Hours ahead of the World Holocaust Forum’s memorial to commemorate the 75th liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp, the organization’s president, Moshe Kantor, dismissed claims Thursday that the event has become politicized, saying its only goal was to unite world leaders against anti-Semitism.
He was speaking after Ukraine announced at the last minute that its President Volodymyr Zelensky would not after all attend the Thursday event, saying he and his delegation had given up their seats so more survivors could attend, and after Poland’s and Lithuania’s presidents decided not to fly to Israel for the ceremony, upset over the failure to invite Polish President Polish President Andrzej Duda to address the event, while Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is doing so.
“It’s not a political gathering. Our main goal is to use the platform of Holocaust commemoration to raise the issue about the crisis of anti-Semitism. And we have done that,” Kantor told reporters at a press conference in Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, which is hosting the gathering.
The event, headlined “Remembering the Holocaust, Fighting Antisemitism,” is co-organized by the office of President Reuven Rivlin, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center and the World Holocaust Forum Foundation.
Asked to respond to Polish President Duda’s decision not to attend the event after he was refused the opportunity to speak, Kantor said, “We tried to create a wide platform for everybody to come here and be united against that evil. It’s a shame that Poland is not part of that.”
Kantor, who also heads the European Jewish Congress, says Duda was offered the first speaking slot at a state dinner held Wednesday night at the President’s Residence but “unfortunately” turned it down. Poland has denied the claim.
Much ink has been spilled over Duda’s decision to boycott the event because Putin was invited to speak and he wasn’t. After all, Duda argued, Auschwitz was located in occupied Poland, and Poles were, after Jews, the people who suffered most in the death camp.
Furthermore, Duda said he was unwilling to listen to Putin, who is currently pushing a particularly anti-Polish narrative of World War II, without being given the opportunity to respond.
Duda’s criticism of the event’s format, which grants Russia a major stage to advance its version of events, angered other states in the region as well. Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, for instance, on Tuesday canceled his trip to Jerusalem on short notice, sending the head of the country’s parliament instead. Nauseda will attend next week’s commemoration in Poland, he declared.
Yad Vashem’s chairman Avner Shalev said there was no political message in the decision to have Russian President Putin address the memorial event and not Duda.
“Long before the dispute between Russia and Poland started their dispute, we planned this event and felt that it was appropriate that the representatives of the Allies spoke,” Shalev said.
A spokesperson for Yad Vashem said earlier this week that it was “especially appropriate that the leaders addressing this event represent the four main powers of the Allied forces, which liberated Europe and the world from the murderous tyranny of Nazi Germany.”
Another bone of contention was the very location of the event, with Polish authorities saying the main memorial for the liberation of Auschwitz should be at the site of the death camp and not in Israel.
“I believe that one must not deprive this place of its remembrance by transferring it somewhere else and by stressing somewhere else what happened more than 75 years ago,” Duda said earlier this month.
Shalev said that he felt Duda “got the wrong interpretation of the goals of this meeting,” adding that he “hasn’t seen any sign that Putin is going to use his speech to attack any other country.”
Some have suggested Putin could use the stage not only to praise the Soviet Army for liberating Auschwitz but also to advance his current campaign to badmouth the Poles for allegedly having collaborated with the Nazis.
At 1:15 p.m. the main memorial ceremony will start at Yad Vashem’s Warsaw Ghetto Square. In addition to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, French President Macron, US Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Britain’s Prince Charles and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will address the gathering.
Besides the politicians and Kantor, there will be two other speakers: former chief rabbi and Holocaust survivor Israel Meir Lau and Yad Vashem’s Avner Shalev.
In between the speeches, short clips about the Holocaust and contemporary anti-Semitism will be shown and an orchestra and several choirs will provide musical interludes.
Holocaust survivors Rose Moskowitz and Colette Avital are set to light a memorial torch, and the world leaders will lay wreaths at the base of Nathan Rappaport’s Warsaw Ghetto Uprising monument. IDF cantor Shai Abramson will recite the El Maleh Rahamim memorial prayer and Holocaust survivor Naftali “Tuli” Deutsch will say Kaddish, the traditional Jewish mourner’s prayer, before the ceremony concludes with the playing of Hatikva.
Delegations from 49 countries, including 41 heads of state, are attending. The guest list also includes four kings and many leaders from such countries as Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, and Argentina, as well as the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.
Kantor said Tuesday that the turnout for the the event “sends a powerful message that anti-Semitism is an unacceptable danger to all of our societies.
“It gives Jews hope all around the world that extremism can be countered with the values of moderation and toleration,” Kantor said, adding that he has, nonetheless, “never been so concerned with the rise in anti-Semitism that I see around us.”
“Just 75 years after the Holocaust, Jewish life in Europe is again under threat,” says the Moscow-born philanthropist and Jewish activist. “It’s a sad picture of trembling communities hiding behind high fences,” he said.
Shalev said that the event aims “to bring together leaders of the international community to express their new commitment for Holocaust remembrance and understanding the deep meaning of Holocaust remembrance and to commit to fighting antisemitism around the world.”
Shalev said the unexpectedly high turnout of world leaders “shows that we have created a united front of leaders to present the mission of combating antisemitism.”
While promoting Holocaust remembrance, organizers of the Jerusalem event have, however, come under criticism for not sufficiently including Holocaust survivors and instead focusing on the panoply of visiting dignitaries. To the chagrin of some, only 30 out of 800 tickets for the event were reserved for Holocaust survivors.
In response, Ukrainian President Zelensky tweeted on Thursday that his delegation was giving up its seats to allow more survivors to attend. He said he would participate in other events in Israel related to the Auschwitz anniversary as scheduled.
We learnt that many of the Holocaust survivors have not been able to visit the World Holocaust Forum. Our delegation gave them our seats, as many Israeli ministers did. These people deserve these honors most of all. We will participate in all events and hold scheduled meetings
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) January 23, 2020
In Kiev over the weekend, Zelensky had told The Times of Israel firmly that “I will attend the ceremony” even though he believed he should have been invited to address it.
“For me personally, it doesn’t matter whether I speak. But so many people who died in this tragedy [of the Holocaust] were Ukrainian Jews — starting with Babi Yar… The statistical information that we have shows that one in four of the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust were Ukrainian. That is why, for Ukrainians, it is very important to honor the victims of the Holocaust. I think it would be fair, therefore, that the president of Ukraine would give a speech.”
Yad Vashem said Zelensky’s announcement that he and others in his delegation would give up their seats so that Holocaust survivors could was “puzzling.”
“This morning, the Ukrainian president announced his withdrawal, claiming that he is transferring to a Holocaust survivor,” the memorial center said in a statement. “It was explained to the president that we have assented to survivors who approached us in recent days…. Therefore, his decision is puzzling, and it is a pity to take such a step in an event entitled ‘Remember the Holocaust to fight anti-Semitism.’”
Simmy Allen, a spokesman for Yad Vashem, said “some 100” survivors were expected among the 780 attendees. “Of course we would like as many Holocaust survivors as possible to attend, but we’re also dealing with 48 delegations from all around the world,” he said.
In light of the public outcry, a handful of Israeli cabinet ministers also decided to give up their seats for survivors.