Russian President Vladimir Putin is obsessed with “denazifying” Ukraine. He has used the term often — in addresses to his people, in a recent conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, and in his initial justifications for war. When he announced his “special military operation,” Putin said, “Its goal is to protect people who have been subjected to bullying and genocide. And for this we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.”
Putin is clearly playing to Russians with long memories, of a time eight decades ago when Nazi Germany found eager collaborators in Ukraine. But the Nazi alliances formed by Ukrainians in World War II are old news. It’s offensive to suggest otherwise, not least because ultraright and antisemitic groups are rearing their heads throughout the world, including in Russia itself.
As a child of Holocaust survivors who came from different parts of what is now western Ukraine, I’m also obsessed with Ukraine. But my obsession is different from Putin’s; I want the world to learn from the violent past, not repeat it.
A family’s history
I grew up without grandparents, and I’ve been trying all my life to understand why. Seeking clarity, I visited then-Soviet Ukraine in 1984 with my father, traveled to newly independent Ukraine with my wife in 1992 and returned five years ago. Each time, I was welcomed warmly and given superb assistance in my search for answers, and in turn I have proudly helped young Ukrainian journalists and historians to confront their past.
And they are eager to do so. They know that Ukraine has a deeply uncomfortable history of collaboration with Nazi Germany and crimes that resulted from that collaboration. But that is not, as Putin would have us believe, the story of today’s Ukraine.
Now, as the war rages, my close ties with Ukrainians are rendered more precious by every Russian missile strike. My friends in Kyiv move their elderly parents to safer quarters, cower in basements and subways to guard their children, and take up arms to protect their freedom. As the path of death and destruction moves westward, threatening Lviv and Rivne, this war becomes more personal for me because I know those two cities particularly well. That’s because I’ve dedicated much of my career to documenting what happened there during the German occupation.
My mother, Halina Wind Preston, the daughter of a poor Hasidic watchmaker in the Carpathian Mountains, had a happy childhood in the town of Turka-nad-Stryjem, Poland (now Turka, Ukraine). She was barely in her 20s when she survived 14 months hiding with nine other Jews in the sewers of Lviv, a city that had been home to roughly 100,000 Jews. After the war, she was one of the first Holocaust survivors to speak publicly throughout the United States, eventually becoming Delaware’s spokeswoman for the victims and survivors.
She traveled to Jerusalem in 1977 to give the sole testimony that led to the Polish Catholic sewer workers Leopold Socha and Stefan Wroblewski and their wives being named “Righteous Among the Nations” for their rescue of my mother and the nine who survived with her. In 1981, a year before her death, she established a garden in front of the Jewish Community Center in Wilmington, Delaware, to honor Socha, Wroblewski and other Christians who had saved Jews. It was the first such memorial in the United States. My mother would have turned 100 on March 1.
My father, George E. Preston, was born Grisza Priszkulnik in 1914 in Rovno, a bustling Jewish cultural hub in what was then Russia and is now Rivne, Ukraine. A French-educated engineer, he survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald, then had a successful career with DuPont in Wilmington. I was 10 years old when my father traveled to West Germany to testify at the Auschwitz war crimes trials in Frankfurt. He died in 2006.
It is a fact that many Ukrainians collaborated with Nazi Germany. More than 1.5 million Jewish men, women and children were murdered in Ukraine during World War II by the Germans and their local collaborators.
After the war, Germany made a concerted effort to identify and remove from public life former high-ranking members of the National Socialist Party. Among other things, that led to the arrests and convictions at the Nuremberg trials. In some quarters, this process was known as “denazification.”
Meanwhile, the Soviets investigated the Nazi massacres. In Turka, my mother’s town, a five-member commission issued a report on “the crimes inflicted upon the population of the entire Turka region by the German fascist temporary occupants” — including the murders of 8,388 people, beginning in October 1941.
The report — which I found in 1992 in a Lviv archive — implicated numerous perpetrators, including a German lieutenant, SS soldiers, Turka city and regional police, Ukrainian nationalists and the Ukrainian mayor of Turka, Klimenty Pisanchyn, who the report says helped shoot 80 people at point-blank range on Oct. 12, 1941.
Beginning in 2014, when Putin took aim at Crimea and other regions of Ukraine, he began an orchestrated campaign to demonize Ukraine’s contemporary leaders. He chose the language of the past — labeling them as fascists and Nazis. It was the beginning of a propaganda effort that ultimately became part of his justification for war.
But the current Ukrainian government is neither fascist nor in any way associated with Nazi ideology. The president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, is Jewish, and several members of Zelenskiy’s family were killed during the Holocaust. “You are told we are Nazis,” Zelenskiy said on the eve of war. “How can I be a Nazi? Tell my grandpa, who went through the whole war in the infantry of the Soviet Army and died as a colonel in independent Ukraine.”
Why has Putin used these words — “genocide” and “denazification”? Historians will tell you it’s because the war against fascism and Nazism still resonates powerfully in Russia, a nation that lost 9 million soldiers in World War II. (The figure is more than double that when one includes civilian deaths.)
