Dozens of world leaders descended upon Jerusalem for the largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the Holocaust and combating rising modern-day antisemitism, a politically charged event that has been clouded by rival national interpretations of the genocide.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, the Prince of Wales, Vice President Mike Pence and the presidents of Germany, Italy and Austria were among the more than 40 dignitaries attending the World Holocaust Forum, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.
The three-hour-long ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, called Remembering The Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism, looks to project a united front in commemorating the genocide of European Jewry amid a global spike in anti-Jewish violence.
But the unresolved remnants of Second World War politics have permeated the solemn assembly over the differing historical narratives of various players.
Poland’s president, who has been criticised for his own wartime revisionism, has boycotted the gathering since he was not invited to speak.
Mr Putin was granted a central role even as he leads a campaign to play down the Soviet Union’s pre-war pact with the Nazis and shift responsibility for the war’s outbreak on Poland, which was invaded in 1939 to start the fighting.
On the eve of the gathering, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored visiting dignitaries to “leave history for the historians”.
“The role of political leaders, of all of us, is to shape the future,” he said.
But Mr Putin quickly ventured into the sensitive terrain shortly after his arrival, claiming that 40% of Jewish Holocaust victims were Soviet.
Of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, historians say about one million were Soviet.
Mr Putin’s controversial figure appears to include an additional 1.5 million Jewish victims from eastern European areas occupied by the Soviets under their pact with the Nazis.
“When it comes to the tragedy of the Holocaust, 40% of tortured and killed Jews were Soviet Union Jews.
“So this is our common tragedy in the fullest sense of the word,” he said during a meeting with Mr Rivlin.
Arkadi Zeltser, a Yad Vashem historian, said the accuracy of the statement depended on rival “definitions” of when the war began.
Yad Vashem, along with all other reputable institutions, considers the war to have been sparked on September 1, 1939 with the invasion of Poland.
The Soviets generally consider their “Great Patriotic War” to have started two years later, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union.
It was the latest chapter in a bitter dispute over Soviet actions in the Second World War.
Mr Putin has been leading a campaign to play down the Soviet Union’s pre-war pact with the Nazis and focus instead on its role in defeating them.
Israel has given Mr Putin a warm welcome, hosting him for the dedication of a monument honouring the nearly 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad.
The city, now known as St Petersburg, is Mr Putin’s hometown.
The event marks one of the largest political gatherings in Israeli history, as a cascade of delegations including European presidents, prime ministers and royals, as well as American, Canadian and Australian representatives, arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport.
More than 10,000 police officers were deployed in Jerusalem and major roads leading to it.
Large parts of the city were shut down ahead of the event.
For prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu it offered another opportunity to solidify Israel’s diplomatic standing and boost his profile as he seeks re-election on March 2.
He was hoping to use his meetings with world leaders to bolster his tough line toward Iran and rally opposition to a looming war crimes case against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
For historians, though, the main message is one of education amid growing signs of ignorance and indifference to the Holocaust.
A comprehensive survey released this week by the Claims Conference, a Jewish organisation responsible for negotiating compensation for victims of Nazi persecution, found that most people in France did not know that six million Jews were killed during the Second World War.
Among millennials, 45% said they were unaware of French collaboration with the Nazi regime and 25% said they were not even sure they had heard of the Holocaust.
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