May 9 marks Victory Day (Den' Pobedy) in Russia and the former Soviet Union. Veterans of what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War” dress up in their military regalia and march together with their former comrades-in-arms to celebrate the victory of the Red Army over Nazi Germany. The sacrifices that Soviet soldiers made in the Great Patriotic War were staggering: approximately eight million Soviet soldiers lost their lives fighting for their motherland. Among the many soldiers who heroically fought the German invaders were about half a million Jewish soldiers. They were fighting not only to defend their motherland, but also to avenge the murder of their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters.
AHEYM has interviewed numerous Jewish veterans over the years, many of whom have shared their wartime experiences with us on tape. The pride they feel in their achievements are palpable; and the respect and admiration they have earned should be limitless. However, Victory Day celebrations in Ukraine have become contentious. Many veterans seek to memorialize Victory Day by marching under the Hammer and Sickle — the flag under which they defeated Nazism. Others, mostly younger Ukrainians, view the Soviet period as an occupation, and bristle at the idea of honoring the Red Army, which wiped out their dreams of establishing an independent Ukrainian state. Since it is often the Jewish veterans who feel most strongly and unambiguously about the Red Army victory over Nazi Germany, the scuffles that sometimes break out during Victory Day parades can take on an anti-Semitic tint. Some Ukrainian nationalists view the Hammer and Sickle as an offensive symbol, akin to the Nazi swastika. For others, the Soviet flag is precisely the symbol that liberated Europe from the swastika.