The lights dimmed, more than 40 world leaders took their seats, and the screens cut to black. The scene was set for Russia to sell its revisionist take on World War II to a global audience.
The Fifth World Holocaust Forum, held in Jerusalem on January 23, was described by its Kremlin-friendly sponsor as a “historic event” intended to remember the Holocaust and counter anti-Semitism ahead of the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp.
But it may be remembered for key omissions in the narrative of how the war played out and for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s manipulation of historical facts during his speech.
At the end of the day, videos screened during the more than four-hour event garnered the most controversy, in particular one titled The Holocaust And Liberation.
The video prompted an apology from the director of Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, which cooperated with the World Holocaust Forum Foundation, founded by one of Russia’s wealthiest men, Vyacheslav Kantor, in organizing the event.
“Unfortunately, the short films that accompanied the event…included a number of inaccuracies that resulted in a partial and unbalanced presentation of the historical facts,” Professor Dan Michman, the head of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research, said in a February 3 apology.
The most glaring omission, critics say, was the failure to mention the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. The pact and a secret annex that was kept under wraps for decades are seen, including by Yad Vashem, as paving the way for World War II and allowing for Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union to carve up Poland and the Baltics.
Russia has in recent years claimed that Moscow had no choice but to sign the nonaggression agreement, and in some cases has called it smart diplomacy.
Germany, which received western Poland under the deal, later broke the agreement when it invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.
The film aired at the forum instead picks up with a map depicting the “Nazi Conquest 1942,” which shows Nazi Germany expanding its territory across countries that appear to be independent, even though they were occupied by Nazi Germany or, in the case of Poland, partly by the Soviet Union at the time.
The maps also “show incorrect borders between Poland and its neighbors and erroneously identify concentration camps as extermination camps,” Yad Vashem’s Michman noted in the apology.
He said that the films “do not reflect the complexity of the Holocaust and the war,” and added that “we reiterate our ongoing commitment to historical truth, and to research that stands opposed to efforts at obfuscation and distortion by the political discourse in various countries.”
The apology did not mention the speech Putin delivered before an audience that did not include Polish President Andrzej Duda — who opted not to go because he was not given the right to speak at the event — but did include Great Britain’s Prince Charles, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, whose office helped organize the forum.
The speech echoed the narrative recently pushed by the Kremlin, which has argued that the way to war was paved by what Russian officials have termed collusion by Poland and Western powers with Nazi Germany.
Putin said that of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, “40 percent were citizens of the Soviet Union,” a claim that historians decried as false.
Evoking the name of Soviet Red Army Marshal Ivan Konev, who liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1945 but whose legacy is also a point of contention between Moscow and countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, where he is widely seen as a symbol of decades of postwar Soviet dominance, Putin described the crimes committed by the Nazis as “one of the darkest and most shameful pages of modern world history.”
Putin did not mention well-documented Soviet crimes that followed the occupation of Poland, such as the Katyn massacre — the killing of 22,000 Poles including military officers, religious figures, and intelligentsia.
Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance has estimated the country’s dead, including Polish Jews, at the hands of German actions at between 5.4 and 5.6 million, but also estimates that at least 111,000 and up to 200,000 Poles were killed as the result of persecution by the Soviet Union.
In claiming that the largest number of Jews were killed on Nazi-occupied Soviet territory, Putin also drew attention to the Jews slain in the Baltics during the Holocaust — “220,000 people killed in Lithuania” and “in Latvia, 77,000” — without acknowledging that those countries were not Soviet but independent states that were first occupied and subsequently annexed by the Soviet Union.
Putin concluded by calling on all those assembled to “defend truth and justice” with Russia.
Event funder Kantor, who is widely known as Moshe, has headed the European Jewish Congress since 2007 and is listed among prominent donors to Yad Vashem. He is considered by the U.S. Treasury Department to be among the “oligarchs” with close business or political ties to the Kremlin.
Polish President Duda has said that Kantor’s involvement in the January 23 forum and “friendship and acquaintance” with Putin played a part in his decision not to attend.
“As you know, there was a serious exchange of views on historical topics between the Polish authorities and representatives of Russia,” he said after meeting with his Israeli counterpart Rivlin during the January 27 commemoration at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Kantor had brushed aside criticism of his event, telling reporters just before it began that “it’s not a political gathering. Our main goal is to use the platform of Holocaust commemoration to raise the issue about the crisis of anti-Semitism. And we have done that.”
One observer who was vocal in his criticism of the decision to allow Putin and Macron to speak, and not Duda, told RFE/RL that the Jerusalem event had overshadowed Auschwitz commemorations in Oswiecim, Poland, the location of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Israeli journalists behind the scenes were calling it St. Putin Day. This was the running joke from Israel,” said Jonny Daniels, who heads the From The Depths Foundation that works to improve Polish-Jewish relations. “Effectively Putin was able to push a Russian narrative, and a false narrative pertaining to the Second World War.”
“I think every leader should have the opportunity to visit Jerusalem,” he said. “But there’s a time and a place for everything, and the primary place for this [Holocaust commemorations] was in Auschwitz, not Jerusalem.”
Piotr Cywinski, the director of the Auschwitz Memorial in Oswiecim, had also questioned Kantor’s role and the holding of such an event in Jerusalem, suggesting that his friends at Yad Vashem risked becoming victims of a “political dispute.”
Following the apology from Yad Vashem’s Michman, Cywinski told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments that “the problem that has arisen from this turmoil is that for the first time a serious leading memorial institution has openly linked its fund-raising activities with a historical narration.”
“After this dispute that was unnecessary to anyone,” he said, “I hope that other museums or memorials — as well as the donors — will not think that times have changed and money can now be taken in exchange for manipulating the narrative. This would be a real tragedy and the beginning of the end of the memory.”