Yad Vashem Apologizes for Historical Error at World Holocaust Forum

Unusual clarification comes after Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial drew criticism for legitimizing Russia's WWII narrative

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Vladimir Putin speaks during the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020.
Vladimir Putin speaks during the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020. Credit: Sputnik/Alexei Nikolskyi/Kremlin via Reuters
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Yad Vashem has apologized for presenting content that "distorted" historical facts at the World Holocaust Forum, held at the Jerusalem memorial museum last month, which presented the Soviet Union as nearly the sole victor over Nazi Germany.

In a letter to Haaretz to be published in the newspaper's Hebrew edition on Tuesday, Yad Vashem says that information presented at the high-profile event, attended by dozens of world leaders, contained "inaccuracies" and a "partial presentation of facts," which "created an unbalanced impression."

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

Videos with purportedly historic content were shown, but they contained several inaccuracies and distortions, some technical and some appearing to be biased.

>> Adoption of false Russian WWII narrative calls Yad Vashem’s integrity into question

Moshe Kantor delivers a speech during the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem, January 23, 2020Credit: AFP

The forum was headed by Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, a businessman, oligarch and billionaire considered close to Putin. It was held in collaboration with Yad Vashem and sponsored by President Reuven Rivlin, and Israel's foreign ministry was also involved in the production, which was broadcast live around the world.

The large number of bodies involved in the event created a problematic mix of politics, diplomacy and academia. This sparked criticism from historians, politicians and other public figures, with some aimed directly at Yad Vashem.

Video recordings shown at the forum did not mention any of the Soviet Union's crimes in World War II, nor its responsibility for the war breaking out. "It did not include any reference to the partition of Poland between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany in 1939, or the occupation of western Europe in 1940," Yad Vashem wrote.

The maps presented in the video erred in their depiction of the borders of Poland and its neighbors, and contained no reference to Ukraine, currently in the midst of an ongoing conflict with Putin's Russia. It confused concentration camps with death camps, and contained additional historical information that was either only partial or mistaken.

In the letter, Yad Vashem in effect admits to having given a stage to distorted historical facts about World War II and the Holocaust, to serve the political and diplomatic interests of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contravention of its professional obligations, and its loyalty to history above all.

"We apologize for the very regrettable mishap that occurred… These videos do not represent the perspective of Yad Vashem's research on these issues," the letter says.

"As an institution, our obligation to Israel and the Jewish people… is – and will continue to be – to stick to historical fact as far as it may be ascertained, and to investigate in order to oppose attempts to blur and distort the political discourse in various countries," it added.

Erzsebet Brodt, 89, holds a picture of her family, killed in the concentration camp of Auschwitz during WW11. Erzsebet was sent there with them as a 17 year-old and survived. Budapest January 12, 2015Credit: \ REUTERS

"This aspiration includes… the recognition of our own mistakes and inaccuracies, and a readiness to highlight them and correct them, in this instance as well as in others," the letter, signed by Professor Dan Michman, head of Yad Vashem's International Institute of Holocaust Research.

The letter doesn't say to what degree Yad Vashem was responsible for the content of the ceremony held at the institute. It also does not respond to other criticism leveled at the organizers, particularly the decision to let the Russian president speak at the ceremony and reject Polish President Andrzej Duda's own request, sparking a diplomatic row.

Russia and Poland have been in conflict in recent months over the shaping of their respective national history during World War II. Both countries are trying to blur the negative out of their wartime past, and to emphasize more complimentary aspects. The Russian narrative ignores the Soviet Union's collaboration with Hitler in 1939, and the war crimes perpetrated by the Soviet Union on other people, including Poles, during the war.

The Polish president voiced his own criticism at another Holocaust commemoration at the Auschwitz concentration camp, a few days later, which President Rivlin also attended. Andrzej Duda said it is a fact that the conference's organizer, Kantor, is close to Putin, and that content that was presented was pro-Soviet.

This isn't the first time in recent years that Yad Vashem has become embroiled in historic controversy, against the backdrop of politics, diplomacy and history.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda and his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin at the International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day, in Auschwitz, Poland, January 27, 2020Credit: AGENCJA GAZETA/ REUTERS

In 2018, after Poland passed a controversial "Holocaust Law," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu published a joint statement with his Polish counterpart, which sought to settle differences between the two countries over Poland's role in World War II.

Netanyahu at the time thanked historian Dina Porat of Yad Vashem, for approving the declaration. But three other senior historians at Yad Vashem, Dan Michman, Professor Chavi Dreyfuss and Dr. David Ziberlang, harshly criticized the declaration, calling it "contravened historical fact" in a public statement.

To this day, it is still unclear what role Porat, or the institution as a whole, played in the wording of the controversial declaration. The Foreign Ministry rejected an appeal a few months' ago to publish information on the subject citing "fears of harming Israeli foreign relations."

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