Yad Vashem event overlooked Polish part in fighting Nazis - President Duda

The Israeli head of state invited President Andrzej Duda to visit Jerusalem in order to jointly discuss how to strengthen Polish-Israeli relations and cooperation. Andrzej Grygiel/PAP

Polish President Andrzej Duda said after meeting his Israeli counterpart Reuven Rivlin that he could not be present at the World Holocaust Forum in Jerusalem because the Polish contribution to the fight against Nazi Germany was omitted during the event.

The two presidents met in Oświęcim (southern Poland) to attend observances of the 75th liberation anniversary of the Nazi German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The two presidents discussed Duda's absence at the recent World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem Institute in Jerusalem, organised by the Moshe Kantor Foundation, Duda told a press briefing after the meeting.

"It was with great regret that I received the fact that Polish participation in the fight against the Nazis, perpetrators of the Holocaust, was omitted during the ceremony at Yad Vashem," Duda said, adding that this confirmed the correctness of his decision not to attend the ceremonies in Jerusalem. Duda initially decided not to take part in the observances after being told that he would not be allowed to give a speech at the event.

He added that Polish soldiers, who first defended Poland, later fought against Nazi Germany on all World War Two fronts.

Duda said that "presence in Oświęcim on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi German Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp liberation is a visible sign of remembrance and a protest against hatred and all forms of hostility, especially racial hostility."

The Polish president thanked the Israeli head of state for coming to Poland. "This is a very important event in world history. On that day, January 27, 1945, just a handful of survivors, just several thousand of those who stayed in this terrible place, were finally liberated by Red Army soldiers. This was - I think - the end of the most terrible time in their lives," President Duda said.

He admitted he was very moved that so many survivors had come to Oświęcim, to the museum which is a testimony to the genocide and a great warning to the world.

Duda said Rivlin's presence in Poland was also a sign of protest against anti-Semitism, "the manifestation of which is our presence at the observances and the homage paid to the victims, as well as to the survivors, (...) who are the witnesses of those times and who do not allow anyone to distort history."

Rivlin said that nothing could replace the observances of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the site of Auschwitz, which was an object of remembrance. He also added that the Jewish people were a nation which does not forget.

He noted that "we remember" that Poland and the Polish people were the victims of WWII. "We remember" the over one million Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz, and "we also remember" the thousands of Roma and Sinti, and thousands of murdered Poles.

He said that it was Nazi Germany which authored, planned and implemented the Holocaust in Poland and in other places, and that it was this nation which bears full responsibility for its deeds.

The Israeli head of state also said that Israel will always remember, pay homage to and appreciate the heroism of the Righteous Among the Nations of the World, over 7,000 of whom were Polish people who risked their lives and the lives of their families to save Jews.

Rivlin said that it was necessary now to keep an eye on the re-emergence of anti-Semitism, racism and the yearning for fascism that once again have been threatening the foundations of democracy.

The Israeli head of state said that people spreading hatred on the internet, in the streets and in centres of political power could be heard in all of Europe and all over the world, adding it was everybody's duty to fight against anti-Semitism and racism, with determination, in a clear and uncompromising way.

The Israeli president repeated that he wanted the Israeli and Polish nations to return to the road which they could follow together in order to jointly shape the future for next generations, maintaining respect for history and for the values of peace and tolerance.

The Israeli head of state invited President Andrzej Duda to visit Jerusalem in order to jointly discuss how to strengthen Polish-Israeli relations and cooperation.

Earlier in the day, the two heads of state paid homage to Witold Pilecki, the Polish war hero who volunteered to go to Auschwitz and then warned the world about the Nazi death machine.

Pilecki was murdered by Poland's communist authorities after the war.

The two presidents laid flowers at the monument honouring Pilecki, located at the site of the Pilecki State College in Oświęcim.

The Germans established the Auschwitz camp in 1940, initially for the imprisonment of Poles. Auschwitz II-Birkenau was opened two years later and became the main site for the mass extermination of Jews. There was also a network of sub-camps in the complex. The Germans killed at least 1.1 million people at Auschwitz, mainly Jews, but also Poles, Roma and Soviet prisoners of war.

It was liberated by the Red Army on January 27, 1945. In 1947, the camp site was declared a national memorial site.