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How the memory of Nazi atrocities has come to play a role in Russia's war

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

A Russian attack yesterday in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv caused damage near the memorial site of one of the biggest mass shootings of Jews during World War II. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem on how the memory of Nazi atrocities has come to play a role in Russia's war.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Babyn Yar, known in Russian as Babi Yar, is a ravine in Kyiv where German death squads shot about 33,000 Jews in just two days. The Soviet Union built a TV tower and other buildings there. It's the broadcasting infrastructure still in use that Russia apparently tried to knock out Tuesday.

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ESTRIN: Ukrainian authorities released footage of firefighters treading on glass in a mangled building.

RUSLAN KAVATSIUK: The building that we want to create there, a memorial for Holocaust in Eastern Europe, that building was hit.

ESTRIN: Ruslan Kavatsiuk, deputy director of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, speaking from Kyiv - he says none of the existing commemorative memorials at Babyn Yar was damaged, but the grounds of a former pre-World War II Jewish cemetery were hit. Israel's president says it symbolizes the ongoing tragedy of this current war. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, himself a Jew, seized on this symbolism in this video. His grandfather's brothers were murdered in the Holocaust.

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VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) I'm now addressing the Jews of the world. Do you not see what is happening here? That is why it's important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent now. Nazism is born in silence.

ESTRIN: The trauma of World War II resonates in nearly every Ukrainian and Russian family. Today, many Ukrainians say Russian President Vladimir Putin is the new Hitler. Putin's stated reason for invading Ukraine is, quote, "denazification" of Ukraine.

OLGA TOKARIUK: Propaganda is very often based on the little grain of truth to make it more credible, you know, and to make it more difficult to debunk.

ESTRIN: My colleague, Tim Mak, spoke with Olga Tokariuk who's in Kyiv. She researches Russian disinformation and says Putin's Nazi myth is drawn from the actions of some Ukrainian nationalists in World War II.

TOKARIUK: They briefly aligned with Hitler at the beginning of the war because they hoped that Hitler will help them to support and to achieve independent Ukraine.

ESTRIN: Those groups became disillusioned, and some of their leaders were eventually persecuted by the Germans.

TOKARIUK: But, you know, it was enough to give origin to this myth of Ukrainians as Nazi sympathizers.

ESTRIN: Like many other countries, including Russia, Ukraine has a small fringe of neo-Nazis. Some joined the 2014 Maidan protests in Kyiv. Some volunteered to fight Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. But they are not represented in Ukraine's government.

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ESTRIN: Here in Jerusalem, I met a Jewish Israeli man, Shlomi Azran, who pulls up a photo on his Facebook feed - allegedly a man in Ukraine holding a swastika banner.

SHLOMI AZRAN: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says, "We have history with this nation. There is still Nazism. They don't repudiate those people." For that reason, he says he won't cry if Putin topples Ukraine's leadership. Historian David Silberklang, with Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, addresses Putin's claim about Ukraine's government.

DAVID SILBERKLANG: They're not racist. They're not officially anti-Semitic. They're not planning a genocide against any people, nor have they planned any kind of aggressive acts against any other people and calling them Nazis is a shared, cheap propaganda and a trivialization of the Holocaust.

ESTRIN: Nor, he says, is Vladimir Putin Adolf Hitler. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.