In New Battle Over Auschwitz Legacy, Poland Falls Victim to Holocaust Geopolitics

Forced to choose between offending Russia or Poland, Israel was always going to side with Vladimir Putin – which is why there will be two separate events marking the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in coming days

Anshel Pfeffer
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From left: Polish President Andrzej Duda, Moshe Kantor, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder.
From left: Polish President Andrzej Duda, Moshe Kantor, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder.Credit: "Shoah"/Francisco Seco, AP/Menahem Kahana, AFP/Yonatan Sindel, Flash 90/Mikhail Klimentyev via AP/Ronen Zvulun, AP/Loren Elliott, Reuters/Marc Israel Sellem
Anshel Pfeffer

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – January 27, 2015 – there was one main international event that drew world leaders and high-level delegations from 50 countries. Naturally, it took place on the actual site of the Nazi death camp in Poland. The focus was on the elderly Auschwitz survivors, hundreds of whom attended in two distinct groups which largely maintained their distance from each other.

They had been invited by the two entities organizing the event. Polish citizens who had been incarcerated in the camp were invited by the Polish government. Jewish survivors, who had been born and lived in countries throughout Nazi-occupied Europe before being transported to Auschwitz, were flown in from across the globe by the World Jewish Congress.

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Poland's then-President Bronislaw Komorowski, second right, pass under the German inscription "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will Set You Free) at the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz during the 70th anniversary of the death camp's liberation on January 27, 2015
Poland's then-President Bronislaw Komorowski, second right, at the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz during the 70th anniversary of its liberation on January 27, 2015Credit: AP

Throughout the event, it was clear – due to the order of the speeches and time allocated to representatives of groups and faiths – that it was both a joint and heavily demarcated ceremony of Poland and the Jews. Poland’s then-President Bronislaw Komorowski and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder both shared equal billing.

Hijacking the Holocaust for Putin, politics and powerCredit: Haaretz Weekly Ep. 57

One country was conspicuously absent: Russia, which claims the mantle of the Soviet Union whose Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau (though the USSR consisted of what are today 15 sovereign nations), boycotted the event.

In January 2015, tensions in Eastern Europe over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine the previous year were still at their peak. Poland, always suspicious of Russia and firmly rooted in the Western NATO camp, was hardly thrilled at the idea of President Vladimir Putin arriving at the commemoration not only of the camp’s liberation, but the start of a traumatic Russian occupation and over 40 years of Kremlin-dominated communist dictatorship. But Putin hardly wanted to feature in a Polish-run event either and, when he failed to receive a personal invitation, his spokesman announced that Russia would not be attending.

A wooden sign with the word "STOP: standing in front of what was an electric barbed wire fence inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz I, in Oswiecim, Poland, December 8, 2019.
A wooden sign with the word "STOP: standing in front of what was an electric barbed wire fence inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz I, in Oswiecim, Poland, December 8, 2019.Credit: Markus Schreiber,AP

A minor diplomatic spat ensued when Poland’s then-foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, said that it had actually been the Ukrainians who liberated Auschwitz. Technically, Schetyna wasn’t wrong. The units that liberated Auschwitz belonged to the Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front and were commanded by Ukrainian officers. But as far as Russia was concerned, this was “blasphemous and cynical,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it. Ultimately, most of the guests attending the remembrance event in Auschwitz were relieved not to have to face Putin there.

Guardian of Auschwitz’s legacy

Fast-forward five years and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau will be marked by two major events boasting delegations from around the world. The one taking place at the death camp on Monday will be hosted exclusively by the Republic of Poland and only Polish President Andrzej Duda will speak there.

Duda, however, will be notably absent from the parallel event being hosted by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem this Thursday, where Putin will be one of the main speakers at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center.

There are three competing parties to the legacy of Auschwitz: Russia, which claims to represent the Soviet liberators of the camp; Poland, where the camp is situated and which manages the historic site today (some 350,000 of those murdered at Auschwitz were Polish citizens, about 80 percent of whom were Jewish); and then there is the Jewish nation.

About 1 million Jews of many nationalities were murdered in Auschwitz: one out of every six Jews who perished in the Holocaust. Who represents them? Is it their country of birth (the largest number were deported from Hungary)? Is it Israel, the Jewish state, where many of Auschwitz’s survivors came to live after the war? Or are they represented by one of the large, transnational Jewish organizations whose dealings are opaque and can hardly be said to represent Jews today?

A visitor looking at an exhibition in front of a picture of the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020.
A visitor looking at an exhibition in front of a picture of the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020.Credit: AFP

The three governments involved all want the mantle of “guardian of Auschwitz’s legacy.” For Poland, Auschwitz is much more than a national symbol of the tragedy that befell it as a nation – the country where World War II broke out and which was occupied for five and a half long years. Sandwiched between its two former occupiers Germany and Russia, the suffering of the war years (and then communism) must be kept alive to bolster Poland’s standing as a NATO member, but also to justify its contrarian stance within a European Union dominated by Germany.

Today’s right-wing, nationalist Polish government has passed revisionist legislation prohibiting any mention of collaboration by the Polish people or state with their Nazi occupiers. Any mention of the pogroms carried out by Poles against their Jewish neighbors, and aid given to the Germans in rounding them up, are also suppressed. Nothing must be allowed to deny Poland of – at the very least – equal status to the Jews as victims.

Russia engages in its own form of historical revisionism. Unlike the rest of Europe, it dates World War II as having taken place between 1941 and 1945; the first two years, starting in 1939, are conveniently erased from official memory.

