Polish President Andrzej Duda has threatened to boycott the World Holocaust Forum set for later this month in Israel.
According to a report in the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Duda intends to announce his withdrawal from the January 23 conference after he was not given an opportunity to speak at the event. Another reason, the report said, is an expected address by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who over the past month has waged a campaign against Poland accusing it of responsibility for World War II.
In Poland, concerns have been voiced that Putin will exploit the conference to continue to level such accusations.
The Polish newspaper 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. Katz’s remark drew harsh responses in Poland, and last year, Poland boycotted the conference of the Visegrad Group, a political alliance of Central European countries, which Netanyahu wanted to host in Israel. Poland demanded an apology from Katz, but the latter did not do so.
Domestic Polish issues may also be behind Duda’s expected boycott of the January Holocaust conference. This is an election year in Poland, and Duda will be running for his second term as president. Participation in a conference at which the Russian president might disparage Poland could harm Poland’s standing. 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.
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.
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The conference is at the invitation of President Reuven Rivlin. Also sponsoring the conference, in addition to Katz, are Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev and European Jewish Congress President Moshe Kantor. Dozens of heads of state and other leaders are expected to participate in addition to Russia, including Germany, France, Italy and Austria, as well as Prince Charles of England.
Four days later, on International Holocaust Day, an official event will be held at Auschwitz, with the participation of Rivlin, at Duda’s invitation. The event will follow an official meeting between the two. Duda is expected to speak at the event, along with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder and Holocaust survivors. Putin was not invited to that event.
Diplomatic tensions over commemoration ceremonies for World War II and the Holocaust began in September, when Poland announced a series of state-sponsored events to mark 80 years since the war broke out. Invitations to the ceremonies, which emphasized the suffering Poles during the war, were extended to the presidents of the United States and Germany, but the Russian president was not invited and no official representative from Israel was invited. Trump will not attend, but will send Vice-President Mike Pence instead.
Putin was not invited to the September ceremonies because of the controversy between Poland and Russia over the question of responsibility for the outbreak of war, and the issue of cooperation with Nazi Germany. Poland has accused Russia of responsibility for the outbreak because it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany, which paved the way for the conquest of Poland by both countries.
Russia, for its part, has accused Poland of also signing an agreement with Nazi Germany, even before Russia did so. Russia is also angry that memorials to the Red Army have been destroyed in recent years in Poland. Russia claims that it “liberated” Poland from the Nazis, but Poland considers the Russian army a force that replaced Nazi occupation with Communist occupation, from which Poland was released only with the fall of the Iron Curtain.
This tension reached its height last month after Putin reiterated his accusation on various platforms that Poland was responsible for the outbreak of World War II. The chairman of the lower house of Russia’s parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, also accused Poland of what he called “cooperation with Nazi Germany 80 years ago.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called Putin’s statements “lies.” The ambassadors to Poland from Israel, the United States, Germany and Britain, as well as Poland’s chief rabbi, supported Poland in the matter, each declaring separately that Germany was responsible for World War II and Poland was its victim. Israel’s ambassador to Poland, Alexander Ben Zvi, who was interviewed on Polish state television, said: “It is impossible to blame others for what the Germans did.” He added that Poland was the first victim of the war.