Russia sees Auschwitz as a political tool

First, they ignored it. Then they de-Judaized it. Now they’re exploiting it.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, devoid of those participating in the annual March of the Living to mark Yom Hashoah, April 20-21, 2020. Credit: Marcin Kozlowski, March of the Living.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, devoid of those participating in the annual March of the Living to mark Yom Hashoah, April 20-21, 2020. Credit: Marcin Kozlowski, March of the Living.
Rafael Medoff
Dr. Rafael Medoff is founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.

Russia’s complicated and disturbing record on Auschwitz just got a little more complicated, and a lot more disturbing.

In recent days, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been circulating images of anti-Russian stickers that were supposedly plastered around the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, which is located on the site of the former death camp in southwestern Poland. The stickers declare that “Russia and Russians deserve Zyklon B,” a reference to the poison gas used by the Nazis to murder Jews.

In fact, no such stickers were placed at the Auschwitz site. The images were superimposed on photos of the museum grounds through computer manipulation. They were accompanied by anti-Russian comments posted by alleged Ukrainians. The apparent goal of this little disinformation campaign was to make the Ukrainians look bad and the Russians look like victims of a hate crime.

The Russians’ latest exploitation of Auschwitz to score propaganda points is in keeping with a long tradition, which dates back to the period when the Nazis were still operating the mass murder facility.

In July 1944, as the Germans were gassing thousands of Jews daily in Auschwitz, Eliahu Epstein, a top aide to Jewish Agency chairman David Ben-Gurion, met with the Soviet consul-general in Cairo, Daniil Solod.

Epstein proposed that the Soviets “bomb the centers of Jewish extermination in Poland.” According to Epstein’s report to Ben-Gurion, Solod “replied that … such an idea was out of the question politically, since the government of Russia would not adopt measures which were based on national grounds.” That position was more than a little ironic, given the decades-old Soviet policy of discriminating against Russian Jews on national grounds.

When it suited their purposes, however, the Soviets did attack Auschwitz. On December 23, 1944, Soviet bombers supporting the advancing Red Army destroyed nearly one-third of the SS barracks at Birkenau, the section of Auschwitz where the mass-murder facilities were located. The bombs also severed the rail line connecting Birkenau to the rest of Auschwitz. On January 16 and January 19, 1945, Soviet bombers struck German synthetic oil factories in the slave labor section of Auschwitz, known as Monowitz. None of this, however, was done in order to save Jews.

Eight days later, the Russians liberated Auschwitz, though it was not part of their plan. The camp happened to be in the path of Soviet troops.

After the war, the Soviet authorities made a concerted effort to obscure the Jewish identity of the victims of the Nazis at Auschwitz and elsewhere. Soviet government publications, from official histories to school textbooks, described Nazi atrocities against Jews as “crimes against the Russian people.”

Russian leader Vladimir Putin, a former KGB official, has helped perpetuate the Soviet-era practice of de-Judaizing the victims of the Holocaust. Addressing a gathering at the Auschwitz site in 2005, Putin spoke movingly of the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died while liberating Poland from the Nazis, and the 27 million Russians who were killed in World War II, but he made no mention of the Jews who were murdered there.

In 2007, the Auschwitz State Museum refused to host a Russian government exhibit because the text on its panels falsely claimed that nearly three million of the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust were Russian. In fact, one-third of those “Russian” victims were citizens of Poland, Romania and various Baltic nations that had the misfortune of residing in territory that the USSR occupied as a result of Stalin’s infamous 1939 pact with Hitler. But when Moscow decided in 2007 that it needed higher numbers of victims in order to highlight Russia’s sacrifices during the war, it conveniently transformed Jews of other nationalities into “Russians.”

From indifference to Auschwitz when the mass murder was happening, to misrepresenting the identity of the Jewish victims, to attempting now to exploit the Auschwitz site with false claims of anti-Russian hate, Moscow continues to see the most notorious Nazi death camp as a tool to serve whatever political purpose the Kremlin happens to be pursuing at the moment.

Dr. Rafael Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies and author of more than 20 books about the Holocaust and Jewish history. This essay is based in part on the research for his most recent book The Jews Should Keep Quiet: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and the Holocaust.

This article first appeared in the Jewish Journal.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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