“Silence is complicity in crime” – Ukraine’s chief rabbi talks Russo-Ukrainian war

24 March, 07:45 PM
Moshe Reuven Azman, Ukraine's chief rabbi (Photo:Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)

Moshe Reuven Azman, Ukraine's chief rabbi (Photo:Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)

The New Voice of Ukraine spoke with Moshe Reuven Azman, Ukraine's chief rabbi, about Israel's cautious policy toward the Russian war against Ukraine and in condemning Russia's war crimes.

Brodsky's Central Synagogue in Kyiv now resembles a volunteer headquarters. It is bustling with people and activity: vehicles drive up to a building that dates back to 1898, and men bring boxes with humanitarian aid.

NV agreed on an interview with the "head" of the synagogue — the chief rabbi of Ukraine Moshe Reuven Azman — through Facebook.

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The rabbi is now very active on social networks: he posts appeals or even short reports from the scene. He recently shared a video from Anatevka, a Jewish village in the Kyiv Oblast, near which shelling was reported.

"What's happening? Why is the press coming here? The New York Times and The Washington Post was here before you today,” a man with a machine gun, who is checking documents at the entrance to the synagogue, inquired.

 The media's attention is now drawn to the fact that on March 20, President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Israeli Knesset, criticizing the lack of sanctions against Russia.

 NV discussed this with the rabbi as well. We also talked about the inner life of the synagogue, which has become one of the centers for the reception and evacuation of refugees in Kyiv.

On top of that, Rabbi Azman passionately spoke of his attempts to “dezombify” brainwashed Russians, and what he thinks about the "denazification" carried out by Russians in Ukraine.

 - On February 24, a great war came to Ukraine. Where were you at the time?

 - I was in Anatevka — it is our Jewish town. We have a hotel, institutions, a school there — this enabled us to accept many people at once, hundreds of people who fled the war.

 - Did people flee from neighboring villages?

 - They fled from Kyiv and Kyiv Oblast. It was from Anatevka that we started sending convoys of buses and private cars to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova, and from there people were moving on. My wife, children, and grandchildren were in Anatevka at that time. Then they started firing heavily there, not far from Stoyanka, Bilohorodka and Irpin. By the way, there was an orphanage in Irpin, which we supported. When the hostilities broke out and the house could have already fallen, a man from the family who lived there (I don't even know what happened to him now), took a van, picked up the children there and – breaking through the fire – left.

 We continue to evacuate people from all over Ukraine.

 We also deliver humanitarian aid to the elderly who need it. Assistance was delivered to hospitals, and maternity hospitals.

 We brought first aid backpacks from Israel, they are in high demand. One backpack contains everything you need to save lives and provide first aid to the wounded. I bought the first batch at my own expense. It sold out instantly, I didn't even have time to bring them to Kyiv. Now I want to buy an even bigger batch because it really does save lives.

- Recently you had refugees from Chernihiv in the synagogue. Where did they go?

- The last group came on Friday [March 18] – they arrived here in the evening before curfew, we put them up. These are not only Jews, but also Ukrainians, Russians, everyone. These are people who escaped from hell. They went to the synagogue and said: we haven’t been warm for a week or two, we were cold, we got warm for the first time. I'm not saying it's very warm here, but it was warm for them. People say they haven't eaten for three days. We fed them. They were all in shock. I tried to talk to people and even joke, to entertain them. I said we had humanitarian aid with pineapples. I brought them pineapples, I said now there will be restaurant food. I tried to be a psychologist and bring people out of shock. I sang to them and distracted them from bad thoughts. People slept, and then the next day we fed them and put them on buses. We had a very warm farewell. This was the largest group of refugees yet – 300 people. Some people were bedridden and could not walk. They were taken away by ambulance.

 The worst thing is when people come and ask: where should we go next? We take them to Chisinau, and then it is up to them who goes where. People ask: where should we go? To western Ukraine or where? Not only did people leave tragically with practically nothing, but they still have so many trials ahead of them.

To show the world: the chief rabbi of Ukraine revealed that he records interviews with people who survived the horrors of war (Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV)
To show the world: the chief rabbi of Ukraine revealed that he records interviews with people who survived the horrors of war / Фото: Oleksandr Medvedev/NV

A week ago I was in both central and western Ukraine, I was in Chernivtsi — the city has already tripled in population, there isn’t a bed to be found. And so I realized that I didn't know what to say to people. I would tell them — go there, but thus you take responsibility for the person. So I say: we took you out, we will take you to a safe place, you will be met there by volunteers, I hope they will help. But where to go next — decide for yourself. I can only bless you.

People recounted the great tragedies they saw with their own eyes. I interviewed some of them on my phone — those who agreed. It is very important to show the world the crimes of the Russian army and what is happening. I filmed these interviews myself, so nobody could claim they were edited out for television. It was heartbreaking to listen to what these people had to tell. Like a surgeon, I crafted a heart of stone to bring this truth to the world.

- When Russia started the war against Ukraine, they justified it by claiming “denazification” and the fight against the “Nazis.” What have you got to say about this?

