing before you today, Mr. Prime Minister.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Feb. 24 that he remained in the country despite being “target No. 1” for Russian forces. (Video: Reuters)

In an interview with the Times of Israel the same month, Zelensky said his great-grandfather and his grandfather’s three brothers all fought in the Soviet army that but his grandfather was the only one to return home.

A grandmother escaped in an evacuation of Jews to Kazakhstan, he said. She returned to Kryvyi Rih after the war and became a teacher. Zelensky said he grew up in an “ordinary Soviet Jewish family,” which was to say, not very religious, since “religion didn’t exist in the Soviet state as such.”

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial and Museum on Thursday condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying Putin had “misrepresented and misappropriated Holocaust history.”

Putin cites ‘genocide’ in Ukraine. He’s right: Jews were slaughtered there 80 years ago.

The Holocaust entered a new phase in 1941 with the invasion of Eastern Europe, including Ukraine, the museum said. Rather than ship Jews to concentration camps, mobile squads of Nazis began killing Jewish men, women and children in places like Babi Yar, where more than 33,000 were shot to death, their bodies dumped in a ravine.

More than 1 million Jewish Ukrainians were killed during the Holocaust.

As president, Zelensky has overseen name changes to many old Soviet monuments and street names to those of Ukrainian heroes, including Ukrainian Jews. A new Holocaust Memorial Center at Babi Yar was expected to open in 2023.