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The site of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp is shown in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 19, 2015. (PAWEL ULATOWSKI/REUTERS)
The site of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz concentration camp is shown in Oswiecim, Poland, on Jan. 19, 2015. (PAWEL ULATOWSKI/REUTERS)

Why Russia and Poland are feuding over Auschwitz Add to ...

All it took was one sentence in the middle of a 14-minute interview on Polish radio.

A diplomatic row between Russia and Poland was rekindled again Thursday as friction between the two nations continued, days before the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

First, there was the controversy triggered by the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin would not be present at the Jan. 27 ceremony marking the arrival in 1945 of the Red Army at the infamous death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Now, Russia is infuriated by comments Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna made Wednesday, crediting Ukrainian soldiers with liberating Auschwitz.

On Twitter and Facebook, through its ambassador to the United Nations and its Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, in multilingual statements and interviews, Russian officials vented their outrage Thursday.

“To try to play with someone’s nationalistic feelings in this situation is absolutely blasphemous and cynical,” Mr. Lavrov told the Tass news agency.

THE BACKDROP

The dispute comes amid high tensions between Russia and western countries because of the crisis in Ukraine.

Poland, which is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, has staked a hard position against Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its backing of separatists fighting the Ukrainian army in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

Mr. Putin has been getting a frosty reception at international events.

Last fall, for example, at the G20 summit in Australia, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper let it be known that when he approached Mr. Putin he told the Russian leader: “you need to get out of Ukraine.”

THE 70TH ANNIVERSARY

The Auschwitz commemorations became part of the controversy a week ago when the Kremlin said that Mr. Putin would not join other world leaders at the ceremony.

Mr. Putin had given a speech at the site of the camp during the 60th anniversary of its liberation. This time, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, the Russian President had not received an official invitation.

In fact, no formal invitations were sent to politicians or heads of state, Pawel Sawicki, a spokesman for the event organizers, told The Globe and Mail.

Because this year’s commemoration might be the last major gathering while many survivors are still alive, organizers decided to focus the event on 300 former inmates who will attend the ceremony.

The event is organized by the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and its international council.

Mr. Sawicki said the organizers did notify the embassies of countries of the European Union and countries which support the museum foundation, including Russia.

It was up to those countries to choose who they wish to send to the event, Mr. Sawicki said.

So far, 41 countries have confirmed they would attend.

He said Russia indicated that its delegation would be headed by Sergei Ivanov, Mr. Putin’s chief of staff.

Yet, despite the lack of formal invites, Polish Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz, while visiting Kiev on Monday, told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko he was invited to attend the Auschwitz memorial event.

THE RADIO INTERVIEW

The latest flareup started Wednesday when the Polish Foreign Minister gave an interview on the national broadcaster, Polskie Radio.

Mr. Schetyna, who has a master’s degree in history, was asked if Poland was being petty in not inviting Mr. Putin, considering that Russia was the successor of the Soviet Union and that it was the Red Army that opened the gates of Auschwitz.

Mr. Schetyna interjected that the camp was “liberated by the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians,” he said. “Ukrainian soldiers … opened the gates of the camp.”

THE UKRAINIAN FRONT

As both Polish and Russian media quickly noted, the First Ukrainian Front was an army group of the Red Army. It assumed that name because it was one of several army groups that had fought through Ukraine as the Red Army pushed back German troops.

Not only were the liberators of Auschwitz Soviet, thousands of victims also came from the Soviet Union.

Before it became an extermination centre, Auschwitz started in the spring of 1940 as a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners. The following year, the Germans began sending Soviet prisoners of war to the camp.

According to the museum, between 1.1 million and 1.3 million victims died at Auschwitz – including more than one million Jews, between 70,000 to 150,000 Poles, and 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war.

Hours after Mr. Schetyna’s remarks, Marcin Wojciechowski, the press spokesman for the Polish foreign ministry, posted conciliatory words on Twitter.

“All the nations of the USSR have the right to be proud of the victory over fascism and the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau [concentration] camp,” he wrote.

With a report from Renata D’Aliesio

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