At the end of this month, days apart, two international ceremonies will be held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation from the Nazis: the first at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the second at the site of the concentration camp itself in Poland. World leaders, prominent Jewish figures and Holocaust survivors have been invited to both.
Holding more than one ceremony dedicated to a major anniversary is not that unusual, but there is more than that going on here. Behind the desire to honor the memory of the victims lie other, less honorable interests. Internal Jewish community politics, diplomatic skirmishes, historical disputes and games of power and ego have all come to be involved in the event at Yad Vashem in particular – a commemoration of atrocity that could be assumed to be untainted by extraneous considerations.
One indication that outside factors would indeed contaminate the Jerusalem event was the highly unusual decision by Polish President Andrezj Duda to turn down the invitation to attend the ceremony. He questioned why Yad Vashem was holding an international event seemingly in competition with the commemoration already planned at the Auschwitz memorial site; and he announced that he would not participate because the organizers refused to give him one of the slots for foreign dignitaries to give a speech.
Yad Vashem’s exclusion of Duda from the speaker list would have been more easily justifiable were all the speakers at the ceremony Holocaust survivors or WWII historians. But U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the presidents of Russia, France, Germany and Israel, as well as Britain’s Prince Charles, and Prime Minister Netanyahu all been invited to speak at the event.
The explanation proffered by Yad Vashem, that all the speakers are "heads of states that brought about the world’s liberation from the Nazi occupation" leaves something to be desired. If this were truly the guiding rule, then representatives of Germany and Israel should clearly not be speaking at the ceremony. Nor, if that is the criterion, is it clear that the president of France, whose Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis until the summer of 1944, would deserve this honor.
The Polish government, however, from its place of exile in London, joined ranks with the Allies, and Polish troops fought against Nazi Germany in all kinds of frameworks. Isn’t this reason enough to include its top official on the list of speakers at the ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz?
So the reason behind the decision not to allow the Polish president to speak at the event clearly lies elsewhere – and in places that could potentially detract from the distinguished nature of the event that the organizers are aiming for.
- Putin says Poland, Western leaders cooperated with Hitler
- Auschwitz, the director's cut: How Poland is rewriting the Holocaust narrative
- Polish president, denied demand to speak at Holocaust forum in Israel, will skip it
- How Putin's man made his way to the top of European Jewry
One might assume that it is the Israeli government that is behind an event of this magnitude, one that involves world leaders and is being held at Yad Vashem. But in fact, the force behind it is someone unknown to most Israelis: Moshe Kantor, a Russian-Jewish billionaire and oligarch who is president of the European Jewish Congress.
His people say that he is the one who "proposed and planned" the event and is "responsible for the program and its content" and that it is because of him that dozens of world leaders will be in attendance. If that’s so, then what role do Israel's Foreign Ministry, the President’s Office and Yad Vashem, all also listed as organizers of the event, have? Kantor’s people say that he "harnessed" them to his plans. Needless to say, not everyone is thrilled with this portrayal of things.
Is there any connection between the fact that Kantor is close with the Kremlin (so much so that he has been called "Putin's man") and the choice to allow President Putin to speak but to deny Duda, the Polish president, the same privilege? No one will openly admit as much, of course, but anyone who’s been following the diplomatic tensions between Russia and Poland, which reached a peak last month, may be wondering who had an interest in standing by the Russian president at this time and shunning his Polish counterpart.
For months now, Putin has been waging a blatantly anti-Polish campaign, claiming, in part, that Poland played a part in the outbreak of World War II and that it collaborated with Nazi Germany. Soviet/Russian-Nazi German cooperation, which culminated in the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that divided Poland between the two occupying countries, is now being depicted by Putin as unavoidable and something that was actually meant to help Poland.
This distortion of history led to a justified Polish fear that Putin would use the platform he is given at Yad Vashem to perpetuate anti-Polish revisionism - while the Polish president would be forced to look on from the audience, unable to defend himself, his country and the historical record. For this reason, too, Duda’s request to join the list of speakers is warranted.
Bear in mind that the Polish government, too, is not above distorting history or involving political interests in the memory of World War II.
When the Israeli and Polish prime ministers issued a joint statement aimed at defusing the crisis over Poland’s new "Holocaust law," senior Yad Vashem historians argued (contrary to the stance of the institution’s chief historian, Professor Dina Porat, head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry) that it was marked by "grave errors and deceptions" - distorting history and insulting the memory of the Holocaust. The controversial part of the statement was the claim that many Poles helped save Jews during the Holocaust and that Poles were only minimally involved in persecuting Jews.
Poland did not invite Putin to the ceremonies it held on September 1 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. Representatives from the U.S. and Germany were invited and also spoke at the event about Polish suffering during the war. And Putin, not surprisingly, has not been invited to the ceremony to be held at Auschwitz in Poland on January 27.
Now add to this already complicated equation the internal politics of the Jewish world, particularly the rivalry between the two contenders for leadership of prestigious diaspora institutions – Ron Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, and Moshe Kantor, head of the European Jewish Congress. The two are not cooperating with one another: Lauder is not attending the Yad Vashem event but will attend the event at Auschwitz four days later.
As the world’s most important institution for preserving the memory of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem has a duty to keep as far away from all the politics, diplomatic and organizational, as possible and to ensure its only considerations are professional, historical and commemorative.
But the decision to allow Putin but not Duda to speak could be perceived as Yad Vashem and the Israeli government taking Putin’s side – a move that in this context amounts to tacit support for Putin’s distorted narrative concerning the division of Poland at the start of World War II and the whitewashing of the Soviet Union's handshake with Hitler.
Yad Vashem would have been far better off staying away from all this, by openly disavowing Putin’s recent statements and giving his Polish counterpart the chance to be heard too.