In 1939, Poland was home to more Jews than any other nation in Europe. Partitioned by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that year, Poland lost a fifth of its population in World War II; 90% of Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Israel established itself as a Jewish homeland in 1948, out of the ashes of that global conflagration.
Poland and Israel have enjoyed full diplomatic relations since the fall of communism in 1990. But the two countries are diverging in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the most notorious of the Nazi death camps, where almost 1 million Jews were killed.
Politics, particularly of the nationalist type, may be the culprit.
The presidents of Lithuania and Poland, who suffered Soviet occupation and then decades of Soviet domination during the Cold War, have withdrawn from the commemoration in Israel due to the important role that Russian President Vladimir Putin will play.
In an opening address, Putin is expected to offer his revisionist version of the history of the war that dismisses the 1939 non-aggression pact signed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union and emphasizes the complicity of some Poles in the Holocaust.
“They want to blame the Second World War of the Nazis on the Communists,” Putin said last month during a meeting with leaders of former Soviet nations in St. Petersburg, Russia, criticizing European Parliament officials for a resolution. that blamed the pact for the war. Putin called the Polish ambassador in Nazi Germany “a scum and an anti-Semitic pig.” He has tried to partly blame Poland for the outbreak of war.
Putin is boycotting the Polish ceremony, which will take place in the former concentration camp one hour west of Krakow.
Poland was one of Adolf Hitler’s first victims. His armies invaded Poland in 1939 only after Germany had signed the non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union that included a secret appendix that divided Poland. The Soviet Union only entered the war against fascism in 1941, when Hitler broke the pact by invading it.
Although some Poles collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, it is also true that many Poles risked their lives to protect the Jews.
“What is happening right now with the fight over who should speak at various ceremonies is a terrible tragedy, and a result of what happens when history is politicized,” said Deborah E. Lipstadt, an important Holocaust scholar who He teaches history at Emory University.
He noted that the leaders of the three countries are carrying out politicization.
In Poland, a right-wing nationalist government tried to refer to Polish complicity in the Holocaust as a crime, punishable by up to three years in prison. After a major protest by the United States, Israel and other nations, Poland backed down, but still considers such references to be a civil offense.
Lipstadt also said that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not do enough to reject Polish revisionism.
Much of downtown Jerusalem was locked on Wednesday when the leaders arrived and Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, the official host of the forum, began receiving guests. Israel deployed some 10,000 police to secure the events.
At a memorial service on Thursday at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, world leaders will be among those gathered to fight anti-Semitism and genocide.
The meeting comes before the official anniversary of the liberation of the camp on Monday, when the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum will house some of the same dignitaries, as well as 200 Holocaust survivors, at least a quarter of them Americans.
Netanyahu is in the midst of a scathing request for parliamentary immunity from several criminal charges he received last November, which he is expected to lose in a vote next week, while running for the fifth consecutive term as prime minister.
The elections, the third in less than a year, will be held on March 2.
In the midst of this political turmoil, Israel, a nation of 9 million people, is organizing a hugely elaborate event.
Around 100,000 Holocaust survivors live in the country. Only 30 could be accommodated at the main ceremony in Yad Vashem, where 800 guests will attend.
Israeli media have been flooded by the complaints of numerous frustrated families, who argue that the survivors should have received more visibility on the big names in an unprecedented national commemoration.
In a strong symbolic gesture, Rivlin and his German counterpart, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, will travel together from Israel to Poland, where Holocaust survivors will join dozens of heads of state.
In Poland, the World Jewish Congress, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation and the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Monument have invited survivors to meet on Monday before the entrance of the “death gate” to Birkenau. Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress and president of the memorial foundation, will address the meeting.
“This may be the last ceremony of this kind for these heroes and victims, and one of the last times they can speak publicly about their experiences,” said Lauder, a former United States ambassador to Austria, in an interview. “We must bear witness for generations to come on behalf of those who can no longer speak for themselves.”
Holocaust memories are held annually in many countries, including Israel, the United States and Poland. It is rarer for survivors, many of whom are between 80 and 90 years old, to join across international borders.
Around 400,000 survivors are alive worldwide today. In the United States, there are about 85,000, according to the Conference on Claims of Jewish Material against Germany. The Claims Conference has fewer than 2,000 Auschwitz survivors worldwide, approximately a quarter of whom live in the US. UU.
“Many of the Holocaust survivors were in their teens when they survived. People over 35 did not survive, “said Stephen D. Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation of the USC.” As time went by, you have seen more people talk about their experiences. “
One of those people is David Lenga, 92, who was detained in Auschwitz-Birkenau as a teenager and currently lives in Woodland Hills. Lenga, who will attend the ceremony in Poland, said he stayed away from the old prison until four years ago, when his daughter begged him to show it. He said he believes it is his responsibility to educate others about the Holocaust.
“I can’t imagine not being there, considering the terrifying rise of anti-Semitism in the world. Whatever we can do to honor the memory of the dead and the living, and educate people, we will do it, ”said Lenga.
The organizers of both events said that the commemorations were even more urgent amid the global peaks in anti-Semitism.
In the USA In the US, the Anti-Defamation League reported that the number of victims of anti-Semitic assaults almost tripled in 2018 compared to the previous year, from 21 to 59. The anti-Semitic incidents in general that year were at their third highest count in the United States since that the ADL began keeping records four decades ago.
A Pew Research Center survey published Wednesday found that only 45% of Americans could identify the number of Jews estimated to have been killed in the Holocaust (about 6 million). The same survey found that only 43% of Americans knew that Hitler became the German chancellor through a democratic process, instead of gaining power only through force.
Of the millions of Jews who died during the Holocaust, approximately one sixth died in Auschwitz, where crematoria and gas chambers were used for brutal mass executions.
“It’s hard to be somewhere else on this particular day,” said Piotr Cywiński, director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum and Memorial. “We all want to be with the Auschwitz survivors who live among us.”
Times staff writer Kaleem reported from Krakow and special correspondent Tarnopolsky reported from Jerusalem.