Speaking next to the preserved railway tracks that brought cattle cars of victims to Auschwitz, Bat-Sheva Dagan, 94, described having her head shaved and arm tattooed upon her arrival and how she was forced to sort the belongings of those sent to their deaths.
“Where was everybody?” she asked. “Where was the world, who could see that, hear that, and yet did nothing to save all those thousands?”
More than 1 million people were killed in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the vast majority of whom were Jews. In total, the Nazi campaign to eradicate Jews from Europe claimed more than 6 million Jewish lives, while others such as Poles, Roma and Sinti were also put to death in concentration camps.
Although the Soviet army is credited with liberating Auschwitz, Russian President Vladimir Putin boycotted Monday’s event, and Polish President Andrzej Duda skipped last week’s ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, as they dispute the role of each other’s country in collaborating with the Nazis.
The rift underscores concerns about the growing politicization of the history of the war, as the pool of those who can remember its horrors shrinks and anti-Semitism resurges in Europe and the United States.
“World War II history is being weaponized today, and not for the first time,” said David Harris, head of the American Jewish Committee. He described Russia’s attempt to play down Joseph Stalin’s 1939 pact with Adolf Hitler and blame Poland for the war’s outbreak as “preposterous.” He characterized the decision not to invite Duda to speak alongside other world leaders in Israel as “disappointing.”
“Power politics cannot be allowed to distort the truth,” he said. “Or we will all pay a heavy price.”
In recent years and months, spats about who collaborated with the Nazis before and during the war have mounted. Poland and Israel have rowed over attempts by Warsaw’s right-wing government to make it a crime to accuse the country of complicity in war crimes.
Meanwhile, Putin elevated tensions over history late last year with a distorted historical narrative that accused the Polish state of collaborating with the Nazis and painted the Russians as untainted war heroes. Warsaw accuses Russia of playing down its role in invading Poland and its own collaboration with the Nazis.
“Distorting the history of the Second World War and denying the crimes of genocide and the Holocaust,” Duda said Monday, “is tantamount to desecration of the memories of the victims whose remains are scattered here.”
He made pointed remarks about Poland being the “first target of Nazi Germany’s aggression” and stressed that its troops fought from the “first day to the last.”
Holocaust survivor Marian Turski, 93, said he would probably not live to mark another major anniversary at Auschwitz. “So please forgive me that there will be some emotions in what I’m going to say,” he said, addressing the younger generations. He said that even though just 25 years had elapsed since World War I when the second broke out, it felt distant, and that he understands that young people today feel detached from the horrors of the Holocaust.
“Auschwitz did not fall from the skies,” he said, recalling the growing anti-Semitism in Germany in the 1930s. “It was approaching until what happened here, behind me, did happen.”
He urged younger generations to be vigilant: “Do not be indifferent when you hear lies, historical lies. Do not be indifferent when you see the past is stretched to fit the current political needs. Do not be indifferent when any minority is discriminated against.”