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Leaders vow to learn from Holocaust, offer lessons

Aron Heller
Associated Press

Jerusalem – Speaker by speaker, world leaders on Thursday denounced the rising threat of anti-Semitism and vowed never to forget the lessons of the Holocaust at a solemn ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the infamous Auschwitz death camp.

But the high-powered dignitaries also tinged their speeches with competing interpretations of World War II and its relevance today, giving a politically charged feeling to the gathering.

Britain's Prince Charles, second left, and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, right, visit the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Thursday Jan. 23, 2020.

The World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem, the largest-ever summit of its kind, drew more than 45 world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

The three-hour event at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial sought to project a united front in commemorating the destruction of European Jewry amid a global spike in anti-Jewish violence. But from the start, it was clouded by rival national narratives of World War II’s major players.

Poland’s president, who has been criticized for his own wartime revisionism, boycotted the gathering even before it began since he was not invited to speak. The president of Lithuania, a country seeking to diminish its own culpability while making heroes out of anti-Soviet nationalists involved in the mass killing of Jews, abruptly canceled his participation days before the event. And the president of Ukraine, another country with a dubious reckoning of its role in the genocide, mysteriously backed out while in Israel shortly before the ceremony began.

Putin was granted a central role even as he leads a campaign to play down the Soviet Union’s prewar pact with the Nazis and shift responsibility for the war’s outbreak on Poland, which was invaded in 1939.

In his address, Putin highlighted the role of the Red Army in liberating Auschwitz on Jan. 27, 1945, while singling out the collaboration by regional foes Ukraine, Lithuania and Latvia. He called them “bandits” who “often surpassed their masters in cruelty.”

In a nod toward Poland and others, he said the Holocaust would only serve as a warning to future generations if told in full, “without exemptions and omissions.”

“Regrettably, the memory of the war today often becomes the subject of current political interests,” he said.

Putin himself has been accused of the same, shaping a narrative around his country’s “Great Patriotic War” that began in 1941 after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and ignoring the nonaggression accord the Soviets had signed two years earlier.

On the eve of the gathering, host Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored visiting dignitaries to “leave history for the historians,” saying it was the role of political leaders to “shape the future.” But Putin quickly ventured into the sensitive terrain shortly after his arrival Thursday, claiming that 40% of Jewish Holocaust victims were Soviet.

Of the 6 million Jews killed by the Nazis, historians say about 1 million were Soviet. Putin’s figure appeared to include an additional 1.5 million Jewish victims from eastern European areas occupied by the Soviets under their pact with the Nazis.

Netanyahu, who seeks Putin’s support in holding off Iranian forces in neighboring Syria and in securing the release of a young Israeli woman imprisoned on drug charges in Russia, gave the Russian leader a fawning welcome. He hosted Putin for the dedication of an imposing monument honoring the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad. The city, now known as St. Petersburg, is Putin’s hometown.

“We mustn’t for even one second blur the sacrifice and the contribution of the former Soviet Union,” Netanyahu said.

In his own address to the forum, Netanyahu reiterated his long-held conviction that the primary lesson of the Holocaust is that Jews had to defend themselves in the face of annihilation.