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Poland protests Holocaust commemoration snub

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
January 12, 2020

In 1945, the Soviets liberated Nazi Germany's Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in occupied Poland. Russia, Poland and Israel are engaged in a diplomatic spat surrounding the 75th anniversary of this event.

Oswiecim: Auschwitz-Birkenau
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Schreiber

Israel will commemorate the end of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem, the country's central memorial site, on January 23. The speakers will include representatives of Britain, France, the United States and Russia, the four victorious Allied powers. Vladimir Putin will speak. Polish President Andrzej Duda was invited to attend but not to speak, and said that as a result he would not go.

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki on January 7, with Polish, NATO and EU flags behind them, Duda said he saw "no reason why representatives of Russia, Germany, France, Britain and the United States should be allowed to appear at such a place and on such an occasion, but not the president of Poland." After all, Duda said, millions of Poles — including Catholics, resisters and about 3 million Jews — were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Read more: Amazon under fire over Auschwitz 'Christmas ornaments'

Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz said Poland would send someone else to Jerusalem as Poland's representative, but has not announced who will go. "He will listen," Czaputowicz told the commercial broadcaster Polsat, "and he may also speak."

Read more: At Auschwitz, Angela Merkel expresses shame for Germany's crimes

On January 27, Polish will host the 75th anniversary ceremony of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp by Soviet forces. Putin will not attend. The row between Poland and Russia over responsibility for World War II has escalated.

Read more: Angela Merkel finds the right words during Auschwitz visit

At the end of December, Putin addressed the nonaggression pact between Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union divided up Poland and other countries between themselves. Putin said Poland bore partial responsible for World War II, calling Jozef Lipski, Poland's ambassador to Germany until 1939, "an anti-Semitic swine."

'Responsible or complicit'?

In 2018, Poland enacted its so-called Holocaust law, under which anyone who accuses "the Polish nation, or the Polish state, of being responsible or complicit in the Nazi crimes committed by the Third German Reich ... shall be subject to a fine or a penalty of imprisonment of up to three years." The law caused outrage in Israel. On the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, while the law was still being discussed, the Israeli ambassador in Poland said it would make it impossible to tell the truth about the Holocaust. She was addressing something that many people don't want to hear: In Poland, too, there were instances of collaboration with the Nazis, some of which are documented, as in the town of Jedwabne, where non-Jews carried out a pogrom against Jewish residents in 1941.

Read more: Poland's forgotten victims of Nazism

Nonetheless, at Yad Vashem it is Polish names that feature most prominently among the "Righteous Among the Nations," the non-Jews who risked everything to save Jews: Anyone helping Jews faced not only their own death but the murder of their entire family.

Read more: Angela Merkel makes first Auschwitz trip as German leader

The law was eventually altered, but the dispute contnues. "Poles suckle anti-Semitism with their mother's milk," Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in 2019. His ministry is involved in organizing the memorial at Yad Vashem, and it has been suggested that this may have played a role in Duda's decision to decline the invitation.

A few months ago, an article in the Polish magazine Kultura Liberalna posited that Poland and Israel essentially had a similar concept of the politics of history: "Both countries are competing with each other to emphasize their own suffering as unique."

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