Like other foreigners resident in Vilnius for many years, I have found the city’s people to be delightful, open-hearted, tolerant and eager to hear the views of strangers from faraway lands. All the sadder has it been to witness the state’s alarmingly declining tolerance quotient. Whether on tolerance of sexual minorities, members of the country’s Polish minority or Roma, the message coming loud and clear from the elites ― government, academia, media ― is all too often the wrong one, representing a grave disservice to the noble, hard-working and long-suffering Lithuanian people.
During 2010, and the year is not over yet, there has been a spate of state-inspired or state-condoned antisemitism and Holocaust distortion- and-contortion, the likes of which could not have been imagined here a few short years ago.
Of course there have also been advances here and there. David Lidington, Britain’s Minister for Europe, has just praised the recent Lithuanian parliament vote on a (lamentably ambiguous) draft of a bill to deal with restitution of looted Jewish communal property [Details here.] In his statement, he goes on to say: "Passage of the law will bring credit to Lithuania as it prepares to assume the chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). I hope that the draft will now advance successfully through its remaining stages.” [The minister’s statement is reported here].
Restitution is not compensation or a gift. It is the return of looted property to its rightful owners. The draft restitution bill "just happens to fail to mention” the actual recipient at a time of rampant high-level intrigue to eventually (once Holocaust Survivors are gone) divert the resources to a morbid tourism project in the Old Town. But other questions loom right now.
We join Mr Lidington in hoping for the best on the eve of Lithuania’s accession to the chairmanship of the OSCE. But the history of human rights issues in the Baltic states, and Lithuania in particular, in recent years, illuminates the fact that it will take more than hope. It is incumbent on Lithuania’s true friends to rise to the occasion rather than to try to sweep the real issues under the rug. Here is a partial 2010 roster.
In January, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, officials from the prosecutor’s office came to harass the tiny Jewish community with questions about a Holocaust Survivor in Tel Aviv whom they were thinking of adding to the list of Survivors to be "investigated” by their office. Somewhat unseemly, if to speak in British understatement, in a land where not a single Nazi war criminal has been punished since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in a land with the highest proportion — around 95% ― of Jews killed during the Holocaust, in all of Europe.
In February, the annual Užgavėnės festival featuring a multitude of costumes, including sickening images of Jews and Roma, went off as usual with no corrective comments by government officials.
In March, the permit for a neo-Nazi march was taken out by a member of the ruling party in parliament; the march was saluted in central Vilnius by a signatory of the country’s declaration of independence. In addition to various fascist symbols, marchers sported the white armbands which signify the 1941 "freedom fighters” of the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) who were in fact the initiators of the butchery of Lithuanian Jewry. There was not a word of condemnation by any high official, only flippant remarks by the prime minister, who seemed somewhat annoyed that Norwegian ambassador HE Steinar Gil, a staunch human rights advocate and true friend of Lithuania, had spoken up.
In May, a Lithuanian court legalized the public demonstration of swastikas, ruling that they are "Lithuania’s historical heritage rather than symbols of Nazi Germany”. An ominous and devastating message was in effect sent to the country’s tiny, fragile Jewish community and other weak minorities. Not a single high government official condemned the ruling or made any effort to get it overturned. Is this the face of New Europe?
In June, parliament passed and the president signed into law a bill that criminalizes the opinion that the Holocaust was the one genocide in Lithuania in the twentieth century. Couched in the usual terminology of red-brown equivalence, the law provides for up to two years in prison for any who would "deny or grossly underestimate” the "crime of genocide” that was "committed by the USSR or Nazi Germany against Lithuanian residents”. In other words, those, including myself, who deplore the horrendous crimes of the USSR, but do not believe that these rise to "genocide” in Lithuania, are now liable to prosecution. Those living in Lithuania can verily attest that those citizens who dissent from the mantra of "red-brown equivalence” have gone silent, lost their employment, or felt the need to emigrate (even if nobody is ever prosecuted under the statute). The law is a carbuncle on the face of European democracy, and Lithuania’s friends can do it no greater service than calling for its rapid and unequivocal repeal. Lithuanian historians, human rights activists and others who care about their country might consider themselves taking the initiative.
