At the end of this month, days apart, two international ceremonies will be held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation from the Nazis: the first at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and the second at the site of the concentration camp itself in Poland. World leaders, prominent Jewish figures and Holocaust survivors have been invited to both.
Holding more than one ceremony dedicated to a major anniversary is not that unusual, but there is more than that going on here. Behind the desire to honor the memory of the victims lie other, less honorable interests. Internal Jewish community politics, diplomatic skirmishes, historical disputes and games of power and ego have all come to be involved in the event at Yad Vashem in particular – a commemoration of atrocity that could be assumed to be untainted by extraneous considerations.
One indication that outside factors would indeed contaminate the Jerusalem event was the highly unusual decision by Polish President Andrezj Duda to turn down the invitation to attend the ceremony. He questioned why Yad Vashem was holding an international event seemingly in competition with the commemoration already planned at the Auschwitz memorial site; and he announced that he would not participate because the organizers refused to give him one of the slots for foreign dignitaries to give a speech.
Yad Vashem’s exclusion of Duda from the speaker list would have been more easily justifiable were all the speakers at the ceremony Holocaust survivors or WWII historians. But U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the presidents of Russia, France, Germany and Israel, as well as Britain’s Prince Charles, and Prime Minister Netanyahu all been invited to speak at the event.
The explanation proffered by Yad Vashem, that all the speakers are "heads of states that brought about the world’s liberation from the Nazi occupation" leaves something to be desired. If this were truly the guiding rule, then representatives of Germany and Israel should clearly not be speaking at the ceremony. Nor, if that is the criterion, is it clear that the president of France, whose Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis until the summer of 1944, would deserve this honor.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked Poland’s forgiveness for World War II, Wielun, Poland, September 1, 2019. AFP
The Polish government, however, from its place of exile in London, joined ranks with the Allies, and Polish troops fought against Nazi Germany in all kinds of frameworks. Isn’t this reason enough to include its top official on the list of speakers at the ceremony commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz?
So the reason behind the decision not to allow the Polish president to speak at the event clearly lies elsewhere – and in places that could potentially detract from the distinguished nature of the event that the organizers are aiming for.