Polish President Demands to Speak at Yad Vashem: Poles Lost Most People in Auschwitz

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Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks during an event 'NATO Engages' at Central Hall Westminster in London, Tuesday, December 3, 2019.
Poland's President Andrzej Duda speaks during an event 'NATO Engages' at Central Hall Westminster in London, Tuesday, December 3, 2019.Credit: Francisco Seco,AP

Polish President Andrzej Duda has demanded to be given a chance to speak at the Holocaust memorial ceremony to be held this January at Yad Vashem, threatening he would otherwise boycott the event. 

Speaking on state television in Poland on Sunday, Duda confirmed earlier reports and said he requested to speak as a "representative of the country that had the most citizens murdered at Auschwitz" and said that negotiations are taking place with the event's organizers. 

Dozens of heads of state and other leaders are expected to participate to the event on January 23. Unlike Duda, representatives of the United States, Britain, France, Russia and Germany did receive an invitation to speak.

"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. 

Duda said it would be appropriate if alongside the speeches of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Germany's president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, he could speak about the suffering of the Poles – including Jewish Poles, and talk about the losses they suffered because of World War II and the Holocaust.   

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.

His main concern is 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.

The conference, to be held at Yad Vashem later this month, commemorates the Holocaust and also highlights the fight against anti-Semitism, in the context of increasing anti-Semitic attacks worldwide. It will also mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27.

According to the Yad Vashem website, 1.1 million people were murdered at Auschwitz of whom about a million were Jews. The other victims were Poles (between 70,000 to 75,000), Gypsies (about 21,000) and Soviet prisoners of war (about 14,000), as well as some others.

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” – a statement also made at the time by former 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.

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