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Poland in diplomatic bind over Auschwitz anniversary

Michel VIATTEAU
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Soldiers of the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau German death camp 75 years ago

Soldiers of the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau German death camp 75 years ago (AFP Photo/Pablo GONZALEZ)

Warsaw (AFP) - Poland's president will skip a high-profile Holocaust forum in Jerusalem on Thursday after being denied the chance to make a speech there as Warsaw struggles to counter false Russian claims about Poland's role in World War II.

The forum at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre will mark 75 years since the Soviet Red Army liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau German death camp, an enduring symbol of the Holocaust where the Nazis killed more than 1.1 million people.

Co-organised by a close Kremlin ally, the event will notably be attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and US Vice President Mike Pence, who have been given the chance to speak.

The forum is seen as rivalling the official ceremony marking the war anniversary on January 27 at the site of the former death camp in the southern Polish city of Oswiecim, where Polish President Andrzej Duda is expected to make an address.

Duda said he declined the invitation to Jerusalem because he would not have an opportunity to respond should Putin use the event to again lob accusations of anti-Semitism against Poland.

Last month Putin provoked an outcry after he made the false claim that Poland had colluded with Nazi German dictator Adolf Hitler and contributed to the outbreak of World War II.

According to Polish political analyst Marcin Zaborowski, Putin's goal is to "turn Poland against Israel and thereby against the US too".

Poland's foreign ministry on Tuesday urged Putin "not to use the memory of the victims of the Holocaust for political games".

It also distributed a reprinted copy of the first written document warning that Nazi Germany had begun a campaign of genocide against Europe's Jews.

In December 1942, Poland's then London-based government in exile forwarded the document, titled "The Mass Extermination of Jews in German occupied Poland", to the United Nations.

It included detailed accounts of the Holocaust as witnessed by members of the Polish resistance, but drew only muted reactions from the international community.

- Billionaire Kremlin ally -

The Jerusalem event was notably organised and sponsored by Moshe Kantor, a billionaire close to the Kremlin who is also a prominent figure in Russia's Jewish community and the president of the European Jewish Congress.

"Putin is befriending Israel and Russian Jews in Israel, many of whom are influential, like Avigdor Lieberman," the Soviet-born head of the nationalist secular Yisrael Beitenu (Israel Our Home) party, according to Zaborowski.

"If Polish-Jewish relations deteriorate, the US will be on Israel's side," the former director of the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs (PISM) told AFP.

"In Israel, Poland isn't seen as a victim (of Hitler) and anti-Polish sentiment still runs high".

That perception persists despite the concessions Poland made to end the diplomatic crisis that erupted in 2018 when Warsaw introduced a law that Israel believed was meant to prevent Jews from mentioning crimes Poles committed against them during the war.

Duda's absence means Poland will be relegated to the background in Jerusalem on Thursday. The official list of the heads of 46 national delegations, including many world leaders, did not include any representative from Poland.

- Israelis 'prefer Putin' -

Nearly six million Polish citizens, half of whom were Jewish, died in World War II, which was triggered by Nazi Germany's 1939 invasion and occupation of Poland.

Poland also has the largest number of citizens of any nation to have received the Yad Vashem title of "Righteous Among the Nations" for having helped to save Jews from the Nazis.

With relations between Warsaw and Moscow strained but stable since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and the EU imposed sanctions on Russia in response, Putin's recent accusations came as a surprise to Poland.

His verbal attack was seen by Warsaw as a bid to divert attention from Russia's failures and to set the stage for the Jerusalem forum, where anti-Semitism is expected to be the central theme.

The Israelis "prefer Putin to Duda," Polish journalist Konstanty Gebert told the Fakt tabloid daily.

He notes that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu needs to win the sympathy of the many Soviet-born Israelis ahead of the March general election, which is crucial to his political survival.