Russia-Poland historical feud clouds Auschwitz anniversary
WARSAW, Poland — Over the next several days, world leaders will gather twice to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of Nazi Germany’s death camps.
That there will be two competing ceremonies — one in Jerusalem on Thursday and the other at the Auschwitz site in Southern Poland on Monday — underlines how politically charged World War II remains as nationalist governments in Russia and Poland seek to use their own interpretation of the past for contemporary political gain.
Leaders at both sites, joined by elderly survivors, will pay tribute to the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust. Yet the commemorations risk being overshadowed by a bitter dispute between Poland — where Nazi German occupiers operated Auschwitz and other infamous camps — and Russia, the successor state to the Soviet Union.
“I am afraid this will not help the commemoration of the Holocaust,” said Dariusz Stola, a Polish historian and former director of the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Such commemorations, he said, should ideally be a moment “for the present to serve the past.”
“Now the past is serving the aims of current politics,” he told The Associated Press.
Ahead of Thursday’s ceremony in Jerusalem, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored world leaders assembled for a dinner at his official residence to “leave history for the historians.”
“The role of political leaders, of all of us, is to shape the future,” he said.
Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945. But the country had also signed a nonaggression accord with the Nazis shortly before the war began in 1939, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. It contained a secret protocol in which the totalitarian powers agreed to carve up Eastern Europe.
Two years later, Germany turned on Kremlin leader Josef Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, bringing the Soviets into the war on the side of the Allies. Millions of Red Army soldiers lost their lives in the eventual defeat of Adolf Hitler’s Germany.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to shift wartime blame to Poland over anger that historical memory in the West has begun to focus more on the Soviet role in triggering the war and less on its role in defeating Germany.
The Russian historical moves have outraged the Polish government, which believes Putin’s main motive is to weaken Polish influence in the European Union. Warsaw is one of the strongest supporters of maintaining sanctions on Moscow for its annexation of Crimea and has also been fighting a planned Russian gas pipeline. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused Putin of lying deliberately to deflect from his own failures, including a ban on Russian athletes over doping.
At the same time, Poland has come under criticism for allegedly minimizing the role its own people played in helping Nazi occupiers kill Jews.
Putin and other Russian officials have been claiming that Poland — which was invaded in 1939 by German and Soviet forces — actually bears blame for starting the war. Western historians see those allegations as a cynical ploy to minimize Soviet responsibility as Moscow today seeks to glorify what is known in Russia as the Great Patriotic War and more generally a Stalinist era that included mass killings of domestic opponents and suffering imposed on Eastern Europe during decades of communist rule.
In recent days, Poland’s government has defended the nation’s record, recalling how its wartime government-in-exile sought to save Jews, and listing cultural and economic damage that Poland suffered after Soviet troops took control of its territory at the end of World War II.
In drawing dozens of world leaders to the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, Israel had hoped to present a united front in commemorating the genocide of European Jewry and warning against the perils of modern-day anti-Semitism.
Instead, Polish President Andrzej Duda is boycotting the event at the Yad Vashem memorial because, unlike Putin, he was not invited to speak and wouldn’t be able to defend his nation’s historical record. Duda will preside at the Auschwitz ceremony, which Putin will not attend.
In an apparently related development, Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Tuesday that Lithuania’s president, Gitanas Nauseda, had “unfortunately” canceled.
Nauseda’s office said he was busy at the Davos economic forum and that Lithuania’s parliament chairman would represent the government in Jerusalem.
But the Lithuanian government last week voiced its solidarity with Poland and said it would work with Warsaw to resist Russian “lies.” Nauseda is attending next week’s ceremony at Auschwitz led by Duda.
In this Dec. 6 file photo, the sun lights the buildings behind the entrance of the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Oswiecim, Poland.