Polish President Andrzej Duda told Jewish officials in Warsaw it would be more appropriate to hold the International Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony "in the former German concentration camp: Auschwitz" than at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.
Speaking at the Presidential Palace in Warsaw on Wednesday, at an event held as a belated annual Hanukkah gathering, Duda addressed his decision not to attend a January 23 memorial ceremony in Jerusalem alongside Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and dozens of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
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Duda said he was surprised when he received the invitation to the ceremony at Yad Vashem, marking an annual memorial date chosen by the United Nations, because he felt the the appropriate place to hold the ceremony is in Poland.
"I must say that I was astounded to receive an invitation from Jerusalem extended by the World Holocaust Forum to attend the commemoration, at the Yad Vashem Memorial Museum, of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp and of the International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust," Duda said.
"To me it is precisely here, in Poland, on our soil of today, occupied back then by Nazi Germans, where those ashes are scattered. This is the place of immense symbolism. This is the place where everyone can pray, the way they wish, in different languages, for the deceased, for those who are no longer with us and who were murdered," he said.
"Deep within my soul I believe that this is the appropriate place, the best one. I believe that one must not deprive this place of its remembrance by transferring it somewhere else and by stressing somewhere else what happened," the Polish president added.
Originally he had planned to participate in the ceremony in Jerusalem, rather than start a debate over whether he did not want to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Yad Vashem, where the memory of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations, who saved the lives of Jews during the Holocaust, is also preserved.
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But Duda said that after he was not allowed to speak at the ceremony, even though other world leaders would speak, so he decided not to participate.
Duda said he was "astonished" at Putin being invited to speak while he was not.
"And the Polish President should not take the floor? I made it clear: that is a distortion of historical truth. How is it possible that the ones who speak are the presidents of Germany, Russia and France whose government back then sent people, Jews, to concentration camps, whereas the president of Poland is not allowed to speak, of Poland who never collaborated with Germans, whose Underground State was fighting against Germans and tried to support Jews as resolutely as it could," Duda said.
As for the role of some Poles in the Nazi crimes, he repeated his position that only a few individuals collaborated.
"There were also anti-Semites. There were those who were mean". Indeed. I am not denying it, and I never have. Yes, there were anti-Semites and the mean ones. They did exist! There was also a majority of those who simply wanted to survive, to save their lives. Hence, they did not help or even refused to help. They did exist for they wanted to live!" Duda said.
The Polish president concluded the meeting attended by Poland's chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, and Israel's ambassador to Poland Alexander Ben Zvi by saying he was the president of all Poles, including Poland’s Jews. The victims of the Holocaust are “shared victims, because we are all one community,” he continued.
"I also lost a close person – the brother of my grandfather, a partisan who was murdered by Germans. The difference however is that a huge number of Polish Jewish families simply ceased to exist after the Second World War. Altogether. And therefore all of us owe a huge tribute to the Holocaust victims," he said.