Hands of Grief & Defiance: Volodymyr Zelensky gestures to the world

War is always a tragic catastrophe…especially for Jews in the Ukraine.

Scholars estimate about 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 Ukrainian Jews died during the Holocaust.

Most were murdered by Nazi firing squads, often aided and abetted by both Ukrainian paramilitary personnel and civilians. Most of the executions of Jewish mothers, fathers, children, and the elderly were in plain sight of their Christian neighbors.

Like many American Jews, I have family connections to these "blood lands". My maternal grandmother's family fled Odessa around the turn of the 20th century for Chicago. My paternal grandmother's family fled Berdychiv (about 90 miles outside of Kyiv) at around the same time to farm in North Dakota.

None of them ever looked back.

There was no sentimentality about the "Old Country" or what they were leaving. There was no concerted effort by my elders to transmit the Yiddish language or stories of their lives in the Ukraine to their American-born progeny.

When my grandparents occasionally spoke Yiddish (the common  language of Eastern European Jews) in front of the grandchildren, it was to make sure that we did not know what they were saying.

When I see the Ukrainian-Jewish comedian and TV personality Volodymyr Zelensky heroically leading this historically anti-Semitic nation against an unprovoked invasion by a brutal Russian Army, I am astounded and inspired… but not fooled.

Zelensky is a historical fluke. Being a widely popular television celebrity confers political influence that can lead to power—as in case of Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.

The Ukrainians want advanced American and Israeli military weapons now, as well as so-called "Jewish Influence" on their nation's behalf with both the American and Israeli governments later down the road. 

The mainstream U.S. media estimates about 5.4 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the Russian invasion over two months ago. How many Ukrainians have actually died at the hands of the Russian army is unknowable during a time of active conflict and massive media warfare.

At this point, plausible fatality estimates range from 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 3,000 civilians to several times that. But it appears unlikely that the present combined military and civilian death toll surpasses 30,000 out of a total population of 41,000,000.

A historical perspective is important when looking at the current war.

Approximately 6,850,000 Ukrainians died during WWII (with about 1,650,000 being soldiers). Previously, in 1932-33, an estimated 3,900,000 Ukrainian peasants were intentionally starved to death by Russian dictator Joseph Stalin. He was trying to both collectivize their small family farms and destroy their national identity and culture.

In a televised and digitally dominated 21st century world, the war in Ukraine is made deeply resonant to hundreds of millions people across the globe. We can empathize with the suffering of brave, freedom-loving, and innocent Ukrainians being bombed, shot, raped, and tortured.
In America we are saturated with these horrific images and voices of carnage in a 24/7 news cycle.

War is hell…

But it is a much smaller hell than in times past for both Ukrainian Christians and Jews.

What appears most dangerous and alarming to me is the obvious lesson from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Namely: nations without nukes are at the mercy of nations with nukes.

It is important to remember that the Ukrainians voluntarily gave up their substantial nuclear arsenal about 30 years ago to Russia in exchange for a written non-aggression treaty.

This historical folly is apparent to all—even to a layman like myself.

It motivates countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to get the bomb no matter what price must be paid. A nuclear “umbrella” is essential for both national sovereignty and survival in today's world. 

And, it motivates both Germany and Japan to seriously re-evaluate their public posture regarding nukes. It is widely assumed that both nations could produce them at a moment's notice if the perceived need arose.

China and Taiwan are getting a stark crash course in the permeability of national boundaries in an era no longer dominated and mediated by an all-mighty American military and economic colossus.

This brief video that I produced on grief and defiance is nominally about Prime Minister Zelensky and Ukraine.

But it is really about human resilience in the face of state-sponsored aggression and oppression.

And the precarious place it leaves all of us.