Among the 2,500 people who marched to Auschwitz-Birkenau this year as part of the March of the Living were Ukrainian refugees from the war in their homeland.
The April 28 event, which culminated in the traditional two-mile trek between the Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau camps near Krakow, Poland, is in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
It was not clear how many Ukrainians participated, but their inclusion in what is seen as a lifechanging moment for young Jews is appropriate.
Appropriate because Ukrainians today – Jew and non-Jew, two to three generations removed from the Holocaust – are now facing a genocide of their own.
This is a fact that the Jewish world – the entire Jewish world – must embrace.
What we are witnessing in Ukraine is the clearest example of good versus evil the world has seen since the Holocaust. There is no gray zone here. Vladimir Putin, and the Russian soldiers and sailors who are doing his bidding, are the bad guys. They are committing crimes against Ukrainians, murdering them, laying waste to their country.
The impact of these crimes reaches beyond Ukraine’s borders, wreaking economic hardship around the world and food shortages that will gnaw at the poorest countries first.
Putin and his military are the bad guys here. That should not be in dispute.
Now, what do we do with this realization?
First and foremost, Jews must be on the right side of history. In that area, we can do better.
Three weeks ago, I sat in on a lecture by Gil Hoffman, senior political correspondent for The Jerusalem Post. He spent much of his time extolling the achievements of Israel – the Abraham Accords, COVID response, and the humanitarian response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.
All good points, but even this veteran reporter had to admit that Israel’s response to the invasion has been muted at best.
Israel, Hoffman said, is aware that both Russian and Ukrainian communities live in Israel and that Russia maintains a formidable military presence in neighboring Syria, which could pose a problem should the Israeli Air Force be forced to conduct operations over the border against Iran and its proxies.
Therefore, according to Hoffman, Israel had chosen to confine its condemnation to the United Nations and play the role of mediator in the war.
“Let us be Switzerland, Hoffman said. “It looks good, it feels good, maybe, to the world, and brings us respect.”
But he conceded that not being “overtly” on the right side in this war could be a bad look for the country.
So far, there are no signs that mediation efforts by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett have yielded results. As of this writing, Russia has failed to guarantee another civilian corridor out of Mariupol, and it has bombed railway stations immediately following the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
While Israel wasn’t born of the Holocaust, as some have said, many survivors – several from Auschwitz-Birkenau, the destination of the March of the Living – transplanted their lives there, making the cruelist genocide in history a rooted part of the Israeli memory.
Israeli and diaspora Jews have a moral obligation to be on the right side of history during this struggle. Afterall, we are witnesses to man’s inhumanity, which comes with responsibility.
Thankfully, Israeli leaders are speaking out more forcefully on Ukraine since the reports of civilian killings in Bucha and other areas near Kyiv. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who could become prime minister next year if the governing coalition holds, has even condemned the killings as a war crime.
The March of the Living is more than a march; it’s a reminder. Jews must be the strongest of opponents to genocide whenever it occurs, no matter the cost or danger. It goes with the territory of being witnesses.
(Lee Chottiner is editor of the Jewish Louisville Community.)