In a corner of the Choral Synagogue in the western Ukrainian town of Drohobych, there’s a stark display of pictures detailing the bloody and tragedy-strewn history of the area’s Jewish community. One is especially horrifying: a black-and-white image of the corpses of four Jewish children killed by Nazis during World War II.
“If you take a close look, there are parallels with right now,” said Leonid Golberg, a 66-year-old member of the local Jewish Board, pointing to the image. “Russia is now doing the same things in Ukraine.”
Golberg is a senior member of the small, 40-member Jewish community of Drohobych, a town nestled in the rolling hills of Ukraine that grow into the Carpathian Mountains just a few miles further west.
The town used to have a far larger Jewish population. More than 12,000 Jews — 40% of the town’s population — were killed in mass shootings, by starvation in the Nazi-established ghetto, or transported to the Bełżec extermination camp, just one small part of the systematic genocide of Jews during the Holocaust. In Drohobych, only 400 Jewish people survived the war.
The people of Drohobych know about Nazis. Which makes it all the more appalling that Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed his invasion of Ukraine was meant to “de-Nazify” the country — a statement he reiterated on Monday.
On Monday, Putin delivered a speech at the annual Victory Day Parade on Moscow’s Red Square. During those remarks, Putin said a “clash with the neo-Nazis, the Banderites, backed by the United States and their junior partners, was inevitable.”
Putin also told Russians they were “fighting for the Motherland, for its future, so that no one forgets the lessons of the Second World War, so that there is no place in the world for executioners, punishers and Nazis.”
The claims may gain traction in the increasingly insular Russia, where the flow of information and news is becoming more restricted by the day. But nowhere remembers the lessons of the Second World War better than the town of Drohobych, the history of which lays bare the hypocrisy and deceit of Putin’s claims.
Far from learning the “lessons of the Second World War,” Golberg says Russia is repeating history, only on a wider scale. And, in an attempt to justify it, Putin is invoking claims about Jews that “the whole civilized world said was a red line crossed.”
“In the same way that Nazis killed 6 million Jews during World War II, they are destroying Ukraine as a state,” Golberg said. “They already killed over 300 children, they’re killing thousands of civilians and have destroyed whole cities.”
Golberg’s voice was raspy from a recent bout of COVID-19 and the half-hourly cigarette breaks he took as he showed HuffPost around the synagogue.
One of the photos on display is from 1939. It shows a Soviet officer shaking hands with a Nazi officer after the two sides met after their successful invasion and partition of Poland, a result of the secret pact Josef Stalin entered into with Adolf Hitler shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
A sign behind the two men reads “Drohobych,” pointing in the direction of the town just a few kilometers down the road from where they stand.
Ukraine’s geography blessed it with lands so fertile it’s known “the breadbasket of Europe,” but cursed it to repeatedly being at the mercy of larger and more powerful neighbors to both its east and west as they battled for power and influence in Europe.
Nazi Germany captured Drohobych in 1941 and decimated the town’s Jewish population.
Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov sparked outrage by claiming Hitler had Jewish blood and that Jews were complicit in their own genocide, adding: “For a long time now, we’ve been hearing the wise Jewish people say that the biggest anti-Semites are the Jews themselves.”
Despite Putin reportedly offering an apology for Lavrov’s remarks, Golberg remained incensed.
“Lavrov said what he said because it’s actually them that are the thieves and the criminals,” Golberg said. “What they’re doing here is not only genocide, it can be called Ukrainicide.”
After the Nazis were defeated, Drohobych and Ukraine fell under the Soviet sphere. The town’s Jewish community continued to be persecuted and the Choral Synagogue was appropriated by the authorities and used as a warehouse, falling into disrepair for decades.
Drohobych’s Jewish population is small, but proud. A huge renovation project starting in 2014 restored the Choral Synagogue to its former glory. It forms one part of a trinity of notable holy buildings in Drohobych, alongside the Eastern Orthodox St. George’s Church and the Catholic Church of Saint Bartholomew — a nod to the town’s multicultural heritage.
Golberg was baffled by the idea that the country in which he lives and practices freely as a Jew has been invaded by an army claiming to be fighting Nazism.
“They’re saying there are Nazis in Ukraine, but let’s look at the facts,” said Golberg. He noted the diversity of the Ukrainian army.
“Jews serving in the battalions of the Ukrainian army and Ukrainian territorial defense were celebrating Passover last month. Muslims in Kyiv celebrated Ramadan,” Golberg said. “So where is the Nazism?”
As HuffPost left the synagogue, Golberg was already busy with his next appointment: leading a free tour of the synagogue for displaced people who have recently arrived in Drohobych after being forced to leave their homes elsewhere in the country.
“The war has impacted everyone,” he said. “Before people didn’t really fully understand what was going on and what Russia is, but now it’s very different — everyone understands what Russia is, that there’s a war, that we have to fight until we’re victorious and until then we won’t have peace.”
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