Israeli President in Poland: Many Poles Aided in Murder of Jews

Polish President tells ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz 'we know well the truth about what was happening here'

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Poland's President Andrzej Duda and President Reuven Rivlin attend a wreath-laying ceremony, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of  Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on January 27, 2020. 
Poland's President Andrzej Duda and President Reuven Rivlin attend a wreath-laying ceremony, marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of  Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland on January 27, 2020. Credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/ REUTERS
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

President Reuven Rivlin said Monday that while many Poles fought against Nazi Germany, "many ... aided in the murder of Jews," according to an official transcript of the remarks he made while in Poland to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda and attend a ceremony marking 75 years since the liberation of Auschwitz.

Rivlin met with Duda, who had boycotted the International Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem after his demand to speak was denied, in Krakow ahead of the ceremony in Auschwitz.

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The meeting came against the backdrop of tensions between the two states over the historical memory of Polish involvement in the Holocaust during WWII.

>> Explained: In battle over Auschwitz legacy, Poland fell victim to Holocaust geopolitics

Speaking at the official ceremony in Auschwitz, Duda said "We, in Poland, know well the truth about what was happening here since it was recounted to us by our compatriots who had camp numbers tattooed on their bodies by Germans."

He stressed the genocide was "perpetrated here by the functionaries of the Nazi Third Reich" and targeted "Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war – but first and foremost Jews."

Poland "was the first target of Nazi Germany's aggression," Duda added.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda walks along with survivors through the gates of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27, 2020.
Poland's President Andrzej Duda walks along with survivors through the gates of the Auschwitz Nazi concentration camp in Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Zofia Optulowicz, the daughter of Polish World War II resistance leader Witold Pilecki, attend a ceremony at Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27, 2020.
Poland's President Andrzej Duda and Zofia Optulowicz, the daughter of Polish World War II resistance leader Witold Pilecki, attend a ceremony at Auschwitz in Oswiecim, Poland, Jan. 27, 2020.Credit: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

"Distorting the history of World War II, denying the crimes of genocide and the Holocaust as well as an instrumental use of Auschwitz to attain any given goal is tantamount to desecration of the memory of the victims whose ashes are scattered here," he said. "The truth about the Holocaust must not die."

Ahead of their meeting, Rivlin and Duda laid a wreath at a statue of Witold Pilecki, a Polish resistance hero who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz, authored the first major comprehensive report of a Holocaust death camp to reach the Allies, and escaped in 1943 before ultimately being executed by the Soviets in 1948.

The day of remembrance is held annually on January 27, and this year it marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Rivlin took part in the ceremony marking the anniversary, which included remarks by Duda, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, World Jewish Congress President Ron Lauder, and head of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum head Piotr Cywiski, as well as camp survivors.

"We remember that the Polish people fought with courage against Nazi Germany, but we also remember that quite a few of the Polish people stood aside and even aided in the murder of Jews,” Rivlin said. Rivlin mentioned the thousands of Poles who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, the “Righteous Among the Nations,” but added these people "were few, too few." 

Regarding Polish responsibility during the war, Rivlin said: "Nazi Germany was the one who initiated, planned and carried out the genocide of the Jewish people in Poland, as well as in other places, and it bears full responsibility for its actions.” But, he added, “We also remember, in great horror, that it received significant aid in its murderous actions throughout all of Europe, and this too requires accepting responsibility.”

Following the meeting with Rivlin, Duda addressed his decision not to attend the World Holocaust Forum in Israel. Duda protested the fact that Poland was not included among the list of countries that had fought against the Nazis in the video shown at the beginning of the ceremony at Yad Vashem. He added that he believed the event was biased because of the involvement of the European Jewish Congress, which is headed by Moshe Kantor, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I understand that the ceremony was organized by the private foundation of Mr. Moshe Kantor, who is, in addition, bound by ties of friendship and acquaintance with the President of Russia Vladimir Putin. As you know, there was a serious exchange of views on historical topics between the Polish authorities and representatives of Russia ," he said. Duda added the preservation of historical truth was important "for the memory of all Polish families, which also lost a lot of their relatives during World War II, whether in battle or murdered."

Rivlin announced he would invite Duda to Jerusalem in a statement released by his office on Sunday evening, saying, "The Jewish people is a people that remembers. Remembering is a fundamental building-block in our people’s heritage. It is that which demands of us to stand at Auschwitz, on German soil and in every place, to remember and to remind."

"History, along with the terrible events that happened here on this ground, connect the Jewish people and the State of Israel in an unbreakable bond with Poland and the Polish people. This is a bond that looks to the future from an unshakeable commitment to the memory of the facts of the past. This is a bond that must sanctify the purity of history, to leave the work of historical research to historians and experts" added Rivlin.

Rivlin will continue on to Germany and return to Israel on Thursday.

Last week, Duda boycotted the World Holocaust Forum hosted by Rivlin, which was held at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

Duda did not come to the ceremony in Jerusalem because he was not invited to speak at the main ceremony, while Russian President Vladimir Putin, who recently claimed that Poland played a role in causing World War II, was. Putin spoke about the “collaborators with the Nazis,” who aided them in carrying out the Holocaust. Russia and Poland have been waging an acrimonious battle in recent months over the two countries roles in World War II and the Holocaust.

After visiting Poland, Rivlin will continue on to Germany on Monday evening, and on Wednesday he will give a speech in Hebrew at the Bundestag on Berlin. He is also set to meet Germany's defense and foreign ministers, Chancellor Angela Merkel, and the heads of Jewish communities.

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