Europe's Current Crisis Intruding on Auschwitz Memorial

Politics always influenced the historical narrative of Auschwitz. The 70th anniversary of its liberation is no exception.

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The main gate at the entrance Auschwitz in Poland.
The main gate at the entrance Auschwitz in Poland.Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The organizers of the events marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp fear the world’s attention will not be focused entirely on the victims and survivors.

Leaders and delegations from across the world will attend Tuesday's ceremony at Auschwitz, the main event of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. More than 100 survivors, a third of them from Israel, will be the center of attention. While media coverage will be heavy, especially after the murder of four Jews at a kosher grocery in Paris, another European crisis is intruding.

Poland, the host government, has taken a harsh stance against Russia in the year since its invasion of Ukraine. Last month, Moscow criticized Warsaw for not inviting President Vladimir Putin to the memorial. It was a blow to the national pride of the Russians who jealously guard the memories of the Red Army liberating the camp. Poland said no official invitations were sent; the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum simply notified governments of the event.

Matters escalated last week when Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna told an interviewer the camp was liberated by the Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians. Two days later, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, Valeriy Chaliy, said “Ukrainians made up the majority of those who freed Auschwitz.”

These statements enraged the Kremlin, and not only because of the historical sleight of hand (the Ukrainian Front included soldiers from several nationalities within the Soviet Union). “Any attempt to play a card of any sort of nationalistic sentiment in this situation is totally sacrilegious and cynical, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov retorted.

For the past year, Russian propaganda channels have charged that Kiev’s pro-Western government contains “fascists and neo-Nazis.” Russia will take part in the memorial; Putin’s powerful chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, is expected to attend.

Organizers hope the media will focus on the fact that this is likely to be the last large gathering of Auschwitz survivors rather than the geopolitical tension. Robert Singer, the CEO of the World Jewish Congress, one of the organizing bodies — it is bringing the survivors and their families to Poland — said “as far as we’re concerned, this is a historic event which probably will never be repeated and it’s crucial that in light of what is happening now in Europe, the attention remains on that.”

The historical narrative of Auschwitz has been controversial ever since the camp’s liberation. On Stalin’s orders, its very existence was not publicized until after the victory over the Germans, four months later. For decades, it was forbidden to mention that 90 percent of the 1.1 million people historians say were murdered there were Jews. They were all described as “victims of fascism.” The Soviets were portrayed as saviors, ignoring the collaboration with Germany for the first two years of the war in the bloody occupation of Poland. In his book “Anti-Semitism without Jews,” the Hungarian-Jewish writer Paul Lendvai called this “Dead Jews make good Poles.” Until the 1980s, Jews were not even mentioned at the annual memorial services at the camp.

Putin’s absence will be particularly conspicuous in light of the expected attendance of Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko and reports of dozens of civilian deaths in the attack on Mariupol. Kiev accuses separatists supported by Russian Army artillery of indiscriminately bombarding the besieged city.

The fact that nearly all the survivors at Tuesday's memorial will be Jews and that most of the effort and funds for a 150-million-euro foundation to continue the preservation of the camp buildings is from Jewish organizations will keep the focus of on the million Jews murdered there. In addition to greetings from Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski, there will be speeches by three survivors, the chanting of “El Maleh Rahamim” and closing remarks by WJC president Ronald Lauder. But it may be impossible to totally disconnect the memory of Auschwitz from the current political context.

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