Polish President, Denied Demand to Speak at Holocaust Forum in Israel, Will Skip It

Andrzej Duda, who is running for re-election, has been at the forefront of a controversial campaign to focus on the suffering of the Poles during WWII

Poland's President Andrzej Duda lays a wreath at the Hall of Remembrance at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, January 17, 2017
Dan Balilty / AP

Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Tuesday he had declined an Israeli invitation to attend a Holocaust memorial event this month as organizers would not allow him to speak there, even though others including Russian President Vladimir Putin would.

"As the (Polish) president I will not take part in the event that will take place on January 23 in Jerusalem," he said.

He added that he does not approve of the fact that representatives of Russia, France, Britain, Germany and the United States will be able to speak at the event while Poland won't be able to.

"The inability to speak in regards to this matter is against the interests of the (Polish) Republic," Duda said.

Polish leaders have been infuriated by comments made by Putin last month suggesting that Poland shares responsibility for World War Two.

Putin said Poland – which in September 1939 was invaded first by Nazi Germany from the west and then by Soviet forces from the east – had helped bring disaster on itself by conniving in the previous year in plans to dismember Czechoslovakia, its southern neighbor.

"There are accusations that are completely counter to historical truth and serve as an attempt to diminish us as a country and to falsify the historical truths of World War Two," Duda said on Tuesday, responding to Putin's comments.

The ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz will take place a few days before Poland holds its own event at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in southern Poland on Jan. 27.

Duda had made it clear earlier this week he would boycott the International Holocaust Forum if not given a chance to speak as a "representative of the country that had the most citizens murdered at Auschwitz." 

"France had a government that collaborated with the Nazis but the event's organizers aren't allowing the president of Poland to speak," Duda complained on Polish state television.

He wanted to "talk about the truth," Duda said – a keyword in the Polish discourse about WWII these days, which stresses the suffering of the Poles.

According to earlier reports, another concern might be Putin's speech: In recent weeks the Russian leader has been waging a campaign against Poland, accusing it of collaborating with Nazi Germany and contributing to the outbreak of WWII.

Putin was not invited to a ceremony in Poland last September marking 80 years from the war's eruption. Nor was an Israeli representative invited. There were addresses from representatives of the United States, Germany and Poland.

Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza cited yet another reason for Duda’s expected cancellation – the fact that Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz is one of the conference’s sponsors. Katz angered Poland last year when he said that the Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk,” echoing a statement by late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Katz made the remark in the context of a crisis between Poland and Israel sparked by Poland’s passage of a law that criminalizes any mention of Poles’ responsibility for crimes committed by the Nazis.

The opponents of the law were concerned that its purpose was to censor discussion of Polish involvement in Nazi crimes.

The law was eventually retracted and Israel and Poland signed a controversial joint statement saying that many Poles had saved Jews and few had participated in their persecution. The Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial accused the prime ministers of Israel and Poland, who signed the declaration, of distorting history and damaging the memory of the Holocaust.

This is an election year in Poland, and Duda will be running for his second term as president. Earlier in December, Duda also broke with his years-long tradition and did not take part in Hanukkah candle-lighting with representatives of the Jewish community. No official reason was given, but it may be assumed that Duda seen lighting candles alongside rabbis could deter potential voters from the nationalist right wing.