I met a year ago with Illia Samoilenko, an officer in the Azov Brigade, which for three months kept the Ukrainian city of Mariupol from falling into Russian hands. We were buried 50 yards below ground, speaking in a maze of galleries that were once atomic shelters under Azovstal’s old steel mill. Ammunition and rations were running low. The cold rooms where they kept the dead had lost power. The severely wounded moaned in silence, awaiting the final assault.
In Vladimir Putin’s delirious telling, their persecution was normal and just. He claimed the brigade was filled with neo-Nazis whose termination would liberate Ukraine from its worst elements. That was one of the pretexts for Russia’s invasion. In truth, these men took inspiration from—and modeled the bravery of—one of Judaism’s most legendary battles.
Mr. Samoilenko told me that neither he nor his comrades harbored the slightest doubt that they would die, but they believed it was better to die standing than to live on their knees. If their deaths could slow the advance of Russian troops, he added, they wouldn’t have been in vain.
In this desperate and heroic resistance, I heard the echo of Europe’s past: the siege of Troy, Leonidas the Spartan defying the powerful Persian army, the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the time of Charlemagne, Madrid in 1936, the Warsaw Ghetto and more.
But Mr. Samoilenko had another image in mind: first-century Masada, where in the Judean desert Roman legions besieged hundreds of Jewish soldiers entrenched behind the high walls of a limestone fortress, opposing the occupier with a magnificent resistance that remains part of the annals of the Jewish people.
There are two significant differences between Masada and Azovstal. The walls of the former were built on a rocky outcrop. With its subterranean galleries and trenches, Azovstal was practically the inverse. Once the resistance fighters of Masada understood that the battle had been lost, they chose to die by their own swords. The men formed a human chain in which each would stab his neighbor—with the last turning his blade on himself. In Azovstal the men received and, resentfully though honorably, obeyed orders to surrender.
Still, in Mr. Samoilenko’s view, it was the same heroism. It was the same bitter joy at the idea that the act of resistance inflicted on the enemy a narcissistic and strategic defeat. It was the same calm, stoic acceptance—devoid of useless rhetoric and with no hint of sacrifice—of inevitable death. And it was the same fundamental choice before the order to surrender, first explained by historian Flavius Josephus : to deny an unworthy enemy the pleasure of killing you with his own hands.
All this is what Mr. Samoilenko came to Israel to say when—thanks to a prisoner exchange—he was liberated in September 2022 by Donetsk separatists who had, by some miracle, spared him. And it’s what the Israelis themselves kept repeating during that visit, initiated by the Israeli Friends of Ukraine, the Nadav Foundation and a group of Israel Defense Forces reservists: “Azovstal is our Masada.”
Far too many Americans and Europeans are taken by the Putinist propaganda that the brigade harbors some strain of neo-Nazism. More precisely, too few take the trouble to listen to researchers such as Vyacheslav Likhachov who have shown that since 2015 the unit has purged any questionable elements who may have indulged the far right in its earliest years.
That’s why I’m happy to recall that conversation from a year ago.
So is Holocaust descendant Volodymyr Zelensky, who on Feb. 24, 2022, had neither tanks nor apparatchiks with which to confront the giant. In the face of Goliath the Philistine and the invasion, he could find nothing to oppose it save for the intelligence of his courage and the power of his strategy. His fight finds parallels in the Hanukkah story: in Judah Maccabee’s stunning victory of weak over strong, humble over arrogant, and over the false brilliance of the profaned temple, where a small lamp continues to flicker. In much the same way as the Jews overcame the Seleucid Empire in the second century B.C., Mr. Zelensky has for 14 months kept at bay an army believed to be one of the world’s most powerful.
If today there is, outside of Israel, a place where the values of Jewish heroism live, it’s Ukraine.