Over 80 years have elapsed, but Russia still does not want to be reminded of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the fact that not only did it sign a nonaggression treaty with Nazi Germany in August 1939, but that once the war broke out, it also invaded and annexed parts of Poland – meeting Germany’s Wehrmacht in the middle of the obliterated country and even joining them in victory marches. Only when Germany reneged on the pact in June 1941 did the Soviet Union become its enemy and immediately start rewriting history. Putin and the Kremlin’s vast propaganda network will portray the Red Army only as liberators, airbrushing out of Russian history the two years of collaboration with the Nazis.

Only in one respect is Putin any better than his Soviet predecessors: He is willing to acknowledge the Holocaust of the Jews. Under communism, there was little mention of the industrialized extermination of Europe’s Jews; they only existed as “victims of fascism.” Just like the Soviet leaders, Putin’s propagandists and useful idiots in the West continue to brand any rival of Russia – from Ukraine, through Poland and NATO in general – as “fascists.” Unlike them, Putin expects support for his narrative from the Jews and the Jewish state.

Israel currently has two Holocaust narratives. One is that of the Yad Vashem historians, the national custodians of Holocaust remembrance and research. It is a narrative that usually strives for historical objectivity and veracity, while putting Jewish suffering during the war and the story of Nazi anti-Semitism in the prewar years at the forefront.

Visitors walking under a replica of the "Arbeit macht frei" sign that was set at the entrance of the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem, January 20, 2020.
Visitors walking under a replica of the "Arbeit macht frei" sign that was set at the entrance of the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in JerusaCredit: AFP

And then there is the narrative that is politically and diplomatically useful to the Israeli government of the day. Benjamin Netanyahu may be one of the greatest exploiters of the Holocaust for his own political agenda, but he is by no means the first: Every Israeli prime minister, from David Ben-Gurion onward, has made use of a particular Holocaust narrative.

No choice

In 2015, Israel took its place at the main event in Auschwitz, sending a delegation led by then-Energy Minister Silvan Shalom. (In his previous post as foreign minister, Shalom had played a central role in getting the United Nations to recognize January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.) Israel wasn’t getting stuck between Poland and Russia – and there was only one main event anyway.

Much has changed in five years. President Barack Obama was still in the White House and the United States was more firmly behind its European NATO allies. Putin was relatively isolated and had yet to deploy his air force in war-torn Syria. That would happen seven months later, making him a key player in the Middle East. In addition, a Putin-friendly president has also come to power in Washington.

For years, Netanyahu tried to play both sides: cozying up to Putin, but also pursuing close ties with the like-minded nationalists in Warsaw. He even signed a declaration – criticized by Yad Vashem’s historians in a rare public statement – with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in June 2018, effectively whitewashing the collaboration of Poles with the Germans and inflating the rather underwhelming role played by Poland’s government-in-exile on behalf of the Jews during the war.

But it wasn’t enough. Last February, a throwaway remark by Netanyahu on Polish collaboration, followed by then acting-Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz repeating Yitzhak Shamir’s famous quote about how “every Pole suckled anti-Semitism with his mother’s milk,” caused a diplomatic furor with Poland that is still ongoing.

Israel would have liked Poland’s backing in the EU’s institutions. But if forced to choose between Russia and Poland, there was no question where its main interests lay. Meanwhile, there were other actors promoting the Kremlin’s interests.

This week’s international jamboree in Jerusalem is being co-hosted by the Israeli presidency, Yad Vashem and the European Jewish Congress. Despite its grand-sounding title, the European Jewish Congress is little more than the personal vanity platform of a little-known oligarch: billionaire Moshe Kantor (aka Russia’s “fertilizer king”), who has close ties to both Putin and Netanyahu.

Kantor is a rival of World Jewish Congress President Lauder and has made it his business over the last decade to criticize every European leader for not doing enough to combat anti-Semitism while lauding Putin, and bringing the worthies of Jewish communities to flatter him at the Kremlin.

While the World Jewish Congress was the main partner at 2015’s remembrance event, it has now taken a back seat and Lauder, once Netanyahu’s patron, is in the process of replacing the organization’s professional leadership.

Estranged from Netanyahu for the past decade – ever since he refused to force journalists at the Israeli television station he owned to desist from investigating the financial affairs of Israel’s “ruling family” – Lauder has relinquished the central role he once had in global Jewish politics. “Kantor was quick to enter the vacuum left by Lauder,” says one senior executive in a large Jewish organization. “Rivlin needed a big Jewish organization to put money into his international summit, and Kantor was there.”

Five years ago, Kantor tried to assist Putin by organizing a competing event to the one in Auschwitz. That event in Prague failed to garner much attention. This year, he has a much better venue in Jerusalem and, strangely, while Putin will be making a speech at Yad Vashem as leader of one of the liberating allied powers, Duda was notified that he would not be allowed to speak.

Duda and Lauder won’t be there; Kantor and Putin will. Also in attendance: Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Netanyahu’s current patrons and Trump megadonors, who put their free newspaper Israel Hayom at Netanyahu’s disposal. Coincidentally, the Adelsons and Kantor are Yad Vashem’s biggest individual donors.

To his credit, Rivlin did not want to find himself at the center of a row between Poland and Russia. But there are much bigger powers at play than him. The Israeli president just wanted the opportunity to host a major international forum. It’s not his fault that the presidency doesn’t have the budget to do so, and therefore has no choice but to find partners. His office tried to placate Duda by making him the only foreign leader to speak at the reception at the President’s Residence on Wednesday night, but the insult was too great.

Why would Putin and the representatives of the allied countries Britain, the United States and France be speaking at Yad Vashem, but not Poland’s? In an interview with Kan public television on Monday night, Duda said the place to commemorate Auschwitz is Auschwitz. And he has a point.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” William Faulkner famously wrote. And in the case of the Holocaust, the past is today’s geopolitics. Poland has once again lost out and Israel has been forced to take Russia’s side.

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