Three events took place this weekend which reflect the ambiguities of contemporary Jewish life in the Baltics and particularly in Lithuania, the largest of the three new democracies. In reverse order, on Sunday, ultra-nationalist groups staged an Independence Day march, which included anti-Semitic themes, in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania’s interwar capital and the country’s second largest city.
Over Shabbat, about seven hundred Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian Jews gathered outside Vilnius (Vilna) to participate in Limmud Baltics, which celebrated its tenth anniversary with great success and in grand style, and on Friday, in New York, the formerly venerable YIVO Institute hosted a symposium on Lithuanian-Jewish relations after the Holocaust, entitled “Unresolved History.”
As an active participant in Limmud and a protestor at the march, I was able to directly encounter some of the recent achievements of Baltic Jewish life on the one hand, as well as the ongoing threats facing these communities on the other. Limmud showcased the flowering of the seeds planted in the Baltic Jewish communities by the Joint Distribution Committee and other Jewish organizations and institutions in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the transition of the three Baltic countries to democracy. Unaccustomed to Jewish communal life due to over four decades of Soviet repression, the Jews of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia had to start from scratch to build viable Jewish communal institutions which would attract as many Jews as possible to recreate local Jewish life.
As JDC official Stefan Oscar, who is responsible for all three Baltic Jewish communities explained to me, the most rewarding part of Limmud was to see the children who started out as young campers at JDC summer and winter camps enthusiastically attending Limmud as adults and bringing along their children. From my perspective, as someone who has been lecturing to Baltic Jewish audiences of all ages for over two decades, I was exposed this past Shabbat to a new younger generation, whose members are much more inclined to activism on issues of politics and memory, for example, than their parents, a phenomenon which bodes well for the future of these communities.
In that respect, the trip on Sunday from Limmud to Kaunas was a proverbial tumble from an igra rama (lofty place) to a bira amikta (deep pit). Although the demonstrators in this event, purposely held for the past six years on Lithuania’s Independence Day, have in the wake of our criticism of past marches desisted from expressing overt anti-Semitism, their deep animus against Jews is obvious to the discerning observer. Thus once again, among the leading and largest banners was one glorifying Juozas Ambrazevicius, the prime minister of a provisional government established by the Lithuanian Activist Front in Kaunas shortly after the Nazi invasion, which strongly supported the Third Reich and actively encouraged Lithuanian participation in the mass murder of Jews.
The adulation expressed for Ambrazevicius is hardly surprising, given the reburial of his remains in Kaunas with full national honors by the govenment in 2012, as if he were a heroic Righteous Among the Nations, rather than a war criminal. In that context, the most popular slogan of the marchers, “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” rings particularly ominous, as its implications are clearly exclusionary.
In that respect, the Lithuanian government has only itself to blame. The 2012 Ambrazevicius reburial is only one of many measures and events in recent years to which it has devoted an inordinate amount of energy and resources in order to advance its goals of minimizing the highly significant role of Lithuanians in Holocaust crimes, and convincing the world that Communist crimes were just as bad as those of the Nazis. Besides artificially inflating the number of Righteous Among the Nations and purposely reducing the number of Lithuanian murderers of Jews, the campaign also includes a charm offensive directed at Western, primarily Jewish, audiences like the one at YIVO this past Friday.
There, carefully chosen spokespersons who can be relied upon to present sanitized versions of the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania and the role played by Lithuanians in Shoa crimes, as well as to describe in glowing terms how contemporary Lithuania is doing so much to honestly confront its history during World War II, present a rosy picture of a much more complicated reality, in which Lithuanian suffering under Communism is invariably given equal billing to Jewish victimhood during the Holocaust.
Unfortunately, the Lithuanian Jewish community, whose previous chairman Dr. Shimon Alperovich staunchly fought against every aspect of governmental Holocaust distortion, has more or less fallen into line in the hope of finding favor in the eyes of the government. Last September, for example, the community’s website had a news article in which new chairperson, Faina Kukliansky, thanked the government for its “sincere attention to the Jews of Lithuania and Litvaks of the world” and described the history of the community during the Shoa as follows: “Around 90 percent of the Jewish population of around 208,000 were killed by German Nazis in Lithuania during the Holocaust. More than 800 Lithuanians have been awarded as Righteous Among Nations for rescuing Jews from the Holocaust.”
Although the overall figures of Jews and the percentage of victims are close to accurate (in fact, 212,000 Jews were murdered out of the approximately 220,000 who lived in Lithuania under the Nazi occupation), what is missing is any mention of the extensive and extremely important complicity of Lithuanians in Shoa crimes, a betrayal of the tens of thousands of local Jews murdered by Lithuanians, not to mention the foreign Jews deported to their deaths in Lithuania and the Jews in Belarus and Poland killed by Lithuanian auxiliary police units or individual Lithuanians.
Under these circumstances, it remains to those of us outside Lithuania to hopefully, with the help of the younger generations of braver local Jews, to do whatever we can to improve this shameful situation.
The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice, deals extensively with the ongoing failure of the Baltic countries, and especially Lithuania, to bring to justice un-prosecuted local Nazi war criminals and honestly deal with the complicity of their nationals in Holocaust crimes.