- Before World War II, Hitler also spread something like that. They now just rebranded themselves. In my address to the Russians, I asked: Whom are you denazifying? Russians who are also not waiting for you here? The Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv, which did not come out to meet you with flowers? Or Jews? I am a Jew, a rabbi, born in Leningrad. Whom and from what are you saving [us]? You drove people out of their cities.

 For example, here's a story of one old lady — Rachel, 92 years old. I talked to her in Anatevka. In 1941, as a girl, she jumped into the last [carriage], was pushed in there by someone, and thus she escaped the Holocaust. Then she fled from the German army. And now she was fleeing Ukraine from Russia. At 92! I learned a few days ago that she had finally arrived in Munich, where she had a daughter. And she died there. She died fleeing a second time. The whole world should know this story.

I turned to the Russians. I believe that they are accomplices in the crime, those who allow themselves to be deceived. Where on Earth did you find Nazis here? It is so disrespectful to yourself to get deceived by those Kiselyovs, Solovyovs and other fascist agitators. I would not call them fascists if I did not see them bombing peaceful cities and peaceful people, dropping bombs on them. Bombs fall all over the place, missiles, howitzers, Grads, Uragans are shot, and whatever else they have there. People stood in line for bread, they were fired upon, they all died. People saw houses destroyed with direct hits right before their eyes. What is this? These are war crimes, they warrant global Nuremberg Trials.

- In Kyiv, the TV tower on Dorohozhychi was shelled, next to Babyn Yar…

- The TV tower stands in Babyn Yar. The fact that the projectile hit the TV tower means it has already hit Babyn Yar. It bounced off the TV tower and hit the territory of Babyn Yar, because everything around it is Babyn Yar. This is very symbolic. And in Kharkiv, a rocket hit the roof of a synagogue. They allegedly set out to liberate someone, but they only bring destruction. Whom are they liberating? The refugees from Chernihiv who came here? They have lost their homes, they do not know where to go next, they are suffering.

 These Russian occupiers must liberate everyone from themselves, the entire cultural world of civilization. I kept silent until I saw that these were war crimes that must be stopped at all costs. With my addresses, I mostly target the Russians, hoping to “dezombify” those brainwashed zombies.

- Is there any reaction? People showed me correspondence with Russian relatives – they do not believe in what is happening in Ukraine. For example, a sister writes to her brother that she is being bombed, but her brother does not believe a word she says.

- It’s their fault that they do not believe it. The German people, when they were told that there was Babyn Yar, they also refused to believe it. Either they didn't believe it, or they were zombies. Even after the war, they still can’t wash themselves clean, can’t complete the lustration, putting on sack-cloth and ashes.

It is sad that this is happening for the second time. Under Stalin, "enemies" were shot, then the next in line. The fact that they [the Russian regime] have not been cleansed is a big problem. As well as the fact that the Communist Party was not tried for all Stalin's crimes and atrocities.

- Then why do you address the Russians?

 - There are Russian Jews, many of whom are also brainwashed. But some people started calling me and sympathizing, they started to open up. I believe that they need to open their eyes, the more they open, the faster they will stop. I explain that everyone who is silent now, who is not protesting, is responsible for complicity in the crime.

 - You are staying in Kyiv. There is also shelling here, the remnants of a rocket strike somewhere almost every night. Didn't you consider moving to a safer place?

 - I believe that a person should be where he should be. To be frank, I evacuated my family far away – to Israel. Until I evacuated my little grandchildren, and I had many of them, while they were under fire, I could neither eat nor drink. When they left, I was no longer scared. You see that you are needed here, that there are people left here who need help and have morale lifted. If they see that the rabbi has left, it would mean things have turned sour. The reason I’m not leaving Kyiv and Ukraine is that I want to make it clear that everything will be fine.

 - There is a lot of criticism of the state of Israel in Ukraine right now: visa-free travel for Ukrainians has been abolished, and it is not reacting sharply enough to Moscow's military aggression. What can you say?

 - Concerning the visa regime. I signed a letter – more than 80 famous Jews signed it and so did I – asking them to rectify the situation.

 On the one hand, I understand Israel. Israel is in a difficult situation, it is fighting for its own existence. Putin is blackmailing Israel with Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran. It's all complicated. But I said: give us the Iron Dome [Israel's famous air defense system] missile defense – this is about the defense and protection of civilians. This is not an offensive weapon. Israel refuses to give it because Putin is pressuring them in this respect too.

 - And whom did you ask for the Iron Dome?

- Almost every day, I speak on Israeli television, on the radio – I was open about everything in prime time, on central television. I said Putin disregards your opinions regardless. Russia votes against Israel at the UN. Putin receives all sorts of enemies of Israel – Hamas, Hezbollah – he claims that those are his friends. I disagree with the status quo, but I am not the Israeli government.

When people leave Ukraine and are hesitant about where to go, I tell them right away: don't try to go to Israel. Israel is not ready to accept refugees, even Jews have problems. I solve problems here on a daily basis, people call me and complain about bureaucracy. I advise them to go to Europe, who are ready to receive people there now.

I hope that the war will end very soon and all people will return to Ukraine. Without realizing it, Putin united the people of Ukraine, the whole people, absolutely everyone, different nationalities and religions. I think that Ukraine will be rebuilt and will probably become one of the most successful states.

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