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Zelenskyy shares emotional moment with U.S. veteran at D-Day ceremony

SAINT-LAURENT-SUR-MER, FRANCE – JUNE 6: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska arrive at the official international ceremony to mark the 80th anniversary of D-Day, at Omaha Beach on June 6, 2024 in Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, France. Normandy is hosting a variety of events across significant sites such as Pegasus Bridge, Sainte-Mère-Église, and Pointe du Hoc, leading up to the official commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landing on June 6. (Photo by Jordan Pettitt – Pool/Getty Images)  (Pool)
By Orlando Mayorquín New York Times

The emotional exchange was broadcast on large screens to applause from the thousands who had gathered at Omaha Beach in Normandy, France, on Thursday to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings. And then it swiftly reverberated across the internet.

An American World War II veteran in a blue cap, seated in a wheelchair with a blue blanket draped over his lap, was introduced to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“You’re the savior of the people,” the veteran, Melvin Hurwitz, 99, of Frederick, Maryland, told Zelenskyy after pulling the Ukrainian leader into an embrace. “You bring tears to my eyes.”

“No, no, no you saved Europe,” Zelenskyy responded.

“You’re our hero,” Hurwitz, whose identity was confirmed by a great-niece, Sarah Hurwitz Robey, said moments later, as Zelenskyy knelt next to him for a photograph.

“No, you are our hero,” Zelenskyy replied.

The moment captured a worldwide audience that had cast its attention to the Normandy beaches and to the Americans who clambered ashore there June 6, 1944, helping to turn the tide of World War II after five years of conflict. Those who are still living are in their late 90s or older than 100 now.

As the spotlight shone on those men, there was something remarkable about one veteran expressing similar admiration for the Ukrainian leader, who is leading the resistance to a modern-day invasion. Their embrace mirrored a connection that President Joe Biden made explicit in his remarks at the ceremony, in which he cast the allied effort to repel the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an extension of the battle for freedom in Europe that unfolded on Normandy’s beaches eight decades ago.

“We know the dark forces that these heroes fought against 80 years ago,” Biden said, addressing a crowd of thousands, including 180 surviving veterans of the D-Day operation, near the graves of 9,388 American service members.

“They never fade,” Biden added. “Aggression and greed, the desire to dominate and control, to change borders by force – these are perennial. The struggle between dictatorship and freedom is unending.”

Hurwitz Robey said she first learned about her great-uncle’s meeting with Zelenskyy from a friend who sent her the video on Thursday. She said Hurwitz was in Normandy on behalf of the Best Defense Foundation, a nonprofit group that organizes battlefield reunions for World War II veterans.

According to the foundation, Hurwitz was assigned to the U.S. 8th Air Force and served as a radio gunner on a B-17, a massive bomber known as the Flying Fortress.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.