Putin’s rhetoric has been roundly rejected by historians. As of March 6, a “Statement on the War in Ukraine by Scholars of Genocide, Nazism and World War II” had been signed by 359 historians worldwide.
“We strongly reject the Russian government’s cynical abuse of the term genocide, the memory of World War II and the Holocaust, and the equation of the Ukrainian state with the Nazi regime to justify its unprovoked aggression,” says the statement, written by Eugene Finkel of Johns Hopkins University and Izabella Tabarovsky of the Kennan Institute. “This rhetoric is factually wrong, morally repugnant and deeply offensive to the memory of millions of victims of Nazism and those who courageously fought against it, including Russian and Ukrainian soldiers of the Red Army.”
The statement acknowledges the presence of right-wing extremists in Ukraine — recently the Azov regiment, a fringe element in the country’s national guard, has gained notoriety for its neo-Nazi sympathies — but says these groups in no way justify Putin’s words or actions: “Like any other country, [Ukraine] has right-wing extremists and violent xenophobic groups … none of this justifies the Russian aggression and the gross mischaracterization of Ukraine. At this fateful moment we stand united with free, independent and democratic Ukraine and strongly reject the Russian government’s misuse of the history of World War II to justify its own violence.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose stepfather was a Holocaust survivor, made the same point to the United Nations. Russia was using the language of World War II to “manufacture a pretext for its attack,” he said. Putin, he said, was “making a mockery of a concept that we in this chamber do not take lightly, nor do I take it lightly, based on my family history.”
As for my family history, I live with an obsession.
My obsession with Ukraine has taught me that honoring the memory of the Jews who once lived there was not a priority until Westerners like me prompted a new generation of Ukrainians to begin asking questions.
My obsession led me in 1992 to film a farmer in a field outside Turka, my mother’s town, describing the massacre by Germans and Ukrainians of 880 Jewish men, women and children, which he witnessed as a boy of 16 on Jan. 8, 1942.
My obsession led me to go with my father in 1984 to the location of the old Jewish cemetery in Rivne, where his mother had been buried before the war. We did not find her grave: The Soviets had bulldozed the cemetery and put up a playground.
My obsession led me to go with my father to the woods outside Rivne, his hometown, to visit the spot where German death squads supported by local Ukrainian collaborators shot 23,500 Jewish men, women and children in three days in November 1941, including my grandfather and uncle. The Soviet Union (which Putin reveres) had done nothing to mark the site as a location of mass murder of Jews in Ukraine, second only to Kyiv’s Babi Yar in its magnitude. If not for the assistance of a Rivne Jew, we would not have found it, and once inside the rusted gates, we found bones and teeth. By contrast, an impressive memorial stands there today, erected by the Ukrainian city council.
And my obsession has spurred me to collect original photographs taken by German soldiers and to share them with reputable historians so that truth can be told.
Eighty-one years ago, Ukrainian nationalists in Lviv proclaimed an independent state — and sought to impress the Nazis by instigating violence against Jews, whom they considered their oppressors. In his independence proclamation, the Act of 30 June 1941, Prime Minister Yaroslav Stetsko wrote: “The renewed Ukrainian State will collaborate closely with National Socialist Greater Germany, which under the leadership of Adolf Hitler is creating a new order in Europe and the world.”
In his 1941 autobiography, Stetsko added a chilling coda: “I therefore support the destruction of the Jews, and the expedience of bringing German methods of exterminating Jewry to Ukraine.”
On July 1, 1941, one day after the Germans entered the city, local Ukrainians compelled Jews to clean the pavement outside the Lviv opera house on hands and knees while bystanders watched, some laughing. This sickening spectacle — photographed by an anonymous German soldier in a snapshot I obtained in 2002 from a dealer in Germany — became a prelude to mass murder.
“Judging by photographs, gentiles in Lviv found the Jewish cleaners amusing,” wrote the Ukrainian American historian John-Paul Himka of the University of Alberta, who has included the photo in his work. “To some extent, the pogrom was a carnival.” The carnival lasted days, with Jews forced to exhume bodies left buried in Lviv prisons by the retreating Russians. Many of the grim proceedings were preserved on movie film by German soldiers.
The next generation
Last year, I shared my footage with a team of young Ukrainian historians who had requested my guidance for a film about what happened to the Jews of Turka. They saw the tragedy as I had, as a microcosm of what happened to the Jews of Ukraine.
On Jan. 27 of this year, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, their excellent half-hour documentary, “Wordless,” in Ukrainian with English subtitles, included sections of my interview with the farmer and additional footage from my 1992 trip.
A little over a month later, on March 1, my mother’s birthday, a Russian missile landed near the Babi Yar memorial site in Kyiv. Five people were killed. There is no evidence that the Russians intended to hit Babi Yar, but one cannot help but ask: What sort of “denazification” effort includes an attack that endangers a memorial to Nazi-inspired terror?
If we truly want to “denazify” Ukraine, we do it by digging into the past, not by bombing it. The erasure of the Jews from the collective memory of Ukraine can be undone only by learning from the past, facing it truthfully, and finding a healthy and peaceful way forward. I know plenty of young Ukrainians who understand this.