PRAGUE (JTA) — Political tensions with Russia must not be allowed to obfuscate the historical record on the Holocaust, a senior European Union official said.
Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission — the EU’s executive branch — made the plea Monday at an event in Prague commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by Soviet troops.
“It would be horrible to have a debate about who liberated Auschwitz,” Timmermans told JTA during an interview at a commemoration event titled “Let My People Live” that the European Jewish Congress and the Czech government organized for hundreds of dignitaries at venues across Prague.
Timmermans, a former Dutch foreign minister, was reacting to a Jan. 21 statement by Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna, who infuriated Russian officials when he said during a radio interview that “Ukrainians liberated [Auschwitz], because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day.”
Relations between Russia and its western neighbors have deteriorated drastically following Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory last year and its arming of rebels against the government in Kiev, which some formerly communist states perceive as a threat.
The soldiers who liberated Auschwitz belonged to a Red Army unit named the First Ukrainian Front because it was deployed in Ukraine, “but the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, that’s a historic fact,” said Timmermans, who in the past has harshly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
“I would feel very bad indeed if it were to be claimed by some, or if others were excluded from this. It would be terrible.”
Historical accuracy is crucial now, he said, because “anti-Semitism is rising in Europe.” As Holocaust survivors die out, “we will no longer have people who can show you tattoos on their arms.”
The EJC’s Moscow-born president, Moshe Kantor, reacted to Schetyna’s remark when he presented the French Jewish philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy — himself a harsh critic of Russia — with the memoirs of a Russian who participated in Auschwitz’s liberation.
“In this book by Anatoly Shapiro, you will see who really opened the gates that read ‘work sets you free,’” Kantor said.