Behind The Auschwitz Commemorations, A Raw Putin Power Play

Noga Tarnopolsky
Abir Sultan/Reuters

JERUSALEM—Before he even headed to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp liberated 75 years ago on an equally icy January 27, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin’s first task on landing in Warsaw was to make peace with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

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Duda was of one the few conspicuous absentees from the commemoration Rivlin hosted last week in Jerusalem, when Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem, observed the event in the presence of some 50 world leaders, including Vice President Mike Pence and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In fact, Putin was the reason Duda stayed away.

The Russian president has advanced a revisionist account of World War II in which Moscow’s notorious non-aggression pact with the Nazi regime is erased, and Poland, which was invaded by both Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin in September 1939, is cast as the guilty party collaborating with the Nazis.

In 1941, when Hitler tore up the nonaggression pact and launched his invasion of the Soviet Union, Stalin became an ally of the United States and Great Britain. But he had already murdered, in his own right, millions of his own subjects. In 1940 his troops massacred systematically some 22,000 of Poland’s military officers and members of the intelligentsia.

When Polish President Duda heard that Putin would give a keynote address in Jerusalem, he demanded equal time. But Yad Vashem, a public institution, refused, so Duda stayed conspicuously away.

But there is more to it than this dispute over Putin’s reimagined Russian history. Behind the controversy lies a web of rivalries and power struggles pitting independent nations once under Soviet dominion against Putin’s broader effort to recover what he sees as the glory—and at least some of the territory—of the Soviet empire.

In a parallel channel, the controversy is fed by a feud between two Jewish billionaires leveraging the Auschwitz commemorations to vie for international influence.

On one side, is former U.S. Ambassador Ronald Lauder, scion of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune and president of the World Jewish Congress, based in New York, who has long sponsored the annual memorial celebrations at the gates of Auschwitz in Poland.

On the other is the oligarch Viatcheslav “Moshe” Kantor, a Moscow-born fertilizer magnate who is close to Putin. Kantor heads the European Jewish Congress and its subsidiary, the World Holocaust Forum Foundation.

Rivlin is Israel’s titular head of state. When he dreamed of Israel hosting an event to mark the Nazi defeat, he did not imagine that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of government, would still be running for office more than a year after dissolving the parliament, or that Netanyahu would be managing a campaign while facing criminal indictments.

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As the event approached, and Netanyahu encroached, hoping the moment would bolster his candidacy as “Israel’s face to the world,” Israel’s low-budget presidency found itself in want of a sponsor.

Enter Kantor, for whom the commemoration became a platform to prove his international usefulness to Putin.

“It wasn’t Yad Vashem’s event, nor Rivlin’s, nor even the ministry of foreign affairs’,” said Ofer Aderet, history correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, who has followed Israel’s increasingly fraught relations with the eastern European nations in which much of the Holocaust took place. “It was a one man show run by Moshe Kantor, a guy whose name is not known to Israelis, who understood this to be an Israeli event, something official.”

Rivlin’s office estimated that the event cost about $5.7 million, but acknowledged paying only “several hundred thousand shekels”—a sum ranging anywhere from $60,000 to $260,000—for Wednesday night’s formal dinner for heads of state.

Jonathan Cummings, Rivlin’s spokesman, said it was “accurate” to report that Kantor had, in effect, footed the entire bill—an undisclosed sum—for a three-day event Israel billed as one of the most important diplomatic showcases in its entire history.

The question of why Israel would outsource a major diplomatic achievement to a Russian oligarch remains officially unanswered. But it was vigorously debated in Israeli cafés in recent days, especially by Israelis of Russian origin, many of whom, having left post-Soviet Russia for Israel, are no great fans of Putin or of the loose cast of ultra-rich men who surround him.

“It’s all about propaganda,” says tour guide Igor Schwartz. Now 46 years old, Schwartz has lived in Israel for 21 years, but was born in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg, which was still called Leningrad in those days.

He was unmoved by the 25-foot tall sculpture Putin and Netanyahu unveiled in Sacker Park, Jerusalem’s largest green space, to honor about 1 million Russians who died during the Nazi siege of his old hometown.

