When the Soviet army entered Auschwitz 70 years ago, finding piles of corpses and prisoners close to death, a Russian soldier took a small and hungry 11-year-old girl into his arms and rocked her tenderly, tears coming to his eyes.
Today, that girl, 81-year-old Paula Lebovics, doesn’t know who that soldier was, but she still feels enormous gratitude to him and the other Soviet soldiers who liberated the camp on January 27, 1945.
To her, it is a shame that Russian President Vladimir Putin was not among other European leaders on the anniversary of the death camp’s liberation, his absence coming amid a deep chill between Russia and the West over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine.
“He should be there,” said Lebovics, who travelled from her home in Encino, California, back to the land of her birth for the ceremonies. “They were our liberators.”
Another survivor, Eva Mozes Kor, said she will not miss Putin, “but I do believe that from a moral and historical perspective he should be here”. Kor compared Putin to Adolf Hitler, “grabbing land here and grabbing land there to see what he can get away with”.
Before going to Poland for the ceremonies, German President Joachim Gauck told the parliament in Berlin that the lessons of the crimes of Auschwitz were “woven into the texture of our national identity”.
From the “guilt and shame and remorse” of the Nazi genocide, modern Germany has emerged to become a champion of human rights and equality, he said. “We did that as we returned to the rule and dignity of law.
“We did it as we developed empathy for the victims. And today we do it as we oppose all forms of exclusion and violence and offer a safe home to all those who are fleeing persecution, war, and terror.”
Pope Francis said on Twitter: “Auschwitz cries out with the pain of immense suffering and pleads for a future of respect, peace and encounter among peoples.”
Poland seemingly snubbed Putin, though officials won’t say that openly. Organisers the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council, opted for a form of protocol this year that avoided direct invitations by Poland’s president to his foreign counterparts.
The Russian delegation was led by Sergei Ivanov, Putin’s chief of staff.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved