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Poland and Lithuania pull out of Israeli Holocaust event amid spat with Russia

Polish president accuses Putin of 'spreading historical lies' in an attempt to depict the Soviet Union in a favourable light
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (Reuters)

The presidents of Poland and Lithuania have both abstained from attending an Israeli event marking the 75th anniversary of the Holocaust and the liberation of Auschwitz death camp in Europe in 1945.

The event, taking place in the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial centre on Thursday, is the biggest international gathering of world leaders and monarchs in Jerusalem since the funerals of Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin.King Felipe VI of Spain opened the two-day event with a speech at a dinner on Wednesday night.

The Spanish monarch happens to also hold the title of King of Jerusalem in a tradition dating back to the era of the Crusades.

Poland's President Andrzej Duda was dissatisfied that representatives of Russia, France, Britain and the United States – the major Allied Powers during the Second World War - and Germany would speak, while Poland was told it would not be allowed to.

Almost 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp during the Second World War. The notorious death camp was built by Nazi German occupiers of Poland and was liberated by Soviet forces in Januray 1945.

Overall, some six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and 35 million people were killed during the six-year conflict, the majority of them citizens of the Soviet Union.

Polish leaders have been angered by comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war. Poland, which was invaded first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet forces, sees itself as a major victim of the war, in which it lost a fifth of its population.

“I am sorry to say this, but President Putin is knowingly spreading historical lies,” Duda said on Tuesday.

Duda claimed that Putin was “cherry-picking facts” in an attempt to depict the Soviet Union as the rescuer of people from the Holocaust, ignoring the nonaggression pact Joseph Stalin signed with Adolf Hitler in 1939, leading to greater Nazi expansion in Europe.

The president of Lithuania, Gitanas Nauseda, also pulled out from the Yad Vashem event in solidarity with Duda. Lithuania was occupied by Soviet forces in 1939 and incorporated into the Soviet state after the war.

Later on Thursday, Putin criticised those whom he said were trying to rewrite history, though he made no reference to Poland, while unveiling a monument to the residents and defenders of Nazi-besieged Leningrad, Russia's second city now renamed St Petersburg.

"Here, as in Russia, people are concerned, alarmed and outraged by attempts to deny the Holocaust and to revise the results of the Second World War, to whitewash murderers and criminals," Putin said.

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

The high-profile guest list for Thursday's commemoration includes US Vice President Mike Pence, Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Britain's Prince Charles.

"This is a historic gathering, not only for Israel and the Jewish people but for all humanity," said Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, calling on the world to "stand united in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and extremism".