Israel has become embroiled in a dispute between Poland and Russia over the latter’s exclusion from a project to commemorate the victims of the Nazi extermination camp in Sobibór, according to media reports on Sunday.
Although it was Poland, not Israel, that blocked Russian participation, much of Moscow’s ire appears directed at Israel for not exercising more influence over the Poles.
In an unusually harsh statement, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova declared in an interview in Russia that “Israel’s position, to allow Russia’s exclusion of the project, is bordering on historical betrayal.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Israel’s Ambassador to Moscow Gary Koren over the weekend for clarification of Israel’s position on the matter. Ambassadors from several European countries were also called in for what the ministry termed “a serious conversation.”
A museum and memorial site are slated to open at Sobibór in 2019. An international steering committee composed of Poland, Israel, the Netherlands and Slovakia, had initially invited Russia to take part, but negotiations with Russia broke down. Last month, Warsaw announced that Moscow would not be a partner in the project.
“The Russians are furious at Israel for this and think Israel can influence Poland because all of those who were murdered in Sobibór were Jews,” Alex Tenzer, a Russian media expert, told Ynet. “As far as Russia is concerned, Israel had the power to tell Poland, ‘Russia must be a partner in this project.’ ” Hence, the Russians are blaming Israel.
Russia’s sensitivity stems from the lack of recognition internationally of the Russian identity of Alexander Pechersky, who led the revolt in Sobibór, where he was interned as a Soviet prisoner of war. Pechersky, a Jewish Red Army officer, was a leader of the revolt because he was a combat-trained veteran with enormous leadership capabilities and, as a Jew, he was trusted by the Jewish inmates.
However, when Pechersky returned to the Soviet Union after the war, he was largely ignored, because under Stalin, the Soviet Union believed that every soldier should fight until his death and never be taken prisoner. Therefore, while Pechersky was long acclaimed as a hero by the Jews, he was never recognized as a hero by the Soviets. He died in the Soviet Union in 1990.
Only recently have the Russians reclaimed Pechersky as one of their own. In 2016, President Putin posthumously awarded him the Russian Order of Courage medal.
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman told the TASS news agency that Israeli Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren had confirmed that “the Israeli Foreign Ministry supports Russia’s participation in the international management committee for the reconstruction of the Sobibor death camp museum.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said that “the relevant parties in Israel, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Yad Vashem, are not opposed to the inclusion of Russia in the international committee.”
Noted Holocaust historian Dr. Michael Berenbaum told Hamodia that he is “pleased that, however belatedly, the Russians are claiming Pechersky as their own – provided that that does not obscure or obliterate his double role as a Jew and a Soviet officer,” adding, “I would hope that Israel, Poland and Russia can find a way to be faithful to the historical record.”