Israel and Russia dedicate Jerusalem memorial to WWII Leningrad siege

Netanyahu says Soviet sacrifice during war should not be forgotten amid spat between Moscow and Warsaw over history

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the inauguration of the Memorial Candle monument commemorating the people of Leningrad during the Second World War Nazi siege on the city, in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech at the inauguration of the Memorial Candle monument commemorating the people of Leningrad during the Second World War Nazi siege on the city, in Jerusalem on January 23, 2020. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP)

The leaders of Israel and Russia on Thursday dedicated a monument in Jerusalem honoring the hundreds of thousands who died in the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad during World War II.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the event, along with Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion and officials from both countries.

Around 70 veterans of the siege, who are currently living in Israel, were also invited.

Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg, is Putin’s hometown. His father was wounded while fighting to defend the city and a baby brother to Putin died of disease during the battle.

The Nazi siege of Leningrad lasted nearly two and a half years until the Soviet Army drove the Nazi troops away on January 27, 1944. Estimates of the death toll vary, but most historians agree that over 750,000 Leningrad residents died of hunger and air and artillery bombardment in one of the most horrifying episodes of World War II. Some tallies put the death toll at over a million.

Putin, in Israel for a major Holocaust commemoration ceremony marking 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, said both the siege and the slaughter of six million Jews during the Holocaust were unique events in history.

“These are dates that are special to both peoples,” he said in Russian. “The Holocaust and the siege of Leningrad cannot be compared to anything else. No diary of film and convey what the people experienced in that period.”

Putin also ventured into the charged battle over the rival historical narratives of World War II by claiming that 40 percent of Jewish Holocaust victims were Soviet.

Of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, historians say about one million were Soviet.

Putin has been waging a battle with Poland over each side’s role in aiding Germany during World War II.

In a statement published Thursday morning, Polish President Adrzej Duda, who canceled an appearance in Israel over Putin’s central role in the ceremonies, blamed a Nazi-Soviet pact for allowing the 1939 invasion of Poland.

Netanyahu told the ceremony that the Soviet “sacrifice and contribution” during World War II should not be obscured.

“We must not even for a moment blur the sacrifice and contribution of the former Soviet Union in overcoming the Nazi monster and saving the world from tragedy,” he said.

The 8.5 meter tall copper and cast bronze Memorial Candle Monument, which includes a bronzed representation of a memorial flame, was erected in the capital’s Sacher Park, near the Supreme Court. At night, the metal flame is illuminated.

“Today, we were given the right to pay homage to the citizens of the Soviet Union and to veterans who fought on the Eastern Front, some of whom found a home in Israel,” Rivlin said. “The war on Nazism and fascism, racism and hatred is our common part.”

Israel is home to some one million Russian-speakers and Putin has referred to the Jewish state in the past as a Russian outpost.

The memorial was funded by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress headed by Russian-based Israeli-Georgian businessman and philanthropist Mikhail Mirilashvili, as well as Jewish Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

The Jewish National Fund, the United United Israel Appeal, and the Russian Jewish Congress also supported the project. Construction work started in 2017. A team of artists from Israel and Russia cooperated to build the monument.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Yaffa Issachar, mother of Israeli citizen Naama Issachar who is jailed in Russia for drug trafficking in Jerusalem, Jan. 23, 2020 (Aleksey Nikolskyi, Sputnik Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

The dedication took place ahead of the largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the Holocaust and combating modern-day anti-Semitism, held on the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

Putin was scheduled to speak at the ceremony at the Yad Vashem memorial museum.

Earlier the Russian president hinted that he would enable the release of a US-Israeli backpacker jailed in Russia, telling Naama Issachar’s mother in a face-to-face meeting that “everything will be okay.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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