Open letter to PM on eve of visit to Israel

Rachel Margolis
Rachel Margolis
Dovid Katz |
2010-12-15 13:04

The following open letter was written by and republished here courtesy of Dovid Katz.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

Your trip to Israel this coming week provides you with a grand historic opportunity. If you decide to grab the moment. Your Vytautas-the-Great — Grand-Duchy-of-Lithuania Moment.

It is yours to grab for eternity. Or to squander on the local politics of duplicity.

It was Vytautas (Witold) the Great who issued charters for the Jews of Brest and Troky (Trakai) in 1388, and even more significantly, Grodno, in 1389, that were among the gestures that made the Grand Duchy of Lithuania into the medieval world’s — and European history’s ― paragon of a modern multicultural society in which the majority voluntarily takes special responsibility (what the Americans came to call "affirmative action” nearly six centuries later) for prejudiced minorities. These were documents that can be read in only one way, not two. That unambiguous moral clarity needs to be be invoked in today’s policies too. (Unlike, for example, a recent restitution-of-communal-property bill that does not even mention the intended recipient, opening the door to years of strife.)

The easy way out, this time again, would be to listen to your local sycophants, Jewish and non-Jewish official advisors, and members of parliament, and continue the politics of governmental duplicity.

The inspiring Vilna Ghetto survivor, Professor N. N. Shneidman (now of Toronto) exposed succinctly the make-both-sides-happy charade here over a dozen years ago:

"It is clear [...] that the approach of the Lithuanian government to issues affecting its Jewish minority is at best confusing. On the one hand, it denounces antisemitism and the participation of some Lithuanians in Nazi crimes, and it proclaims its desire for good relations with its Jewish minority and the state of Israel. On the other, it fails to prosecute Lithuanian war criminals, expelled from the USA and presently residing in Lithuania, and does nothing to curb the dissemination of anti-Jewish hate by local journalists and politicians. It is obvious that the government of Lithuania finds itself today in a quandary which is the result of its attempt to appease both its Jewish minority and the nationalistic fringes of Lithuanian society, all at the same time.” (from N.N. Shneidman, Jerusalem of Lithuania, 1998, pp. 167-168).

To update Professor Shneidman’s report now at the end of 2010, you’d only need to need to add that those lame nationalist prosecutors did not stop at procrastinating the trying of war criminals until they were too old or dead (not a single one was ever punished since independence). They went ahead to tacitly join a campaign of defamation against the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s justice-seeker Efraim Zuroff, the advocate for 200,000 or so murdered Lithuanian Jews, who only ever asked that killers of Lithuanian citizens be given a fair trial, in their own country, in their own language, and under their own flag. (He will one day be seen to have been a great friend of the country’s honor, but that is a topic is for another day.)

That wasn’t the half of it. Ultranationalist prosecutors supplemented their coziness with Nazi war criminals with something the Wiesenthal Center would never have predicted in the last decade of the twentieth century. They started accusing Jewish Holocaust Survivors of war crimes if by some miracle they escaped the Vilna Ghetto to join up with the anti-Nazi partisans in the forests of Lithuania. Yitzhak Arad, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis are among the heroes of the free world who helped liberate Lithuania from Nazism. In 2008, the incredibly brave Jewish Community of Lithuania came out with a bold and honest response to the accusations, and that response was a huge credit to Lithuania. Because a nation with robust independent minorities is a strong nation.

But let us, Mr. Prime Minister, quickly come back to your trip this coming week to the Holy Land. One of the veteran Jewish partisans, a citizen of Lithuania, defamed by the antisemitic media, is one of the most valiant women on the planet. She is Dr. Rachel Margolis, 89 years old. Hidden by righteous gentiles in the city, she decided to leave her safehouse to join her parents and brother in the ghetto. She was the only one of her family to survive, by escaping in September 1943 to join up with the anti-Nazi partisans.

Today, Rachel is a resident of Rechovot who feels unable to return to her native Vilnius because of fear of the prosecutors’ and media’s campaign against her.

Rechovot is about twenty kilometers from Tel Aviv.

Back in May 2008, Lithuanian prosecutors sent police who came looking for her here in Vilnius at her registered address, as part of the attempts to smear and defame heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance, and that, again, as part of the malign effort to produce "equal” paper trails for the red-equals-brown "Double Genocide” movement which is the latest high-end regional incarnation of fascist adoration. Those prosecutors told the press that she cannot be found, as if she is a fugitive, a nonsense that has still not been withdrawn.

