A farewell to Boris Romantschenko – survivor of the Holocaust but not of Putin

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‘Ukraine war: Holocaust survivor killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv’ – the implicit horror of the headline was almost lost in the sheer welter of barbaric and tragic stories and images that filtered the BBC homepage. Another innocent live taken in a needless and evil war.

Almost. But this headline cut through the clutter. Who was this holocaust survivor? What was his story?

Let me tell you. His name was Boris Romantschenko. He was 96. His story ended in an apartment block in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where he was killed by Russian shelling.

Sometimes the impact of words gets lost amid the haste to take in information. Sometimes amid horror we get numbed to their power. So let me somewhat clumsily repeat them with the help of italics – killed by Russian shelling of his apartment block.

Like many more Ukrainians, Boris Romantschenko, a man who had survived the worst atrocity of the 20st century was slaughtered inside his home during what will come to rank as one of the worst of the 21st century. A home that had been a place of peace and safety for an old man in the twilight of his years until Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered the attack on Ukraine on 24 February.

The Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation, of which Romantschenko was Vice-President, said he had “worked intensely on the memory of Nazi crimes”.

“Boris Romantschenko survived the concentration camps #Buchenwald, #Peenemünde, #Dora and #BergenBelsen. Now he has been killed by a bullet that hit his house in #Charkiv, #Ukraine. He was 96 years old. We are stunned,” the organisation said in a Tweet.

Although not Jewish, Romantschenko was acutely aware of the unspeakable horrors inflicted on the Jewish people (and others, including Sinti and Roma, gay and homeless people, Jehovah’s Witnesses and ex-convicts) by the Nazis during World War II.

Having been rounded up by Nazi troops at the age of 16 after the invasion of the Soviet Union and deported to Germany in 1942, he was forced into hard labour.

After a failed escape attempt in 1943, Romantschenko was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp, the largest such facility in the German Reich. More than 56,000 people died there as the result of torture, medical experiments and consumption. Over 8,000 Soviet prisoners of war were shot to death in a killing facility erected especially for that purpose. I wonder if Putin knows that piece of history.

When the Americans reached Buchenwald and its subcamps in April 1945, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied Forces, wrote: “Nothing has ever shocked me as much as that sight.”

Memorably, Romantschenko returned to Buchenwald in 2012 to celebrate the 67th anniversary of the liberation of the camp by US troops. There he recited the pledge made by survivors to create “a new world where peace and freedom reign”.

Boris Romantschenko died in a new world. But one in which the very antithesis of the peace and freedom that he stood for reigned. This strongest and bravest of survivors deserved better than that.

Footnote: The Moodie Davitt Report has launched Travel Retail United, a fundraising campaign to help the Ukraine relief effort. We have added a Just Giving page to make donations simpler (they can be anonymous or named).