A man walks past a sign at a commemoration place during the March of the Living to honor Holocaust victims in Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius will be making an official state visit to Israel, making this an opportune occasion to examine four important issues which should be high on the agenda of his talks with Israeli officials.
The first and most problematic is the ongoing support by the Lithuanian government for the rewriting of the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust, which these days takes three specific forms. I am referring to the systematic efforts of Lithuanian governments in recent years to minimize the highly significant role of local Nazi collaborators in Holocaust crimes, their active promotion of the spurious “double genocide” theory which denies the uniqueness of the Holocaust by claiming that Communist crimes were just as bad as those of the Third Reich and in fact constitute genocide, and the glorification of Lithuanians who fought against the Soviets, but also actively participated in the persecution and/or murder of Jews during the Holocaust.
As far as the first issue is concerned, a good example is the consistent denial by official government spokespersons and institutions of the well-documented fact that Lithuanians physically attacked Jews in more than 40 places even before the first Germans entered these locales. Admitting this historical truth would of course focus attention on the enormous scope of local participation in the mass murder of Jews, a fact which successive Lithuanian governments have worked hard to conceal.
Categorizing Communist crimes as genocide, and having the definition of that term officially altered by the Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament) to fit the misdeeds of the Soviets also helps deflect interest in Holocaust crimes, and allows Lithuanians to emphasize the participation of Bolshevik Jews in genocide, a tactic designed to silence Jewish accusations against Lithuanians and emphasize Lithuanian suffering.
The honoring of individuals who played an active role in the murder of Jews continues to be widespread and can be found throughout the country, where streets are named for criminals, not to mention monuments and plaques in prominent places.
The second issue, which is related to the first, is the failure to act on a list of 2,055 Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators, which was prepared three years ago by the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, an official Lithuanian government institution authorized to deal with historical issues. The list was prepared in response to the accurate assertion by Yoseph Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, that the number of Lithuanians who participated in the mass murder of Jews was well over 20,000. Thus although the list of the Genocide Center was clearly only the proverbial tip of the iceberg, its importance lay in the fact that it was an admission by the authorized Lithuanian agency of the guilt of those named, and thus in theory at a minimum should have served as a basis for possible prosecution or at least public exposure. Instead, the list, which had been publicized for several days on the website of a government agency, disappeared, and was effectively shelved, with no action taken whatsoever.
The third issue is the plans for the building of a convention center on the grounds of the ancient Jewish cemetery (known as Piramont) in Snipiskes in Vilna. This was the first Jewish burial ground in the city, and many of the city’s greatest Jewish scholars were buried there. In the early fifties it was razed by the Soviets, who built a huge sports stadium on the site. Now the government plans to rebuild that structure, which has not been in use for many years, as a $25 million convention center, and has secured the approval of a London- based group of Satmar rabbis to do so, despite the almost universal opposition of all important rabbinical experts, including all those of Lithuanian heritage. The small local Jewish community’s recently appointed chairperson, Faina Kukliansky, has been particularly anxious to accommodate the government on all the above issues, and has supported the initiative, based on the approval of the London rabbis, whose decision has been harshly criticized by virtually everyone else in the Orthodox world.
The fourth issue is the neo-Nazi marches held annually in Lithuania’s two major cities, Vilna (Vilnius) and Kovno (Kaunas), to mark Independence Day. (Lithuania has two independence days to mark the restoration of its sovereignty in 1918 and in 1990.) For years, these dates have been the occasion for parades staged in the city centers by ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis. The major themes of the marches have been the hatred for the country’s minorities (Russians, Poles and Jews), and the support for the ongoing rewriting of Lithuanian history in the spirit of the double genocide theory, including the glorification of figures such as Juozas Ambrazevičius, the prime minister of the Provisional Lithuanian government established in July 1941, which supported the Third Reich and the ultimately lethal measures taken against Lithuania’s Jews. Under the slogan of “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” the message is one of hatred and exclusion of all those not of ethnically pure Lithuanian heritage. All our efforts and those of local Jewish scholar Prof. Dovid Katz (www.defendinghistory.com) to have these hate parades banned by the municipal authorities have hitherto been rejected on the basis of freedom of speech.
In recent years, Israel has never actively attempted to influence the Lithuanian government on any of these issues, primarily because of the otherwise very good relations between the two countries. Yet while Israel obviously needs all the political support it can get, especially in the European Union (Lithuania voted against the Palestinians on the most recent UNESCO vote, for example), there is nothing wrong with encouraging our good friend Lithuania to start facing its Holocaust past honestly, and ensuring that it respect Jewish interests.
Unfortunately, as energetic as Israel has been to claim the privileges it seeks as the heir of the victims of the Shoah and the guardian of the continuity of Jewish history, we have rarely been as quick to assume the obligations inherent in those designations. This week’s visit of Prime Minister Butkevičius is as good a place as any to begin to act more responsibly in that regard.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. He is currently writing a book on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes with Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite.