When does a three-year-old debate about the citizenship of Holocaust victims become an emotional, historical and geopolitical quagmire garnering international media coverage?
When it involves the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, perhaps the ultimate symbol of the Holocaust, and Poland and Russia, which are proponents of conflicting World War II narratives.
Russia says some 1 million victims from countries taken over by the Soviet Union under the Stalin-Hitler Pact were Soviet citizens, and demands that a Russian exhibit at the Auschwitz museum reflect this. The Poland-based museum is keeping the exhibit closed as the two sides battle it out, a conflict that analysts say mirrors a larger battle between the two countries.
The fracas began when an article this month in the Russian daily Kommersant stated that an exhibition on Soviet victims had been shut down by the Auschwitz museum — a closure that was “interpreted as a political action in Russia.”
In fact, the Russian government and the museum agreed to close the so-called Russian pavilion in 2003 for renovation. What Kommersant got right is that Russian officials and historians want some 1 million Holocaust victims counted as Soviet in the exhibition, and the museum objects.
As organized by Russian historians, the refurbished exhibit counts 3 million victims as Soviet. The dispute has indefinitely delayed the pavilion’s reopening.
Under their 1939-41 pact, Hitler and Stalin carved up Eastern Europe, with the Soviet Union taking over eastern Poland, parts of Romania and the Baltic nations. The museum counts the victims of these countries as belonging to their respective pre-Soviet national designations.
Following the Komersant article, Russians and Poles traded barbs.
“The memory of the victims of Auschwitz should not be caught up in historical and political speculation,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, the Polish president of the International Auschwitz Council, announced zero tolerance for “an exhibition which misrepresents history based on the criteria of the Stalinist period.”
For weeks, the dispute has caught the attention of hundreds of bloggers and major newspapers, with analysts casting the conflict as part of larger tensions between the two countries.
“Russia has awful relations with some countries. Poland is the worst,” explained Bobo Lo, an analyst on Russian affairs for the London-based Chatham House think tank.
Russia has been increasingly suspicious of its former Eastern bloc neighbors since they joined the European Union and NATO. But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intense nationalism has been rivaled by the populist positions of Poland’s twin leaders, Prime Minister Jaroslav Kaczynski and President Lech Kaczynski.
“The Auschwitz problem was absolutely typical,” Lo said. “The Kremlin wants to make Poland look unreasonable to other members in the European Union, particularly to Germany, and will seize on any historical move and make a fuss over it.”
Poland recently blocked negotiations between the European Union and Russia over the renewal of a 10-year economic cooperation agreement due to displeasure with a Russian embargo of Polish meat. Poland also is furious that a planned German-Russian gas pipeline will bypass Polish territory.
Meanwhile, the Poles may host part of a U.S. missile defense system, infuriating the Russians.
“Today Russia is trying to undermine Poland in the Russian media, they want to make Poland look Russiaphobic. They cannot be just or rational about these relations,” compl! ained Pi otr Maciej Kaczynski, an analyst with the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs. Kaczynski has no relation to the ruling Kaczynski brothers.
Russia’s state-owned RIA Novosti news agency had another view of the Auschwitz Museum’s objection to the exhibit.
“Is it another political demarche by Poland, one of the many that have taken place recently, especially when it comes to reconsidering history?” one of the agency’s political commentators asked in an editorial.
But Auschwitz Museum Director Piotr Cywinski says the matter has been misrepresented, and possibly exploited, by the media.
“There have been ongoing negotiations on the exhibition since 2004, and there is nothing new here,” said Cywinski, adding that he had friendly talks with the Russian ambassador to Poland in an effort to resolve the disagreement.
“This is going to be a long discussion, with no quick solution,” Cywinski said. “But it is not a political discussion, it is a historical discussion. I can assure you we are independent, we have an international council, no one is pressuring us.”
Back in 1946, the museum’s choice to create national pavilions under the Soviet era was indeed political, since it allowed Communist authorities to almost completely omit any mention of Jews. That has long been corrected.
But today many Russians feel that a different injustice is taking place and that their role in World War II is being suppressed by countries still angry about four decades of Soviet rule. Few Russian commentators have failed to note that it was the Russians who liberated Auschwitz.
“Russia lost 27 million people in World War II,” Lo said. “They believe they made enormous sacrifices to liberate Central and Eastern Europe.”
Once again, as in Soviet times, the politicization of history threatens to overshadow the perspective of the victims.
Shevach Weiss, a former Israeli ambassador to Poland, is originally from Borislav, whic! h was pa rt of eastern Poland when Soviet troops marched in. He witnessed the event as a toddler in 1939.
“All Jews that came from the region of Galicia felt like Polish Jews. We were Polish, that’s a fact. But we were saved and liberated by Red Army, and I will not forget this fact,” Weiss said.
At least one U.S-based. historian who has written on the Holocaust says that the pursuit of a single version the Holocaust is difficult because national identity plays such a crucial role in understanding what occurred.
“There is not one history of the Holocaust, there are national histories of it,” said Christian Gerlach, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh and an expert on European history.
“Auschwitz as a symbol of the Holocaust has a quasi-religious meaning. For certain historians there is is this sacral factor, that there should be one truth,” he said.
Gerlach said that impeded sober discussion.
Asked if it would be a problem to have conflicting numbers displayed at the museum, he said, “What would be bad about victims claimed by both sides? If their heritage is cherished by both sides, why not?”