They went after Rachel, it seems, because it was she who rediscovered, meticulously transcribed, and published the long lost diary of the Polish Christian Kazimierz Sakowicz who witnessed thousands of murders at Ponár (Polish Ponary, Lithuanian Paneriai), outside Vilnius, by volunteer local forces. The English edition of his diary appeared in 2005, published by Yale University Press, and it is a considered a primary text for the Lithuanian Holocaust in Europe and beyond. Rachel Margolis’s own memoir appeared this year in English translation.

A previous president and prime minister of Lithuania, Algirdas Brazauskas, who happened to come from another political party, awarded Rachel Margolis a certificate of honor for her courage in joining with the anti-Nazi partisans to liberate Lithuania from Nazi domination. But subsequent rulers considered those same deeds to be worthy of a "war crimes investigation” that has brought such shame to Lithuania. Is it not untoward that the same deeds that merit an award from one prime minister should merit police coming to look for you under another prime minister?

Dear Mr. Prime Minister! It is all so simple! Dr. Rachel Margolis, who helped liberate Lithuania from Nazism, who taught Vilnius University students biology in the Lithuanian language for over forty years, who rediscovered the lost diary that left for posterity the truth about Ponár, the educator who helped build Vilnius’s Green House, the only truth-telling exhibition about the Holocaust in the capital, who is a Lithuanian citizen, lives in Rechovot.

Rechovot. Some twenty kilometers from Tel Aviv.

You can fix it all by turning up at her small wooden house next week, by giving her a big bouquet of flowers and a big hug on camera, by telling her how much you appreciate all she has done for Lithuania, and by inviting her to return to her native Vilnius to show you the old Jewish quarter and the Vilna Ghetto. The photograph of Andrius Kubilius hugging Rachel Margolis in Rechovot will be up there in history until the end of days, as, we hope, the subsequent photograph of the prime minister welcoming her at Vilnius airport.

The rest, Mr. Prime Minister, is actually also rather straightforward ("complicated” is one of the worst codewords in this part of the world). I for one, firmly believe that you do not have an antisemitic bone in your body. You have been cunningly misled by a tiny handful of far-right nationalists (one or two of them Jewish themselves, in the pitiful tradition of the classic ambitious "show Jew”), who have convinced you that the real Jewish Community of Lithuania is somehow unworthy of your affections.

The real Jewish Community of Lithuania, those few thousand remaining Jews here, are the last remnant of a seven hundred year shared history.

And that, Mr. Prime Minister, takes us to another painful topic. It is time to stop playing the Double Game, which some of your advisors would lead you on, and which assumes that the rest of the onlooking world is comprised of incompetents who will not take notice.

Duplicity does not work in our internet world. With the stroke of your wand you can tell your court to cast it to the dustbin of history where it belongs. Example: Last September 21st, the Lithuanian parliament declared that 2011 would be the year dedicated to commemoration of the Holocaust. And just last week, on December 9th, a group of ambassadors was lugged in to hear about the plans for this Holocaust commemoration year.

But only a week had gone by after the initial September announcement about 2011, when the Lithuanian parliament resolved to also dedicate 2011 (separately, as if the first 2011 dedication were on another planet, relating to another species), to "Year of Defense of Freedom and Memory of Great Losses” minus the Holocaust. The Jewish Community of Lithuania (the real one, Mr. Prime Minister, the one that answers on behalf of its members and ancestors) issued a statement expressing astonishment at this parliamentary apartheid of history. As if the 95% of Lithuanian Jewry murdered in the Holocaust were not Lithuanian citizens but some alien race.

At one point in October, it all reached a stage worthy of those three Litvak comics known as The Three Stooges. The English language webpage of the parliament told only about the Holocaust commemoration year (2011) while the Lithuanian language page told only about the Year of Defense of Freedom and Memory of Great Losses. If it weren’t so sad it would all be rather hilarious.

But what is so wrong about 2011 being dedicated to a bunch of good things? Well, to put it bluntly, the freedom fighters being made into national heroes as part of the second "project for the same year” include some of the Murderers of 1941, the nationalist "white armbanders” who started butchering, molesting and pillaging their Jewish neighbors days before the Germans even arrived, and who then went on to become Hitler’s best shooters of civilians. There are ongoing attempts to glorify the LAF (Lithuanian Activists’ Front), whose prewar leaflets contained explicit language about the planned slaughter of the Jewish population of Lithuania. The Jewish community of Lithuania (again, the real one), has expressed its pain at the recent attempts to turn into a heroic episode the Nazi-collaborationist Provisional Government of 1941.

