Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 February 2020

World leaders gather in Jerusalem for Auschwitz liberation anniversary

UK's Prince Charles and leaders of Russia, France and Germany marked 75th anniversary of concentration camp's end

A view from below shows pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust displayed at the Hall of Names in the Holocaust History Museum at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Reuters
A view from below shows pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust displayed at the Hall of Names in the Holocaust History Museum at the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. Reuters

Dozens of world leaders gathered in Jerusalem on Thursday for a solemn ceremony to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, at a time of rising anti-Semitism in Europe and the US.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting on the sidelines of the conference with Israeli head of state Reuven Rivlin, said xenophobia and anti-Semitism must be opposed everywhere.

"You just said that it's not known where anti-Semitism ends," Mr Putin told Mr Rivlin, referring to remarks he made at their meeting. "Unfortunately we do know this: Auschwitz is its end-result."

Mr Rivlin thanked world leaders for expressing their “solidarity with the Jewish people” by attending the event.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the event to attack Iran. He called the the country's leadership "the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet", in his address at the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Israel has called the World Holocaust Forum at the Yad Vashem memorial centre the biggest international gathering in its history.

"I am concerned that we have yet to see a unified and resolute stance against the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet," Mr Netanyahu said.

"Israel salutes [US] President Trump and Vice President Pence for confronting the tyrants of Tehran."

His audience included Mike Pence, along with French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the UK's Prince Charles.

But Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland where the death camp was built by the Nazi German occupiers during the Second World War, stayed away because of disputes with Russia and Israel.

Poland will host its own event at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on January 27, as it does every year.

More than a million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. Six million Jews died in the Holocaust.

While the focus in Jerusalem was on the Holocaust and its legacy, modern politics have affected the event, which was held at a time of soaring US-Iranian tension and before Israel's March 2 elections.

Mr Netanyahu this week drew a direct link between the Nazis' "Final Solution" to exterminate Europe's Jews and the threat Israel says it faces from its arch-foe, Iran.

"A third of the Jewish people went up in flames" in the Nazi death camps, he said.

"Iran openly declares every day that it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth.

"I think the lesson of Auschwitz is stop bad things when they're small. And Iran is a very bad thing. It's not that small but it could get a lot bigger with nuclear weapons."

Mr Netanyahu enjoys strong backing from US President Donald Trump, who in 2018 pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, has heaped pressure on Tehran and ordered the killing of a top Iranian general on January 3.

In his talks with Mr Pence, Mr Netanyahu was expected to seek reaffirmation of Washington's support for Israeli settlement policy in the Palestinian occupied territories and other contentious issues.

The most powerful player in Jerusalem will be Mr Putin, a key actor in the Middle East since his forces, along with Iranian fighters, started backing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad in 2015.

The commemorations were organised by Moshe Kantor, a billionaire close to the Kremlin who is also a prominent figure in Russia's Jewish community and president of the European Jewish Congress.

Mr Putin, who is travelling with his Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, will give a key speech, but Mr Duda is staying away after being denied the right to address the event.

Relations between Moscow and Warsaw, its Cold War-era satellite, have been strained since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula in 2014, and have deteriorated further in disagreements over history.

Last month, Mr Putin provoked an outcry after he made the false claim that Poland had colluded with Adolf Hitler and contributed to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Poland says Moscow is rewriting history and ignoring its own 1939 non-aggression pact with Hitler.

It has urged Mr Putin "not to use the memory of the victims of the Holocaust for political games".

Updated: January 24, 2020 03:13 AM

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