Disputes Cast A Shadow Over Auschwitz Liberation Anniversary

Jan 23, 2020
Originally published on January 23, 2020 8:01 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

World leaders gathered in Jerusalem today to mark an important Holocaust anniversary - 75 years since the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Modern-day geopolitics, as well as history were on display. Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called out Iran as, in his words, the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: A regime that openly seeks to develop nuclear weapons and annihilate the one and only Jewish state.

GREENE: Vice President Mike Pence, Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron also spoke at the event. NPR's Daniel Estrin is in Jerusalem. He was listening to all of it and joins us. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: So what else did we hear from Netanyahu?

ESTRIN: Well, he drew a direct line between Jews being defenseless in the Holocaust and the need for a strong state of Israel to defend itself today. He had 40 heads of state sitting before him in the hall, one of the biggest gatherings of world leaders Israel's ever hosted. And he had some tough words for the world. He said, quote, "when the Jewish people faced annihilation, the world turned its back on us."

He also said he's concerned that the world doesn't have a unified stance to confront Iran. He didn't name names, but, you know, sitting before him were the presidents of France and Germany and Prince Charles of the U.K. And all of those countries are still part of the Iran nuclear deal that Israel opposes. And earlier today, Netanyahu also nodded to his guest, Vladimir Putin. And he said that nobody should obscure the sacrifice of the Soviet Union battling the Nazi monster.

GREENE: What was he referring to? I mean, is there some sort of risk that people would doubt how much the Soviets suffered in the war?

ESTRIN: Well, this is Netanyahu winking at what is bothering Putin lately, which is a dispute that he has with Poland about their country's roles and complicity in the war. The Poles have not forgotten that the Soviet Union signed a pact - a secret pact with Germany - to divide Poland and that's what launched World War II. And Putin thinks that the world, you know, instead should be focusing on the Soviet liberation of Auschwitz. So at his - in his speech in Jerusalem, Putin said the Soviet Union lost more people than any other nation in World War II.

He accused countries - some countries of cynically manipulating the war for political ends today. You know, maybe some eyes rolling in Poland about that statement because Putin recently accused Poland of starting World War II, which isn't true. But here in Jerusalem, Putin is the big guest of honor. Putin and Netanyahu inaugurated a memorial to the victims of the siege of Leningrad during World War II. And at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Netanyahu and his wife sat next to Putin. And on the other side of them was Vice President Mike Pence.

GREENE: Who also spoke, right? What'd we hear from him?

ESTRIN: Right. I think it's important to point out, you know, these two leaders sitting next to Netanyahu, and Netanyahu seeing both of those leaders as important figures. Pence called for an end to the vile tide of anti-Semitism around the world. He spoke about Iran also, called it the one state that denies the Holocaust. And Pence gave a religious bent to this ceremony. He's, of course, an evangelical Christian. He said we bear witness to God's faithfulness to the Jewish people.

GREENE: What did this all mean for Holocaust survivors in Israel?

ESTRIN: Well, Israel is home to the most Holocaust survivors in the world. But there was a lot of criticism among some Holocaust survivors, who weren't initially invited to the ceremony, and some who were calling this a Holocaust party - some Israelis calling that - saying, too much focus on all the world leaders here, not enough focus on what the actual genocide was.

GREENE: NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem this morning. Daniel, thanks a lot.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

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