In New Battle Over Auschwitz Legacy, Poland Falls Victim to Holocaust Geopolitics

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – January 27, 2015 – there was one main international event that drew world leaders and high-level delegations from 50 countries. Naturally, it took place on the actual site of the Nazi death camp in Poland. The focus was on the elderly Auschwitz survivors, hundreds of whom attended in two distinct groups which largely maintained their distance from each other.

They had been invited by the two entities organizing the event. Polish citizens who had been incarcerated in the camp were invited by the Polish government. Jewish survivors, who had been born and lived in countries throughout Nazi-occupied Europe before being transported to Auschwitz, were flown in from across the globe by the World Jewish Congress.

Throughout the event, it was clear – due to the order of the speeches and time allocated to representatives of groups and faiths – that it was both a joint and heavily demarcated ceremony of Poland and the Jews. Poland’s then-President Bronislaw Komorowski and World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder both shared equal billing.

Poland’s then-President Bronislaw Komorowski, second right, at the former German Nazi death camp of Auschwitz during the 70th anniversary of its liberation on January 27, 2015AP

One country was conspicuously absent: Russia, which claims the mantle of the Soviet Union whose Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau (though the USSR consisted of what are today 15 sovereign nations), boycotted the event.

In January 2015, tensions in Eastern Europe over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine the previous year were still at their peak. Poland, always suspicious of Russia and firmly rooted in the Western NATO camp, was hardly thrilled at the idea of President Vladimir Putin arriving at the commemoration not only of the camp’s liberation, but the start of a traumatic Russian occupation and over 40 years of Kremlin-dominated communist dictatorship. But Putin hardly wanted to feature in a Polish-run event either and, when he failed to receive a personal invitation, his spokesman announced that Russia would not be attending.

A minor diplomatic spat ensued when Poland’s then-foreign minister, Grzegorz Schetyna, said that it had actually been the Ukrainians who liberated Auschwitz. Technically, Schetyna wasn’t wrong. The units that liberated Auschwitz belonged to the Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front and were commanded by Ukrainian officers. But as far as Russia was concerned, this was “blasphemous and cynical,” as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov put it. Ultimately, most of the guests attending the remembrance event in Auschwitz were relieved not to have to face Putin there.

A wooden sign with the word “STOP: standing in front of what was an electric barbed wire fence inside the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz I, in Oswiecim, Poland, December 8, 2019.Markus Schreiber,AP

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