World leaders gather for Holocaust commemoration, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz

The gathering marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazis’ most notorious death camp, Auschwitz.

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By Saphora Smith and Paul Goldman

World leaders gathered in Jerusalem Thursday to take part in Israel’s largest-ever diplomatic meeting to commemorate the Holocaust and battle anti-Semitism, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi were among the leaders set to attend the World Holocaust Forum at the city's Yad Vesham Holocaust remembrance center.

The gathering marks three quarters of a century since the liberation of the Nazis’ most notorious death camp, Auschwitz, where more than a million people were killed — the vast majority of them Jews. In total, 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

Holocaust survivor Saul Oren stands with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Roglit memorial in Jerusalem on Thursday. Ludovic Marin / AFP - Getty Images

The event's organizers said it sought to build a united front against “anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia” and to battle the spike in anti-Semitic violence evident especially in Europe but also around the world.

Approximately one in four Europeans harbor pernicious and pervasive attitudes toward Jews, according to global survey on anti-Semitism by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League in November last year.

The survey found that anti-Semitic attitudes had increased in eastern and central European nations and a significant number of people in European countries think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

“Today we recall the victims of the Holocaust,” said Putin in a face-to-face meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem.

But not every world leader will be present at Thursday’s gathering.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announced Thursday that he and the Ukrainian delegation would give up their seats to Holocaust survivors after learning that many were unable to go to the event because of limited places.

“Those who deserve it most should attend the main event,” he said in a Facebook message.

Zelenskiy said on Twitter that he had learnt that many Israeli ministers had done the same and stressed that the Ukrainian delegation would participate in all other planned activities.

NBC News could not confirm which Israeli ministers had given up their seats, but The Times of Israel reported that Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin had said he would hand over his invitation to a survivor who was not invited and had called on others to do the same.

A spokesperson for Yad Vesham World Holocaust Remembrance Center described Zelenskiy’s decision as “unfortunate” adding that 100 Holocaust survivors were due to attend the ceremony and that at this late stage it would be impossible to bring additional survivors.

The event also risks being overshadowed by a bitter dispute between Poland — where Nazi German occupiers operated Auschwitz among other camps — and Russia over the role both countries played during the war. This led Polish President Andrzej Duda to announce he was boycotting the Jerusalem event and instead attend an event at Auschwitz itself.

Associated Press and Yuliya Talmazan contributed.