'It's the least I could do for my friend'

Prof. Dov Levin sends back presidential award for Holocaust-era courage to Lithuanian president.

Dov Levin 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dov Levin 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In 1993, half a century after he took to the Lithuanian countryside to fight the Nazi invaders and their local collaborators, Dov Levin received a letter of recognition from Lithuania's first president after independence, Algirdas Brazauskas, for his courage in facing the Nazi menace. "That was back when they liked Jews," the octogenarian professor emeritus of East European Jewish history joked on Sunday, hours after formally returning the award in a letter to the current Lithuanian president, Valdas Adamkus. Giving back the award after 15 years wasn't easy. "I wish I didn't have to do it," he said, but insisted "it's the least I can do for my good friend." Levin's good friend is Dr. Yitzhak Arad, "an excellent partisan" who took part in the resistance to the Nazi occupation before leaving for Israel in 1945 and joining the Palmah. A retired IDF brigadier-general, the 82-year-old Arad served as chairman of Yad Vashem for over two decades and was a lecturer in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University. Last year, Lithuanian prosecutors received a complaint from right-wing activists citing Arad's memoir depiction of a reprisal attack on a Lithuanian village. The prosecutors are now investigating whether the attack he participated in may have been a war crime, since he fought against the Nazis in a Soviet-organized resistance. The Lithuanian prosecution even submitted a request to Israel's Justice Ministry to investigate Arad, a request the government does not appear to have taken seriously. "As a former comrade-in-arms of Dr. Arad, and as someone who has very closely followed the efforts of Lithuanian society to erase the guilt of Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes," writes Levin, "I want to strenuously protest the absolutely disgusting demand to extradite this Jewish hero to stand trial in Lithuania. Out of a sense of solidarity with Dr. Arad and deep disgust and anger at this despicable step, which attempts to delegitimize the courageous struggle of myself and my comrades against the Nazi invaders and their Lithuanian collaborators, I hereby return the certificate of honor whose contents have been rendered meaningless by the recent actions and events in Lithuania as explained above." Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Levin notes the jarring context of the current investigation. "Lithuania was one of the few countries where almost 93 percent of its Jews were murdered. The local population, the Lithuanians, helped the Nazis. Before the first German soldier entered Lithuania, the Lithuanians, at different levels of organization, already harassed the Jews." Once the Germans arrived, said Levin, Lithuanian collaborators "not only murdered, but murdered and stole and raped. Even the military and police helped the Germans." Of the 1993 awards, Levin says, "the last few partisans who were still alive received letters of recognition from the first president of independent Lithuania. We received letters full of praise telling us we had defended Jewish honor and whatnot. Dr. Arad was one of the recipients. He was a partisan in eastern Lithuania, and he was excellent. He blew up 14 German trains. "Then, after 14 years, someone remembered that one Jew, Dr. Arad, wrote in his book that he participated in an operation in a village. But these weren't just any villagers. They attacked the Jews, raped women, took property - before the Germans arrived. I wish I had also participated in those operations." For his part, Arad is unmoved by the criminal investigation in Lithuania. "There's no indictment, no request for extradition. [In February,] the Lithuanian foreign minister [Petras Vaitiekunas] said it was an unpleasant affair, but the prosecution had no choice but to investigate the complaint," he explains. Besides, "this isn't about me. It's an attempt to rewrite history, to blame the Jews, and it's happening also in Ukraine and Poland. Two weeks ago, hundreds of skinheads shouted 'Yuden Raus!' ['Jews out!'] in the streets of Vilna. They want to cleanse the murderers. To do that, they have to accuse us. They're trying to say that though there were Lithuanians who killed Jews, there were also Jews who killed Lithuanians, that we're even." The Simon Wiesenthal Center praised Levin's decision to return the award and called on other recipients to do the same. Its chief Nazi hunter, Dr. Ephraim Zuroff, called the investigation of Arad "part of a growing tendency in Lithuania to do anything possible to cover up their crimes, to deflect the blame to the Germans and Austrians instead of facing the truth." As Arad notes in indignation, "In 1945, I fled the country, joined the Palmah and fought in all Israel's wars. I was a Zionist all my life. Now, to accuse me of war crimes, they call me a communist?"