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Auschwitz Ceremony Lays Bare Russian Tension With Europe

  • Glenn Kates

The claim that it was mostly Ukrainians who liberated Auschwitz threatens to deepen a rift that reflects current animosity and deep historic tension between Moscow and its Soviet-era subjects.

The claim that it was mostly Ukrainians who liberated Auschwitz threatens to deepen a rift that reflects current animosity and deep historic tension between Moscow and its Soviet-era subjects.

On the eve of international commemorations to mark the liberation of Auschwitz, the normally somber event has been overshadowed by an escalating dispute over the history of the Nazi death camp's liberation.

On January 27, 1945, soldiers of the 100th and 107th Soviet rifle divisions freed the prisoners of Auschwitz. The soldiers were members of what was known as the Ukrainian Front -- a geographic military designation rather than a name reflecting the force’s national composition.

But a senior official in Kyiv is now crediting Ukrainian soldiers for shouldering most of the work of liberating inmates at the camp, echoing earlier statements by Poland’s foreign minister that have enraged Russia.

"Ukrainians made up the majority of those who freed Auschwitz -- the Ukrainian Front," Valeriy Chaliy, deputy head of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s administration, told a January 23 press briefing.

Ukrainians also played the most significant role in liberating other concentration camps and "Europe overall," Chaliy added.

Valery Chaliy, deputy head of President Petro Poroshenko’s administration

Valery Chaliy, deputy head of President Petro Poroshenko’s administration

At least one Auschwitz liberator, Anatoly Shapiro, was born in Ukraine, but several others recognized in recent years for freeing the camp’s prisoners hailed from various Russian regions and other republics that encompassed the Soviet Union.

In July 1944 -- half a year before Auschwitz's liberation -- Soviet infantry units were made up of about 52 percent Russians and 34 percent Ukrainians, according to historian Timothy Blauvelt.

Chaliy’s comments are the latest in a controversy that has escalated since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced through his spokesman last week that he will not attend a January 27 ceremony in Poland commemorating the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation.

Since assuming power in 2000, Putin has been keen to highlight the Soviet Union's enormous contribution to allied victory in World War II, and few moments in this triumph are seen as more important than the fall of the notorious Nazi death camp.

AUSCHWITZ THEN & NOW: Interactive Photo Gallery

But in what several media outlets have portrayed as a backhanded move by Poland to prevent Putin from attending the ceremony, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum did not send invitations to any heads of state this year.

Instead, the museum notified world leaders of the event and asked who would be coming. Several, including Poroshenko, plan to attend.

Relations between Warsaw and Moscow have deteriorated drastically over the past year as Poland has taken a leading role in both supporting Ukraine in its conflict with Russia and calling for tougher sanctions against Putin's government.

Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna

Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna

And on January 21, when asked by Radio Poland whether Putin’s absence at the Auschwitz ceremony would be disrespectful, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna demurred, pointing instead to the name of the military outfit that freed the prisoners.

"May I tell you, to be more precise, that it was the Ukrainian Front -- the First Ukrainian Front -- and Ukrainians who liberated [the Auschwitz camp]," Schetyna said in the interview. "On that particular day, Ukrainians opened the gates of the camp and they liberated it."

Moscow responded angrily to Schetyna's comments.

"Any attempts to play a card of any sort of nationalistic sentiment in this situation is totally sacrilegious and cynical," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a Berlin press conference hours after the Polish official’s radio interview.

At the United Nations, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin told Boguslaw Winid, his Polish counterpart, to remind Schetyna that "over 100 ethnic groups of the Soviet Union" fought during World War II.

In an e-mail to RFE/RL, the Polish Foreign Ministry appeared to acknowledge that point but defended the factual basis for Schetyna’s assertion.

"We would like to stress that all nations of the former U.S.S.R., including many Ukrainians, fought in the Red Army," the ministry said. "Schetyna stated in accordance with historical facts, that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front of the Red Army, where among soldiers served also Ukrainians and other nations of the former Soviet Union. All other interpretations of this statement are misleading."

Collaboration Questions

Since February, when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv and a new pro-European government took power, Moscow has relentlessly warned about the spread of Nazism in Europe and has accused Kyiv of supporting neo-Nazi and fascist groups.

While there is little evidence of far-right ideology gaining mainstream acceptance in Ukraine over the past year -- and while Moscow itself has supported ultranationalist European parties -- Russia has used Eastern Europe's own complicated history to buttress its claims.

In state media and abroad, when talking about the Ukrainian experience in World War II, Russia has focused on supporters of Stepan Bandera, an anti-Soviet insurgent who collaborated with the Nazis before turning against them.

Some historians say Bandera's followers took part in the killings of Jews and Poles in western Ukraine.

Ukrainians, though, say their own immense contribution to the liberation of Europe has been given short shrift.

More than 1 million Ukrainians died fighting for the Soviet Union during World War II -- second only to Russian casualties.

And in Ukraine, Poland and other eastern European states, many say they suffered under both German and Soviet occupation.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff says there is an ongoing effort to whitewash "the extensive, extremely important collaboration [with the Nazis] of the peoples of Eastern Europe."

The Simon Wiesenthal Center's Efraim Zuroff says there is an ongoing effort to whitewash "the extensive, extremely important collaboration [with the Nazis] of the peoples of Eastern Europe."

But Efraim Zuroff, who leads the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center's efforts to track down and prosecute living Nazis, says Central and Eastern European governments themselves have tried to "promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes" to avoid addressing unsavory elements of their own histories.

Noting that Poland itself was an exception, Zuroff told RFE/RL that there is an ongoing effort to whitewash "the extensive, extremely important collaboration [with the Nazis] of the peoples of Eastern Europe."

More than 1 million people died at Auschwitz -- mostly Jews, but also tens of thousands of Roma and some 74,000 Poles. Several well-known Nazi massacres, including the exterminations of thousands of Jews at Babi Yar, on the outskirts of Kyiv, involved Nazi collaborators.

The Soviets themselves massacred more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn forest of northwestern Russia.

The Kremlin has said it will send Putin's chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov, to the Auschwitz commemoration.

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