The breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of Communist domination in Eastern Europe opened a new chapter in the history of the Jewish communities in that part of the world. For the first time in decades, Jews were free to practice their religion, create meaningful Jewish communal institutions, and provide significant Jewish education for their children.
The end of Soviet/Communist oppression and persecution presented a wonderful opportunity for the type of meaningful Jewish life taken for granted elsewhere in the Jewish world, but was fraught with numerous daunting challenges.
It was not easy to create a vibrant Jewish community in countries in which for decades the practice of Judaism and the mere identification with the Jewish people were taboo and often were severely punished. Also of concern was the fact that a very significant portion of those Jews in the Soviet Union who had maintained a strong Jewish identity despite the hardships of Communist rule had emigrated to Israel.
In that respect, one of the biggest problems was the leadership vacuum, the lack of individuals of stature, who on the one hand were talented and competent enough to deal with the tasks at hand, and whose Jewish identity was still strong enough to motivate them to attempt to lead these nascent communities.
One such individual was Dr. Shimon Alperovich, the chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish community for 21 years (1992-2013), who passed away late last week in Vilnius.
The position he assumed shortly after the community was re-established officially in 1991 was particularly difficult due to the history of Lithuanian-Jewish relations. The extensive collaboration of Lithuanians in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust was well known and to a certain degree had “erased” the slightly over two decades (1918-1940) of relatively peaceful coexistence in the prewar Lithuanian republic.
During Soviet times, local Jews who had survived the Holocaust mostly identified with the Soviet Union, which in fact had saved the lives of many of them by liberating Lithuania from the Nazi occupation. Others, who moved to Lithuania after World War II, found it natural to support the Soviet narrative regarding the “Great Patriotic War.” On the Lithuanian side, the reestablishment of independence naturally brought with it an outburst of long-suppressed nationalist pride and sentiment, which were entirely natural but did not make navigating the politics of the Jewish community particularly easy.
In the beginning, however, the community was happy to support Lithuanian independence and especially an end to the oppressive Soviet regime. The fact that the government realized at an early stage that in order to enlist Western assistance to obtain European Union and NATO membership it was imperative to seek Jewish support, prompted some apologies for local collaboration with the Nazis and participation in Holocaust crimes, and a plethora of Shoa memorials and commemorations.
The fact that these apologies did not admit the true scope of local complicity, that Lithuanian crimes were often minimized or even ignored on occasion, and that Lithuania did not succeed in punishing a single local perpetrator for their crimes in a Lithuanian court, did not initially put the Jewish community at direct loggerheads with the authorities.
Criticism was expressed by the Jewish community, but it was relatively muted.
Given the fact that the entire Jewish population of the country numbered approximately only 5,000, of whom a large percentage were elderly, it was clear that their leadership had to proceed very cautiously in dealing with these sensitive issues of history, justice, and Holocaust guilt.
In 2006, however, after Lithuania and its Baltic neighbors had been admitted as full members to the European Union and NATO, suddenly things took a serious turn for the worse. The government officially threatened several Jewish anti-Nazi Soviet partisans, among them noted Holocaust historian and former chairman of Yad Vashem Dr. Yitzchak Arad, with criminal prosecution for supposed “war crimes” they had committed against Lithuanian civilians, a step which was accompanied by vicious incitement in the nationalist media against the four individuals in question, three of whom were women.
To make matters worse, the government began a systematic campaign to promote the canard of historical equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes, which would turn the Holocaust into just another tragedy among many, and thereby divert attention from the horrific crimes of local Nazi collaborators.
And it was at his point that Alperovich courageously rose to the occasion and proved his mettle.
Thus, for example, in June 2008, he published an open letter to Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in which he denounced the attacks on Jewish partisans and demanded a halt to their persecution.
Two months later, he again spoke out, this time after the vandalization of the Jewish community building in Vilnius, linking it directly to the ongoing incitement campaign against the Jewish partisans.
The efforts to prosecute the Jewish partisans ultimately failed, to some extent because of the unequivocal criticism by Dr. Alperovich, but it was followed by a systematic campaign to rewrite the history of World War II and the Holocaust.
This campaign consisted among other things of glorifying the Lithuanian political leaders who following the Nazi invasion of June 22, 1941, established a Provisional Government (PG), which fully supported the Third Reich and actively promoted the persecution and mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry.
Again, Alperovich rushed to protest against this dangerous historical revisionism, asserting that the “The mass murder of the Jews of Lithuania is a dark stain on the history of Lithuania. The Provisional Government, unfortunately, is part of that stain.”
When the remains of Juozas Ambrazevicius, the prime minister of the same Provisional Government, were reburied in Kaunas with full national honors less than two years ago, he issued a statement reminding the public that Ambrazevicius was “connected with the actions of the puppet PG of Lithuania and with the calls of the Lithuanian Activist Front for inciting the mass murder of Jews which led to the execution of barbaric ‘justice’ by the mob.”
Nor was he silent in the face of anti-Semitic rhetoric by Lithuanian leaders or various government initiatives, which either minimized the Holocaust or relativized it.
When foreign minister Audronius Ažubalis openly criticized Lithuanian Jews for trying to restore their property, Alperovich demanded a public apology, and he was the only person to point out the hypocrisy of a government decision to name 2011 as the year of the “Defense of Freedom and Great Losses” (a reference to the anti-Soviet struggle by Lithuanians) only a week after an announcement that the year would be dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. Also of great importance was his consistent and repeated criticism of the double-genocide theory promoted systematically by the Lithuanian government in every possible European forum.
Over the years, I had many meetings with Dr. Alperovich and had the privilege of his presence with me both at the trial of Lithuanian Nazi war criminal Aleksandras Lileikis and at the launching of “Operation Last Chance,” our project which offered financial rewards for information leading to the prosecution and punishment of Holocaust perpetrators.
Unlike many of the other Jewish leaders in post-Communist Eastern Europe, he not only fully recognized the importance of openly fighting against anti-Semitism and Holocaust distortion, but was courageous enough to take public action as well. At our last meeting, less than a month ago in Vilnius, in his room at the rehabilitation center where he was recuperating from heart disease, he offered Professor Dovid Katz and myself his full support for our planned protest against a march of local neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists scheduled the next day to mark Lithuanian independence.
His leadership is already sorely missed in Vilnius. May his memory be a blessing for his family, the Jews of Lithuania, and Litvaks the world over.
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 (Palgrave/ Macmillan), deals extensively with the failure of Lithuania and other post-Communist countries to honestly confront the role of their nationals in Holocaust crimes.