BARAKHTY, Ukraine — He was a quiet man who attended temple regularly, Rabbi Moshe Azman told NBC News last week as he stood next to Zoreslav Zamojskij’s coffin.
“I don’t understand why they killed this guy,” Azman said in the Jewish cemetery on a hill in Barakhty, a picturesque village around 30 miles south of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. Amid panoramic views of the countryside, he then recited funeral prayers and together with a handful of mourners helped to lower the casket and fill the grave with earth.
It was a sorrowful occasion for Azman on April 15, the first day of Passover, when Jews traditionally celebrate the liberation of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt.
He was barely able to contain his anger about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that his forces were liberating Ukrainians “subjected to bullying and genocide,” and the invasion was launched to “denazify” the country and its leadership.
“I said many times. We here in Ukraine don’t need denazification,” he said. “Because we are here in a free country, free religion.”
Azman, a Russian speaker who was born in the Russian city of St. Petersburg, added that the invasion reminded him of stories he studied in his school days about the persecution of the Jewish community in Europe by Nazi Germany.
“Now I see the Russians doing it. I can’t believe my eyes,” he said.
Zamojskij, who Azman said had no living relatives, was 44 when he was killed in Bucha, a small town on the outskirts of Kyiv that was held by Russian forces for five weeks until it was liberated by Ukrainian soldiers earlier this month.
Before his death, he posted a series of updates on Facebook describing the sounds of intense battles around his home as he hid underground. His last post, March 4, said: “It’s quiet in the street. Only sometimes lonely explosions in the distance. Tanks and other equipment have long gone in an unknown direction. What will happen at night only God knows.”
Images that shocked the world have since emerged from the town’s streets and homes after the Russian retreat. Some photographs showed bodies in civilian clothes lying on blood-stained pavements, some with their hands tied behind their backs. Ukrainian officials estimate hundreds of civilians were killed in Bucha, and they have accused Moscow of committing war crimes there.
Jewish burial authorities said Zamojskij, a journalist, had been shot multiple times and that his body bore signs of torture. NBC News has not been able to independently verify this claim.
Russia has denied it targeted the town’s civilians and has accused Ukraine of staging the alleged atrocities to discredit its army — a claim that angered Azman.
“The Russians said that’s fake, but what’s fake?” Azman said, adding that Zamojskij “was killed while Russian forces were there.”