WARSAW, Poland – Russia has accused Poland of engaging in a "mockery of history" after the Polish foreign minister credited Ukrainian soldiers, rather than the Soviet Red Army, with liberating Auschwitz 70 years ago.
The exchange underlines the deep tensions between Russia and Poland, which is hugely critical of Russian actions in Ukraine. Those strains are casting a shadow over the 70th anniversary commemorations of the liberation of the Nazi death camp, which will be held Tuesday in Poland.
Poland has apparently snubbed Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will not attend even though he was at the 60th anniversary event in 2005. The situation is particularly awkward since Auschwitz was liberated by Soviet troops on Jan. 27, 1945, and some of the more than 1.1 million victims were Soviet citizens, including Jews and prisoners of war.
In a radio interview Wednesday, Polish Foreign Minister Grzegorz Schetyna was challenged over what the journalist called the "pettiness" of not inviting Putin, given that he is the inheritor of the Soviet Union and that the Red Army freed Auschwitz.
Schetyna replied that "maybe it's better to say ... that the First Ukrainian Front and Ukrainians liberated (Auschwitz), because Ukrainian soldiers were there, on that January day, and they opened the gates of the camp and they liberated the camp."
In Russia, Schetyna's comments were seen as a cynical insult and drew an avalanche of angry official comments. The Foreign Ministry accused Schetyna of "anti-Russian hysteria" and disrespecting the memory of those who died liberating Europe from Hitler.
"It's common knowledge that Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, in which all nationalities heroically served," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "We believe that the mockery of history needs to be stopped."
The group of forces involved in the liberation of Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front after it pushed the Nazis back across the territory of then-Soviet Ukraine before moving into Poland.
Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called Schetyna's comments "sacrilegious and cynical."
"Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army, which included Russians, Ukrainians, Chechens, Tatars and Georgians, among others," Lavrov said.
At the United Nations, Russia's envoy Vitaly Churkin addressed the Polish envoy, telling him that the First Ukrainian Front, like other Red Army forces, contained representatives of the Soviet Union's more than 100 ethnic groups and asking him to convey the information to Schetyna.
The organizers of the ceremonies, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and the International Auschwitz Council, did not issue specific invitations to national leaders this year, but asked nations contributing funds to the site — including Russia — if they were going to attend.
Poland appears to have used this form of protocol as a way of avoiding a direct invitation to Putin. Some Poles have been critical of this, saying politics should not intrude on such a major Holocaust commemoration, the last one where a significant number of Auschwitz survivors can still be expected to attend.
Schetyna, though, put the blame on Putin for not attending, saying it was his decision.
The Nazis operated the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in occupied Poland from 1940 to 1945. Most of the victims were Jews, but Roma and other groups were also killed there.
Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov and Jim Heintz in Moscow contributed to this report.