Ukraine is so poignant for us. It has become a cohesive and independent country, full of all the creative and scientific wonders that nationhood offers, and which western societies have taken for granted for decades. It resonates with us. And suddenly — here it comes again. The one man, the driven, narcissistic, demonic personality.
Israel succeeded, is alive and largely flourishing. It is a beacon to the world in so many ways, recognised or not.
But there is genuine fear that Ukraine will succumb to Russia’s relentless war machine, that whatever happens, Mariupol is laid waste, millions have fled, Kiev remains encircled, and people hide in basements, starving and terrified, not daring to flee.
I can’t help but draw comparisons between Israel and Ukraine, led by the indefatigable President Volodymyr Zelensky. A man of Jewish descent, he reflects the character of Mordechai Anielewicz, the heroic leader of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, who was nicknamed “little Angel” (Aniołek).
The final destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto and the deportation of the remaining Jews began on 19 April 1943, the day before Passover and Hitler’s birthday. Anielewicz and his co-leaders used guerrilla tactics, a network of tunnels, bunkers and roofs to help many Jews survive for months. Earlier, on 22 January, he wrote to “the Jewish masses in the Ghetto: “On January 22, 1943, six months will have passed since the deportations from Warsaw began — six months of life in constant fear of death, not knowing what the next day may bring. We have received information from all sides about the destruction of the Jews — in Germany, in the occupied regions. When we listen to this bitter news we wait for our own hour to come, every day and every moment. Today we must understand that the Nazi murderers have let us live only because they want to make use of our capacity to work to our last drop of blood and sweat, to our last breath. We are slaves, and when slaves are no longer profitable, they are killed”.
On 7 May, the Nazis breached the bunker. It is assumed that Anielewicz died the following day, alongside his girlfriend, at his command post, surrounded by Nazis. His body was never found and is believed to be buried in the ruins of the bunker beneath the debris of 18, Mila Street — a site that is memorialised today.
It isn’t just similarities between the spirit of Zelensky and Anielewicz. Israel grew out of the embers of the Holocaust; heroes like Anielewicz, honoured throughout the country he unknowingly fought for, symbolise courage and belief in what is right.
He did not see the birth of Israel. Had he lived, he would almost certainly have had a hand in its development. In some spiritual way, he surely had.
Whatever future awaits Ukraine, the unfathomable cruelty to which that beautiful country has been subjected can never be truly left behind. Will the tearful little girl saying goodbye to her father outside the train see him again? Will those who flee the country ever be reunited with their families?
From these tragedies will emerge an arsenal of another kind; music, art and literature, full of a nation’s pain. For our own instincts, we hear it in the words of writers like Aharon Appelfeld or Amos Oz; songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan; composers like Gustav Mahler, forced by circumstances to abandon his Judaism, who never saw his ancient land reclaimed. Can you listen to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony without hearing the anguish of dislocation?
Then there are the artists: David Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre, Mark Gertler’s Merry Go Round, the evocative sculptures of Roman Halter and others who depicted the Holocaust; people like Shmuel Dresner, held prisoner in Buchenwald and Terezin, who took on the struggle of expressing his experiences through a visual language. Or my own mother’s cousin, Petr Kien, the martyred Terezin artist whose self-portrait shows him with his artist’s hand broken by the Nazis. Or the grieving figures of Edith Birkin, incarcerated in Bergen-Belsen. Shakespeare said the evil that men do lives after them. Worse, it lives eternally in the psyche of those to whom that evil is done.
When I look at the terrible images of Ukraine today, I see the birth of a new, unending anguish, something not even the greatest art can truly reflect.
It is something that will grow and endure, long after Putin and his warlords have been consigned to the darkest pages of the history books.