Poland’s president has pulled out of an event in Israel to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz after being told he would not be allowed to speak at the event, but Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, would.
The move comes amid anger in Poland over Putin’s recent comments accusing Poland of complicity in the start of the second world war. It is one of a number of disputes that is threatening to overshadow the anniversary events later this month.
On 27 January, more than 100 Auschwitz survivors will travel to southern Poland for a day of commemorations at the site of the sprawling network of extermination and concentration camps, on the anniversary of the date in 1945 that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army. It is the last significant anniversary at which a large number of survivors are expected to be alive and well enough to attend.
Four days earlier, an event titled Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism is planned at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial on the western slope of Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. More than 45 heads of state and world leaders are set to fly in for the ceremony, which will include orchestra performances and Jewish mourning prayers. The organisers hope it will lead to a firm plan of action to combat rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial.
Instead, the buildup to the event has been hit by controversy.
“It turns out that the presidents of Russia, Germany and France – whose government collaborated with Nazi Germany at the time – will speak, but the organisers do not agree to a speech by the president of Poland,” Andrzej Duda said in a television interview on Sunday. “I absolutely do not agree to this.” On Tuesday, his office announced he would not take part.
Błażej Spychalski, a spokesman for Duda, told Polish news outlets that “a situation in which the president of Poland will sit and listen to the false words of President Putin without being able to reply is unacceptable”.
The Russian government has recently launched a campaign to whitewash the Soviet Union’s 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany and subsequent invasion of Poland, and instead claims Poland was partly responsible for starting the second world war.
In a statement, Yad Vashem said it had never received an official Polish request for President Duda to speak, a claim denied by Marek Magierowski, Poland’s ambassador to Israel, who said that both Yad Vashem and the Israeli authorities had known about “the conditions for the participation of President Duda” for at least four months.
Yad Vashem also rebutted comments from Duda that he should speak because Poland was the country that had the most citizens murdered at Auschwitz.
“It is important to note, that out of 1.1 million victims of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, some 1 million were Jews who were murdered simply because they were Jewish, unrelated to the countries of origin. Hence, the nationalities of the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau have no bearing on the identity of leaders who will address the Fifth World Holocaust Forum,” said the statement.
Relations between Poland and Israel have been strained in recent years, with accusations that the nationalist government in Warsaw wants to play down instances of Polish collaboration in the Holocaust.
Last February, the acting Israeli foreign minister, Yisrael Katz, said that “Poles suckle antisemitism with their mothers’ milk”. In response, the Polish prime minister, , accused him of racism and pulled out of a planned summit in Jerusalem.
Daniel Blatman, who teaches Holocaust studies at the University of Jerusalem and is chief historian at a new museum of the Warsaw ghetto in Poland, said he understood Duda’s decision to pull out of the event.
“I can understand that a representative of Russia should speak at the anniversary, since it was the Red Army which liberated the camp. But why should the president of France speak, when the French government deported 30,000 Jews to Auschwitz, but not the president of Poland?”
As well as the international disputes, concern has also been raised about how the event will play inside Israel, where a new election to break political deadlock is due in March.
While the country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, and prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will address the forum, the head of the opposition, Benny Gantz, had a request to speak denied.
Israeli media reported that Gantz’s party, which is hoping to topple the prime minister’s ruling Likud party in the March election, was concerned Netanyahu would use the podium to promote his political agenda.