For the Jewish News January 2020
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has linked concern over aspects of Polish revisionism of the Holocaust to his decision to donate £300,000 in the city’s name to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation.
Mr Khan, who attended the Auschwitz 75 commemorations on Monday, told Jewish News that “one of our concerns is that people are re-writing history” and said that he was anxious about the way in which the Polish government was speaking about its role in relation to the Holocaust. As an example, he said he was unhappy about Polish president Andrzej Duda’s decision to block the reappointment of Dariusz Stola, the former director of the Polin museum of the history of Polish Jews in Warsaw. He said that the intention behind the London donation was to help preserve the historical facts of the Holocaust.
Poland’s right-wing government has repeatedly presented Poland as the victim of the Nazis without reference to antisemitism before, during and after the Holocaust.
In interview at Auschwitz with Polish State TV, the mayor said: “We must be vigilant and we cannot be complacent.” Mr Khan’s first action as mayor was to speak at a Holocaust Memorial Day event and he has maintained regular contact with survivors and Holocaust charities ever since.
The ongoing diplomatic row between Poland, Russia and the Jewish world flared into life last week at Yad Vashem when President Duda refused to attend the Yad Vashem ceremonies because he was not allowed to speak — although President Vladimir Putin was.
This week Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, threw his hat into the ring as an unanticipated guest at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation’s dinner for survivors in Krakow. During an earlier World Jewish Congress event that day, the former Israeli ambassador, Colette Avital, spoke critically of both Presidents Duda and Putin “giving their own interpretation of history.”. She said there had been a “re-writing of history, including that of Poland. We are seeing people who need to re-create their identity and embellish the past. We have a moral duty to remember responsibly”.
After a working meeting, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in pointed comments to his Polish host, told President Duda: “History, along with the terrible events that happened here on this ground, connect the Jewish people and the state of Israel in an unbreakable bond with Poland and the Polish people. This is a bond that looks to the future from an unshakeable commitment to the memory of the facts of the past. This is a bond that must sanctify the purity of history, to leave the work of historical research to historians and experts.”
He added: “We will forever sanctify the courage of the Righteous Among the Nations, including thousands of Poles, who risked their lives to save Jews. But we will also remember and remind that these noble people were too few, weaker than Nazi Germany which made Poland the largest site of extermination for Jews. Poland, the place where the Jewish people flourished for centuries, became its biggest cemetery… we also remember that many Pole stood by and even assisted in the murder of Jews.”
A clearly nettled Mr Duda replied, saying that he had boycotted the ceremony at Yad Vashem because in his view “Polish participation in the epic fight against the Nazis was ignored” He added: “Our fallen are etched in the annals of Polish history and we remember and honour them — and expect others to do the same”. “
Mr Zelensky, who is Jewish, said he was honoured to take part in the event and warmly praised the survivors for re-establishing their humanity after the Holocaust. But he warned that the international community needed to do more to confront racism, antisemitism and xenophobia. It was, he said, “our duty and obligation to remember”. Some observers suggested that in his appearance the Ukrainian president, who was accompanied by his foreign minister, was laying down a marker in the battle for political ownership of the Holocaust.