Moreover, the parliament’s second declaration about 2011 has already resulted in the financing of events to sanitize, dry-clean, legitimize and glorify the perpetrators of the Lithuanian Holocaust, which makes the parallel Holocaust-mourning events look like a diplomatic exercise in crocodile tears for foreign ears only.

Just about a week ago, the Lithuanian parliament, in partnership with the "Genocide Research Center” (which runs a Genocide Museum in central Vilnius that won’t even mention the word Holocaust), announced a documentary film, "Uprising of the Enslaved,” which talks about the "revolt of 1941” without including in the list of interviewees a single Holocaust survivor or witness to tell about what the "rebels” actually did in late June 1941 and beyond. The idea that they were simply rebelling against the Soviet Union is sheer nonsense of course; the Soviet army was fleeing the German invasion. These "rebels” began the barbaric massacre that grew into the Lithuanian Holocaust and provided the country with the shame of having the highest percentage in Europe of its Jewish population killed, somewhere around 95%. So, Mr. Prime Minister, stand up and declare you are cancelling all state support for these Holocaust whitewashing programs.

Over the last year, there have been a number of sad setbacks. A neo-Nazi march on Independence Day got its permit thanks to a member of parliament. A court legalized public displays of swastikas on the grounds that they are ancient symbols of the nation. The foreign minister accused Jews of plotting to change the country’s citizenship laws for private gain (incredibly, he is still the foreign minister); the real Jewish community responded as robustly as the real mother in the King Solomon story.

Most frighteningly, the parliament passed a law that would impose up to two years’ imprisonment on those who would claim that while Soviet crimes may have been horrific in Lithuania, they do not rise to genocide (the Lithuanian population grew in Soviet times). Courageous young Lithuanian historians have gone silent or decided to emigrate. A pro-fascist leaning version of history is being standardized, while the Western narrative of the Holocaust is being criminalized. And all the while it is being covered with a snow-job of Jewish and Holocaust events to divert attention.

And it is all so incredibly easy for you to fix. Simply have the state withdraw from the history business, and allow competing academic institutions to fill the marketplace of ideas with their debates. The first step is repeal of that awful red-equals-brown law passed in June of 2010 that is not worthy of an EU democracy.

Last Friday, Mr. Prime Minister, your own "public advisor to the Prime Minister of Lithuania on the issue of Compensation of Religious Jewish Property” published in the country’s most prestigious daily, Lietuvos rytas, an appalling antisemitic attack on the country’s small, struggling and patriotic Jewish community, calling it a lackey of Moscow, the worse possible canard, and the one most likely to stir up bitter antisemitic hatred, in this part of the world. Does it matter, Mr. Prime Minister, that he happens to be Jewish himself by birth? When one of your official public advisors speaks out this way, be it the Foreign Minister or this advisor, whether he is personally of Indian, Chinese or Martian origin, you should do what is expected of a European leader and ask for the man’s resignation. Period.

The good news is that a number of true Lithuanian patriots have spoken out in the media in recent times. They include among others the liberal thinkers Andrius Bielskis, Algirdas Davidavičius, Leonidas Donskis, Andrius Navickas, Nida Vasiliauskaite and Tomas Venclova.

They, Mr. Prime Minister, are among the patriots you should be taking with you in your entourage on your trip to Israel, to show the Israeli nation that this is not about covering up the destruction of Lithuanian Jewry, not about covering up antisemitism today, but about building Lithuanian-Jewish friendship on the basis of integrity and openness, and a Grand Duchy sense of generosity of spirit.

Starting with your visit to Dr. Rachel Margolis in Rechovot.

Bring her, Mr. Prime Minister, some love from Lithuania.

Dovid Katz, a native of New York City, founded and led Yiddish Studies at Oxford University for 18 years. After a stint at Yale, he settled in Vilnius, Lithuania where he worked 11 years as professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University. He is now editor of, chief analyst at the Litvak Studies Institute, and an honorary research fellow at University College London. The new edition of his Lithuanian Jewish Culture has just appeared in Vilnius.