Twelve-year-old school pupils in a town in eastern Poland dressed up as Nazis and sprayed artificial smoke meant to look like fake poison gas at younger schoolmates pretending to be Auschwitz death camp inmates, in a recent reenactment of World War II-era exterminations that has sparked a great deal of controversy.
Parents and teachers at the event held several days ago in Labunie, a town near the city of Zamosc, were joined by a local priest and the guest of honor was the town’s mayor, who is a member of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party.
Photographs of the performance showing the children wearing Nazi uniforms and red arm bands emblazoned with swastikas, and seven-year-olds playing victims pretending to fall down dead, were posted on social media and leading Polish news websites on Tuesday.
Speeches delivered included controversial criticism of the political left, in condemnation of “traitors” and “dangers” posed to Western culture.
One of the speakers, a Polish woman whose parents were killed at Auschwitz, said that Poland deserved reparations from Germany, a demand that the Polish government has made in recent years as well.
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The performance was part of an event in which the school was renamed Children of Zamosc, in memory of thousands of children from the region killed or deported to camps by the Nazis during the war.
Staff from the Auschwitz Memorial condemned the performance on Twitter, saying it was not an appropriate way to teach about the war.
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Polish historian Jan Grabowski said the event explained why there were young Poles voting for the extreme right. “No one in the audience thought there was anything problematic about the scene,” he said.
Crimes committed against Poles during the war are a major topic of contemporary public discussion in Poland. In recent weeks, there has been a highly public confrontation between Poland and Russia in which Russia has accused Poland of responsibility for the outbreak of the war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Poland of negotiating with the Third Reich and said that the leaders who pursued these contacts “exposed the Polish nation to the German war machine.”
Putin said that when the Soviet Union captured the eastern half of Poland two weeks after the Nazi German invasion of the country in September 1939, it “saved the lives of a large number of civilians, particularly Jews, because later the population,” meaning the Jewish population under German occupation, “was exterminated by the Nazis.”
He justified the Soviet invasion of Poland due to what he said was the Polish government’s “loss of control” over its country.
Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament, went even further last week, accusing Poland of “collaborating with Nazi Germany 80 years ago.”
He called on Poland’s leadership to “be honest and apologize” instead of “trying to brush it under the carpet all along, placing the blame on others and inventing things.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki condemned Putin’s remarks as “lies” and issued a detailed statement in a number of languages in which he noted Soviet crimes against both Poland and the Russian people, as well as the Soviet collaboration with Nazi Germany at the beginning of the war.
The ambassadors to Poland from Israel, the United States, Germany and Britain, as well as Poland’s chief rabbi, have come out in support of Poland on the issue. They issued separate statements declaring that it is Germany that bears responsibility for World War II and that Poland was a victim of the war.
The Israeli ambassador to Warsaw, Alexander Ben-Zvi, was interviewed in Polish on Polish state television and said in part that “it is not possible to accuse others of what the Germans did.” Poland, he said, was the first victim of the war.
Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich issued a special statement in Polish in support of Poland’s position, in which he called Putin’s remarks “scandalous” and “infuriating.” The chief rabbi also mentioned comments that Putin made calling the Polish ambassador to Nazi Germany an “anti-Semitic pig” who had identified with the Third Reich’s anti-Semitic policies.
Schudrich said that although Poland had in fact supported the emigration of Jews from its territory, it was in part done in support of the Zionist movement, which was promoting the immigration of Jews to Palestine.