Auschwitz commemoration overshadowed by tension over Russia

By bne IntelliNews January 28, 2015

Jan Cienski in Warsaw -


A quiet and dignified ceremony marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on the afternoon of January 27. Three hundred survivors of that hellish place took the lead in a remembrance that had been threatened with being overshadowed by the growing fight between Russia's Vladimir Putin and the West.

A decade ago, survivors were forced to sit outside in freezing temperatures, wrapped in blankets against the cold, while well-fed politicians (including Putin) held forth. This year, the moving ceremony was held in a specially tented space around the iconic entrance gates to the Birkenau death camp, a place where more than a million people were murdered.

With the exception of Poland's President Bronislaw Komorowski, who made an initial short speech, the bulk of the commemorations were by camp survivors, who told horrific stories of seeing their families killed and the scars that the Holocaust has seared on their lives.

"I was there, terribly there," said Halina Birnbaum, who still bears her tattoo reading inmate no. 48693 after arriving in Auschwitz in 1941 as an 11-year-old girl. "Everything is still fresh in my memory."

The dignity of the ceremony was in marked contrast with the political dustup by which it was preceded. Putin did not show, miffed that he had not been personally invited by Warsaw.

Hoping to avoid a similar international clash to that which marked November's G20 summit in Brisbane, Poland instead had the Auschwitz museum simply send notices about the ceremony to embassies. Other leaders did come, including Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko.

Although the bulk of Komorowski's speech dealt with the past, waxing lyrically of how Poland had been turned into "the eternal graveyard of the Jews", the president did conclude with a point relevant to the current situation in Europe, "We remember the consequences of violating the right of nations to self-determination, of the principle of the inviolability of borders."

Meanwhile, Putin attended a ceremony held at a Jewish museum in the Russian capital. He made a special point of trying to implicate Ukraine in Nazi-era crimes, stressing that followers of wartime nationalist leader Stepan Bandera were responsible for killing Jews, Poles and others during the war.

The Russian president also linked "anti-Semitism" and "Russophobia" as parallel dangers. Tying the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine - where Russian-backed separatists are battling the Ukrainian army and volunteer brigades - to the Holocaust, he warned of the risks of disregarding the fate of those such as civilians in Donetsk and Lugansk, who he says have been shot "in cold blood".

Russia's historical and political sensitivities have been on full display in the run up to the commemorations. Moscow exhibited anger earlier this month when Poland's Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna noted that the first Red Army soldier to drive his tank through the Auschwitz gates in 1945 was actually Ukrainian.

"We believe that one should cease to mock history and extend anti-Russian hysteria to disrespect the memory of those who did not spare their lives for the liberation of Europe," noted Russia's Foreign Ministry. Russia has tended to claim the more glorious bits of the USSR's heritage for itself, although it was only one of 15 republics making up the Soviet Union.

While Putin was not formally invited to the events at Auschwitz, he did receive an invitation to take part in a Holocaust-related conference in Prague, held on January 26-27. The Czechs insist that the event - organized by the European Jewish Congress, led by Putin associate Moshe Kantor - was not an attempt to overshadow the Polish memorial.

However, the invitation to Putin by Milos Zeman, the Czech Republic's pro-Russian president, aroused a storm of protest. In the end Putin stayed home, instead sending Vladimir Yakunin, the powerful chief of Russian Railways. Another close ally of the Russian leader, Yakunin was blacklisted by the US after Russia's annexation of Crimea in March.

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