Duda’s refusal to attend was in protest over Israel’s decision to offer speaking roles at the ceremony to some world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, but not to Duda. The Polish leader contended he had not been permitted to offer remarks alongside three other representatives of World War II’s Allied powers, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
A spokesman for Rivlin claimed Duda had, in fact, been offered the chance to get “some kind of platform” to speak.
Duda’s boycott highlighted Poland’s history as a geographic center of Nazi Germany’s Holocaust and the current Polish government’s efforts to dominate the narrative of the country’s role before and during the war.
At Auschwitz, in southern Poland, the Nazis killed more than a million people, most of them Jews. About 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland in 1939. Fewer than 400,000 remained alive at the end of the war, according to Yad Vashem.
Abroad, the moves have elicited growing criticism and accusations that Poland is seeking to rewrite history by refusing to accept the role that some Poles played in World War II-era atrocities. In 2018, the U.S. State Department said it feared the Polish law — which has since been significantly softened — “could undermine free speech."
In December, Putin accused Poland’s ambassador to Nazi Germany in the 1930s of anti-Semitism and suggested Poland bore some responsibility for the war because it had signed a nonaggression agreement with Nazi Germany. Putin argued that Poland was, thus, complicit in the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia, which preceded the Nazi invasion of Poland.
But historians in Poland rejected Putin’s remarks, noting the Soviet Union had signed its own nonaggression pact with the Nazis, one the European Parliament recently singled out as a cause of World War II.
The Soviet agreement with the Nazis — known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — secretly specified how Central and Eastern Europe should be divided into spheres of influence in the event of a war.
“Dear President Putin, Hitler and Stalin colluded to start World War II,” the U.S. ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, tweeted in response to Putin’s comments, backing up Duda, who has argued that the Soviet-Nazi pact was the “last and determining step that led to World War II — the war without which the tragedy of the Holocaust would not have happened.”
In an interview with Israeli television, Duda reiterated that Putin was “consciously disseminating lies about history.”
Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Szymon Szynkowski vel Sek also urged Putin to refrain from using his speech on Thursday to repeat similar claims, including Putin’s suggestion that the Soviet Union liberated Europe from Nazi Germany. Poland — which was dominated by the Soviets after World War II — has rejected that characterization.
As the host nation of Thursday’s memorial event, the Israeli government has sought to maintain neutrality. “Israel does not want to be involved in the dispute between Russia and Poland,” a senior Israeli diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk more freely, said earlier this week.
But on Thursday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz appeared to side with Putin. “We — as those who were liberated — know exactly who liberated [us],” Katz was quoted as saying by the Israeli Haaretz newspaper on Thursday. “We know the historical truth,” he added.
The Israeli government and the Polish administration have frequently clashed in recent years, with Katz being a key figure in the escalation.
Last year, he said Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.”
Speaking on Israeli television, Duda said the remarks had offended his country and he would not meet with Katz unless an apology was offered.
The appropriate location for the commemorations, Duda said, was the Auschwitz memorial site in Poland. He is set to attend a separate event there on Monday.
Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.