Shimon Zelensky was a Ukrainian Jew whose father and three brothers were killed by the Nazis. Shimon survived the war and raised a family of his own. His grandson Volodymyr is the current president of Ukraine and the final line of defense against Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s military aggression.
Volodymyr Zelensky was born in 1978 in a Russian-speaking area of eastern Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. His parents worked in computer science and engineering; STEM fields provided one of the few career opportunities for Jews in the USSR.
Always ready with a quip or funny impression, Volodymyr entered a comedy contest at age 17 and was invited to join a well-known entertainment troupe. He dreamed of being a famous comedian but perhaps due to pressure from his Jewish parents (“You want to do what??”), Volodymyr attended law school. However, his heart wasn’t it it and he never practiced law, instead creating the popular comedy act Kvartal 95, which toured throughout Eastern Europe in the early 2000’s.
In 2008, Volodymyr was cast as the romantic lead in the feature film “Love in the Big City,” which was such a massive hit that it spawned two sequels. He starred in several other romantic comedies, produced content for TV channel Inter, and dubbed the voice of Paddington Bear for Ukrainian audiences. He even competed on Dancing with the Stars. Volodymyr is married to Olena Kiyashko Zelenska, a successful screenwriter, and together they have a son and a daughter.
Volodymyr’s most famous role was on the popular TV show, “Servant of the People,” in which he played a high school teacher whose rant against corrupt politicians goes viral and propels him into the presidency. In a case of life imitating art, Volodymyr decided to go into politics himself in 2018, telling the German publication Der Spiegel that he wanted to bring “professional decent people to power” and “would really like to change the mood and timbre of the political establishment.”
In 2019, the TV star launched his campaign for president of Ukraine, pledging to reform political corruption and stand up to powerful oligarchs. Going up against incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, Volodymyr bypassed the mainstream press and communicated with the public through social media and YouTube. He described corporate-owned media as “just doing PR” for the Poroshenko regime.
To the surprise of many, Volodymyr won the 2019 election in a landslide, becoming the first Jewish president of Ukraine. Jewish history in Ukraine is complicated. For centuries there were thriving Jewish communities throughout the region, but also horrific pogroms. In 1941, the Nazis occupied Ukraine and murdered most of the Jews there, almost a million souls. Most were executed by killing squads and thrown into mass graves. One of the worst mass murders of Jews during the Holocaust took place at Babi Yar in Kviv, when 33,771 Jews were massacred over two days in September 1941.
In recent years, Ukraine has experienced a dramatic rebirth of Jewish life. With approximately 350,000 Jews, Ukraine has one of the largest Jewish populations of any country in the world – and the only Jewish leader outside Israel. There are 200 Chabad Houses in 35 cities and towns. Tens of thousands of Jewish men converge on Uman for Rosh Hashanah every year in tribute to the great Rebbe Nachman who is buried there. Ukraine seems to have less antisemitism than many other European countries, and Zelensky’s Jewish identity did not prevent him from winning 73% of the vote.
In 2021, Ukraine’s powerful neighbor Russia started building up their military at the border. Rumors grew that President Putin planned to invade the country. On January 19, 2022 Volodymyr released a video message urging Ukrainian citizens not to panic. He challenged the media to provide “mass information rather than mass hysteria” and appealed to Western leaders to tamp down the rhetoric.
By February, as a Russian invasion looked increasingly likely, Volodymyr was urging Western nations not to appease Russia but instead help secure Ukraine. Right before the invasion, on February 24, he recorded a message asking citizens of both countries to pressure their leadership not to go to war. He strongly refuted Putin’s claims that neo-Nazis were serving in the Ukrainian government, a bizarre accusation against Volodymyr, considering his family history.
As Russia attacked Ukraine, Volodymyr continued to stand strong. Unlike the hapless president of Afghanistan, Volodymyr did not flee the country, even though he was Putin’s top target. The Biden administration offered to evacuate Volodymyr from Ukraine, to which he responded, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Nobody knows what’s going to happen in Ukraine, but people around the world are inspired by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s courage under pressure and determination to resist Putin. Some are comparing him to Winston Churchill and his popularity in Ukraine is soaring. Writer Peter Fox called Volodymyr “an inspiration to short Jews everywhere.”
For his strong leadership and bravery in the face of tyranny, we honor Volodymyr Zelensky as this week’s Thursday Hero. May peace come immediately to Ukraine and the world!
Photo credit: Irina Yakovleva/TASS
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