“If Hitler didn’t kill me for being a Jew, then Putin would kill me for being a Ukrainian.”


May 10, 2024

The Jerusalem Post


Roman Shvartsman is no stranger to evil. The energetic 87-year-old Ukrainian survived the Holocaust, making it no trivial matter when he compares Russian President Vladimir Putin to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, nor when he draws parallels between Ukraine’s fight against Russia and Israel’s war against Hamas.

“If Hitler didn’t kill me for being a Jew, then Putin would kill me for being a Ukrainian,” Shvartsman said Monday.

The chairman of the Odesa region Association of Jews – Former Prisoners of Ghettos and Concentration Camps sat in his office, surrounded by certificates of public service, records of the Holocaust survivors his organization aided, and a neat little collection of potted plants. He is one of the 198 Odesan survivors in his organization, all impacted by the war.

The association is supported by Chabad, the Joint Distribution Committee, and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ), which provide meals, medicine, and social support for the survivors so that they can weather yet another war. IFCJ provides aid for more than 26,000 survivors in the Former Soviet Union as old World War II battlefields see fighting renewed.

“Putin had almost managed to kill me at the end of the year 2023, in December,” Shvartsman said.

There had been a Russian rocket attack. His building had no bomb shelter, and he had to go down the stairs into the basement to wait in the cold for hours. When he emerged, all the windows of the building had been blown out, with shards of glass littering the lawn. Dust choked him. A school and church were damaged by the barrage, and a building 200 meters from his own had been torn open. If he hadn’t gone to the basement, he would have been killed, he said.

“The situation was terrible,” Shvartsman said through a translator.

When asked if the war had reopened wounds for Holocaust survivors, his voice quavered and his lips trembled. This needed no translation.

“Yes,” he whispered.

Shvartsman was born in Bershad and was four and a half years old when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa in 1941, breaking the Nazi-Soviet pact.

“I remember almost everything,” he said.

His father, Mordechai, was mobilized, and his eldest brother had been drafted two years prior. His older brother would later die in Leningrad. His mother was left alone to rear the remaining eight children. She was told by his father to watch over the children as best she could.

When rumors reached them of the Nazi extermination of Jews, they attempted to flee. A convoy of Jews left Bershad, but the Nazi war machine followed. Shvartsman recalled how they hid in a cornfield as Messerschmitt fighter aircraft strafed them, killing those who failed to conceal themselves. In the end, the perilous journey was for naught; the Nazi forces had already occupied the territory ahead, and they turned back to Bershad.

The Nazis soon reached Bershad and created a ghetto, forcing the Jews to live inside. There was one entrance, guarded by a Romanian soldier, who would allow them out only if they had been contracted into a forced labor job. It was during such slave duties that Shvartsman’s brother Yosef was murdered. He fell into a river when replacing a plank in a wooden bridge worn out by German military traffic. A Romanian soldier thought he was trying to escape, and shot him. Yosef was buried in a trench dug in the Jewish cemetery.

Food was scarce for the Jews. They were allowed potato peels and other leftovers from the preparation of the Romanian garrison’s meals. When his brother Lazar tried to take horse feed from a stable, a Romanian soldier hit him in the chest with his rifle, leaving the survivor with breathing problems for the rest of his life. When the Red Army finally liberated them in 1944, they were so thin and weak that they couldn’t greet the soldiers, Shvartsman said.

Putin has evoked the Red Army’s fight against the Nazis as part of his justification for the invasion of Ukraine, saying he sought the territory’s denazification. Shvartsman vehemently rejects this idea.

“In January 1942, the Wannsee Conference was held, a meeting of leading Nazi political and military leaders, who agreed on the final solution,” he said. “Putin is working like a mirror. On January 24, he also gathered top officials and military leaders and decided to destroy the Ukrainian nation and people.”

While casting Putin as Hitleresque, Shvartsman saved some harsh words for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who he said evolution hadn’t finished with and was stuck as an orangutan.

While casting Putin as Hitleresque, Shvartsman saved some harsh words for Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who he said evolution hadn’t finished with and was stuck as an orangutan.

Shvartsman further scoffed at the idea of denazification, saying there were many ethnic groups in Ukraine, but they all were welcome under the blue and yellow banner of the country. He denied that there was antisemitism in the country, “because I’m a man who survived Soviet antisemitism.”

He and his family had faced systemic discrimination under the Soviet regime because they were Jews, denied access to professions, and pressured to change their names and hide their heritage,

Shvartsman said. Some “activists” had come to him to demand that his Holocaust memorials be changed from Russian to Ukrainian, but he didn’t pay them any mind, he said.

Shvartsman said he wished the marches and some of the events his association had organized for survivors and the non-Jewish righteous among the nations would become the responsibility of the government.

Shvartsman remains fiercely patriotic despite such disagreements. He spoke at the Bundestag, urging them to lend Ukraine their aid, which he claims was instrumental in influencing Germany to support Ukraine.

“Give us the iron, we will defend the world,” Shvartsman said he told Germany. “If Putin wins, he will continue to conquer all of Europe.”

The Holocaust survivor derided the inaction of organizations such as the UN, which he said had no right to exist because it had failed to prevent evil actions like those of Putin and Hamas.

Shvartsman’s daughter, granddaughter, and great-grandchildren live in Israel, and he expressed great worry and anger over Hamas’s massacre on October 7. He spoke of Hezbollah, Hamas, and Putin in the same breath, with the same fire.

“We need to follow the example of Israel in the way that they are destroying Hamas,” Shvartsman said. “We need to go until the end to destroy the current Russian regime.”