In July, the deputy foreign minister convened a meeting of Lithuanian politicians and "Judaic studies operatives” to set up a "Litvak Forum” (it quickly became known as The Fake Litvak Forum), to divert attention from the travesties underway by means of a classic diversionary window-dressing operation which has only added insult to injury. Upon its public founding, the prime minister’s chancellor boasted that "there are rich Litvaks” who were roped in to provide money for the charade. Litvak is an ethnonym belonging to the decimated Jewry of Lithuania, and it cannot honorably be usurped by officials for PR purposes. There were protests from Holocaust Survivors, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Litvak Studies Institute, and DefendingHistory.com. A few months later, after the foreign minister’s antisemitic tirade (see In October, below), the Jewish Community of Lithuania published its judgment too.
In August, after a pig’s head, dressed up in hat and earlocks, was placed at the doorway of the Kaunas synagogue during Sabbath morning services, there was silence from the government until foreign diplomats and community leaders prevailed upon the prime minster to speak up days later. There has been no progress in the investigation to locate the culprits.
In September, on the 21st of the month, parliament declared that 2011 would be declared a year of remembrance for Holocaust victims. One week later, on the 28th, the same body declared that 2011 would in fact be the year of "commemoration of the defense of freedom and great losses” with the accompanying impression that the "freedom fighters of 1941” who participated in the Holocaust would again be glorified. The Jewish community protested against this History Apartheid policy which reached its curious apex when the English language page of the parliament’s website listed only the first "year of remembrance” and the Lithuanian language page listed only the second. After exposure on DefendingHistory.com, the website pages in the two languages were at least brought into line.
In October, the Lithuanian foreign minister told a meeting of the ruling party in parliament that foreign Jews seeking money and property were secretly pushing the new dual citizenship law, using crude antisemitic formulas. The Foreign Ministry published a spineless statement but no apology. The Jewish Community of Lithuania rapidly responded. The real issue is that the country’s citizenship laws are deeply racist, and therefore deeply un-European. They are also detrimental to Lithuania, which by now could have had a veritable international army of dual-citizen loyalists, in the spirit of Ireland.
Let us hope for a more European, Western, tolerant, and generously-spirited showing from the government in what is left of November and beyond.
But some of the deepest issues are not a "matter of the month”. They include failure to close the kangaroo "war crimes” investigations against valiant Holocaust Survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance. Dr Rachel Margolis, 89 years old, now resident in Rechovot, Israel, is unable to carry out her wish to visit her native Vilnius one last time, for fear of further harassment by prosecutors and the antisemitic establishment.
The Economist’s Edward Lucas, one Lithuania’s staunchest friends in Europe, accurately described this lamentable campaign as "Blaming the victims” back in 2008. The same year, another great friend of Lithuania, former Irish ambassador Dόnal Denham, when he heard that police had come looking for Holocaust Survivor women in their late 80s, because they had the "audacity” to escape the ghetto and join up with the anti-Nazi partisans, just went ahead and did the right thing: he made a splendid evening in honor of the one still resident in Vilnius, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, at the ambassador’s residence. This year, the great Lithuanian author Tomas Venclova has come out with a bold new essay that is a huge credit to the country.
Remaining problems that could be so easily resolved include: failure to remove the antisemitic exhibits from the state-sponsored Genocide Museum on the capital’s main boulevard (a "genocide museum” that won’t mention the word Holocaust). Failure to preserve the one surviving Jewish anti-Nazi fort that is a testament for all humankind of the human will to survive against any odds. Failure to call off the state-sponsored campaign to convince the European Parliament to adopt "Double Genocide” as a new obligatory history for Europe. That particular effort is spearheaded by the state-financed and Orwellianly monikered "International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes of Lithuania” better known informally as the "Red-Brown Commission”. Moreover, the recent announcement of Lithuania’s team headed for the next OSCE session calls for some robust scrutiny.
A true-hearted reversal of state policies promoting Holocaust Obfuscation, antisemitism and ultranationalism could easily and very rapidly be inspired by the president and prime minister if the political will were there.
It is the solemn obligation of the western powers, including Britain and the United States, to help Lithuania’s leaders to find that political will. That would be the expression of authentic friendship and care for Lithuania’s future.
Lithuania now has the magnificent potential to recreate its medieval Grand Duchy glory by reaching back, seeking out and recreating the splendid secret of the Grand Duchy’s success: a genuinely tolerant society that attracts talent and diversity from the four corners of the earth.
Dovid Katz, a Litvak-origin native of New York, cofounded the Center for Stateless Cultures in 1999 and the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in 2001. For eleven years, he was professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University. Currently he is editor of DefendingHistory.com, chief analyst at the Litvak Studies Institute, and honorary research associate at University College London. The revised edition of his Lithuanian Jewish Culture has just appeared in Vilnius.