Monday marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day – held on the date that Auschwitz, Nazi Germany’s biggest killing centre, was liberated. This year, the 75th anniversary of the liberation was marred by controversy, with Poland’s president boycotting the World Holocaust Forum in Israel last week amid a dispute over WWII history with Russia.
Yesterday, leaders, survivors and others gathered at the site of the former camp itself in Poland to mark the liberation. Yet amid the commemorations, politics was never far from the surface.
“Do not be indifferent”: Marian Turski
Among the most powerful and moving tributes was a speech by 93-year-old Polish-Jewish Auschwitz survivor Marian Turski. Quoting the president of Austria, Alexander Van der Bellen, Turski noted that “Auschwitz did not descend from the sky”.
He then addressed his daughters and grandchildren, warning them to “defend the constitution, defend your rights, defend your democratic order, defend the rights of minorities” and above all to heed the “Eleventh Commandment: thou shalt not be indifferent”.
Thou shalt not be indifferent when you see historical lies. Thou shalt not be indifferent when the past is distorted for today’s political needs. Thou shalt not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against. Democracy hinges on the rights of minorities being protected. Thou shalt not be indifferent when any government infringes on the existing social contract.
Be faithful to this commandment, the Eleventh Commandment: thou shalt not be indifferent. Because if you are indifferent, you will not even notice when another Auschwitz descends from the sky falls upon the heads of you and your descendants.
While Turski’s speech received widespread praise, some on the Polish right, perhaps seeing its references to defending the constitution as criticism of the current Polish government, responded negatively.
The head of TVP Info – the news website of Poland’s state broadcaster, which is under the influence of the ruling party – noted that after being liberated from Auschwitz, Turski later worked on behalf of Poland’s communist regime. This shows that “evil can unfortunately be contagious”.
Niestety zło potrafi być zaraźliwe. Przypadki gdy więzień #Auschwitz, który sam doświadczył cierpienia i zbrodni nazizmu – później działał w PPR, pracował w wydziale propagandy PZPR i w komunistycznej "Polityce". Takie też są karty naszej trudnej historii…#WeRemember
— Samuel Pereira 🇵🇱 (@SamPereira_) January 27, 2020
“Guarding the truth”: Andrzej Duda
Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda – who was the only politician to speak at the event – focused on the idea of truth. Duda began by quoting testimony from a Polish prisoner of Auschwitz, Tadeusz Borowski, and then added:
We, in Poland, know well the truth about what was happening here since it was recounted to us by our compatriots who had camp numbers tattooed on their bodies by Germans.
Duda made it clear, however, that those killed at Auschwitz were “first and foremost Jews”, adding that:
The Holocaust, of which Auschwitz is the main place and the main symbol, constituted an unprecedented crime throughout history. Here, the hatred, chauvinism, nationalism, racism, antisemitism assumed the form of a mass, organised, methodical murder. At no other time and at no other place was extermination carried out in a similar manner.
Yet the president’s speech also placed emphasis on Polish victimhood and heroism. Duda noted that “Poland was the first target of Nazi Germany’s aggression…and subjected to terror”. Poles “established the largest European underground resistance movement against the Third Reich…fighting against Germans on all fronts of WWII from the first to the last day of the war”.
His speech cited only the positive aspects of the Polish response to the Holocaust, recalling that “our forefathers came to the aid of the murdered Jews, putting at risk their own lives” and that Poles “were the first to reveal to the world the truth about the Shoah and demand a response”.
Finally, Duda appealed to world leaders to avoid “distorting the history of WWII, denying the crimes of genocide, as well as the instrumental use of Auschwitz”. Poland will “always nurture the memory of and guard the truth about what happened here”, he pledged.
“Poles assisted in the murder of Jews”: Reuven Rivlin
A very different picture of Poles’ behaviour during the Holocaust was presented earlier in the day by Israeli’s president Reuven Rivlin, who had been the patron of the Holocaust Forum in Israel that Duda boycotted after not being allowed to speak.
Speaking in Poland alongside Duda yesterday, Rivlin stressed that “Nazi Germany initiated, planned and implemented the genocide of the Jewish people in Poland”, and that Poles fought against the occupiers. But he also noted that “many Poles stood by and even assisted in the murder of Jews”.
The Israeli president invited his Polish counterpart to visit Jerusalem to strengthen the “unbreakable bond” between the two nations, saying that:
We reach out to the Polish people today and ask to work together for the future of the next generation, respecting history and inspired by peace, justice, tolerance and partnership
“Poland has an unpaid debt to Russia”: Sergey Andreyev
Just ahead of the Auschwitz anniversary, Jarosław Kaczyński – the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and Poland’s de facto leader – repeated his government’s regular call for Germany to pay Poland war reparations. But this time he added that Russia “should also pay”.
In response, Russia’s ambassador to Warsaw, Sergey Andreyev, speaking at yesterday’s commemoration events, told reporters that in fact “Poland has an unpaid debt to Russia”.
Poland exists thanks to the victory of the Soviet Union in the Second World War. If it were not for that victory, there would be neither Poles nor Poland here.
“Where was the world?”: Elza Baker
Alongside Turski, another of the survivors to speak at the main ceremony was Elza Baker, who at the age of eight was deported from Hamburg and imprisoned in the “Gypsy camp” at Auschwitz. Around 90% of Roma prisoners at Auschwitz were murdered.
Baker noted that “not many people know about our suffering”, and recounted how she “experienced first hand the effect of anti-Gypsyism, anti-Semitism and racism”. She then asked:
Where was everybody? Where was the world who could see and hear that and did nothing to save all those thousands?…In times like this, when minorities have to feel vulnerable again, I can only hope that everyone will stand up for democracy and human rights.
Main image credit: Jakub Szymczuk/Prezydent.pl
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.