“Here and in all the world,” Schwartz said, “Putin is the enemy. He’s been the leader of Russia in one way or another for about 20 years, and what has happened during that time? Russia has gone only down.”

In a message to followers, an exultant Netanyahu summed up the diplomatic whirlwind in Jerusalem as “the morning with Vladimir Putin, midday with world leaders at Yad Vashem, and the evening with Vice President of the United States.”

But the result was clear: “It was a huge victory for Putin,” Aderet said, a triumphant prance around the jewel of Jerusalem, in which he publicly cemented his role as the new face of power in the Middle East.

In a Jerusalem speech that left many stunned, and made no mention of the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Putin said that worse than the Nazis, were their “accomplices… often crueler than their masters. Death factories and concentration camps were served not only by the Nazis, but also by their accomplices in many European countries.”

“He won,” Aderet said. “He succeeded in creating a situation in which he was transformed into the supreme hero, a revered king to whom everyone here pays obeisance, as if he himself opened the gates of Auschwitz.”

Greeting Putin at Ben Gurion airport, Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz, the son of Polish-Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, said, “Israel is appreciative of the great sacrifices the Russian people made in World War II and the overwhelmingly important contributions of the Red Army in defeating the German Nazis and liberating the concentration camps, among them Auschwitz.”

“We know exactly who did the liberating. We know the historical truth,” Katz said.

The Soviet Army did liberate Auschwitz—but in fact, Russian troops did not. The Red Army’s First Ukrainian Front opened the gates of hell, commanded by Ukrainian officers then subordinate to the Soviet command. 

In an elegant gesture, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ceded his delegation’s seats at the Jerusalem event to Holocaust survivors, few of whom secured invitations. Space was so tight at Yad Vashem, and so many personalities had to be accommodated, that only 30 out of the 780 seats at the ceremony were reserved for those who had endured the horrors of the death camps.

“Israel comes off as a miserable failure,” Aderet lamented, “prepared to bend history for any immediate domestic interest.” 

He noted that in recent years, Poland’s right-wing populist government has indulged in its own revisionism, even passing a law criminalizing any comment implying Polish collaboration with the Nazi final solution, such as the term “Polish death camp” instead of a Nazi death camp in occupied Poland. 

Putin’s tactic is to suggest that he and those he supports, especially separatists in Ukraine, are still fighting the old fight against modern fascists and Nazis. And on Monday, Putin boycotted the ceremony at Auschwitz, where Lauder and Duda are the hosts.

Rivlin’s first act upon landing there was to lay a wreath at a memorial to Witold Pilecki, a Polish hero who, as a leader of the anti-Nazi underground, volunteered to be imprisoned at Auschwitz and gather intelligence, which he transmitted to the west.

Then, expressing sorrow that Polish-Israeli ties have been harmed in the past by “political intervention in questions of history,” Rivlin attempted to repair some of the wounds opened by the week’s jamboree of remembrances.

“We remember that Poland and the Polish people are victims of the Second World War,” he said, in formal remarks.

Israel, he said, remembers that “over one million Jews were exterminated at Auschwitz,” and that “Nazi Germany initiated, planned and implemented the genocide of the Jewish people in Poland… and takes full responsibility for its actions.”

“We remember that during the war the Polish people fought with courage and strength against Nazi Germany. But we also remember that many Poles stood by and even assisted in the murder of Jews.”

The diplomatic statement, acknowledging both Poland’s truth and the truth of Europe’s Jews, is typical of Rivlin, a fellow member of Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud party who has spent a significant part of his presidency mitigating damage caused by the prime minister’s headstrong determination to hold onto power. 

On Monday, Netanyahu was in Washington, D.C., with his great political ally President Donald Trump, who has promised to settle the long, painful Israeli-Palestinian dispute by unveiling “the deal of the century,” which most analysts believe will die aborning.

At the very moment that Netanyahu tweeted on Monday that he was “At the White House. Making History. Keeping Israel safe,” Rivlin made his way along rows of about 200 Holocaust survivors who attended the commemoration at Auschwitz, slowly shaking hands, exchanging words with each of them, and finally marching with other world leaders on the dark path the Nazis forced on the Jews.  

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