Russia and Auschwitz: Ignoring It, De-Judaizing It, Exploiting It

by Rafael Medoff

Russia’s complicated and disturbing record concerning 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 at 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.

Actually, 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 Ukrainians look bad and make the Russians look like victims of a hate crime.

For Moscow, exploiting Auschwitz to score propaganda points is just the latest manifestation of a pattern of Auschwitz-abuse that 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 Hungarian (and other) 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, Soviet bombers supporting advancing Red Army forces in Poland destroyed nearly one-third of the SS barracks at Birkenau, the section of Auschwitz where the mass-murder facilities were situated. Their 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.

Eight days later, the Russians liberated Auschwitz, although that was not part of their plan; the camp happened to lay in the path of Soviet troops in Poland.

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

Russian leader Vladimir Putin, himself a former senior 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 in 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 who had the misfortune of residing in territory that the USSR occupied as a result of Stalin’s infamous deal with Hitler in 1939. But when Moscow decided in 2007 that it needed higher numbers in order to highlight Russia’s sacrifices in the war, it conveniently transformed Jews of other nationalities into “Russians.”

From ignoring Auschwitz when a few bombs could have interrupted the mass murder, to misrepresenting the identity of the Jewish victims, to now attempting 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 whichever political purpose the Kremlin happens to be pursuing at the moment.

(June 2022)