Have We Learned Enough From History to Unite to Save Ukraine?

6 mins read


On March 1 the world heard reports that the grounds of the Babyn Yar memorial were hit by Russian bombs. Babyn Yar is the place where over 33,000 Ukrainian Jews were brutally murdered by Nazi forces in two days during World War II. 

In an era filled with cruelty, bigotry and death, Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv, stands out as a special kind of horror. On two days in September 1941, approximately 33,771 (per Nazi records) Jews were told to undress and line up in rows at the edge of the ravine. They were then forced to walk into the ravine where they were shot. The crowd was so huge that the people at the back didn’t realize what was happening until their turn to be murdered drew near, making escape nearly impossible. Wounded victims were buried alive in the ravine, along with the dead.

In total, between 100,000 and 150,000 people, including Jews, patients at a psychiatric hospital, residents of Romani camps and members of the Ukranian resistance were killed at Babyn Yar (also known as Babi Yar) during the Nazi occupation. Babyn Yar was also used as an execution site for Soviet prisoners.

The day after the Russians bombed this sacred place, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, made an appeal in Hebrew to the world’s Jewish population: “I am now addressing the Jews of the world: Don’t you see what is happening?” Zelensky asked. “That is why it is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent now. Nazism is born in silence so shout about the killing of civilians, of Ukrainians.” 

If we learned anything from previous wars, it is that being silent is never the answer. Another lesson we should take from WWII is that appeasement is not a solution. Germany, Great Britain, Italy and France signed the Munich Agreement, a pact which gave Hitler parts of Czechoslovakia in exchange for a promise of peace. A year later German troops invaded Poland, and the world was again thrust into war.

Western Europe and the United States are united in the desire to keep Russian president Vladimir Putin from emulating Hitler’s eastward expansion. While there have been calls for the institution of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, this is a dangerous option. The only way to enforce a no-fly zone is by shooting down planes that violate that space. It is easy to understand NATO’s resistance to potentially escalating the war by firing on Russian aircraft.

The US and other NATO countries are considering other options for aiding Ukraine. In a call with members of the US Congress, Zelenskyy made an urgent request for Russian-made planes. If Poland or other countries supply these aircraft to Ukraine, the US could replace the planes these countries have provided. The Biden administration has also discussed cutting the importation of oil from Russia. On March 5, 2022, Putin said the sanctions that had been thus far imposed are “akin to a declaration of war…”

So what can we do here in the US? We must be loud and tell our representatives that we support aid to Ukraine. We should encourage efforts to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter the country. In 1938 the US turned away the trans-Atlantic liner the St. Louis, which carried 937 (mostly Jewish) refugees from Germany. They were ultimately forced to return to Europe where many died during the war. Let’s make sure that the US welcomes today’s refugees from warfare and brutality, just as we should have welcomed refugees who were fleeing the Holocaust.

Philosopher George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In 1948 Winston Churchill slightly changed Santayana’s quote saying “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It is imperative that we learn the lessons of 20th-century history and do everything we can to ensure that Putin’s dream of a reconstituted Russian Empire fails. We have seen what happens when an autocratic leader sets his sights on Europe and beyond.

If you would like to contribute to organizations helping Ukrainians, here are a few suggestions:

  • International Rescue Committee – Provides supplies to displaced families https://rescue.org
  • World Central Kitchen – Chef Jose Andres’ organization which is feeding 1,000s of Ukrainian refugees https://www.wck.org
  • Ukrainian Red Cross – Collecting blood and providing emergency assistance https://redcross.org.ua/en/donate/
  • International Fund for Animal Welfare – Assistance for Ukrainian animal shelters and pets left behind by evacuating families https://www.ifaw.org

And, of course, please keep contacting the White House (202-456-1414), your senators (202-324-1212) and your congressmembers (202-324-1212) and let them know that you have learned from history. Stand up, speak out and shout “Never Again.”

1944 Photo by AP

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