Experts debate Lithuania’s Shoah policies

Speakers heatedly debate whether Vilnius is taking bold steps forward, or whitewashing past.

Efraim Zuroff 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Efraim Zuroff 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
An academic debate at a conference about Holocaust remembrance in Lithuania turned into a row on Thursday when two speakers at the gathering in Jerusalem exchanged accusations.
Efraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Israel, lashed out at Sarunas Liekis, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University and former director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, saying he fired a Yiddish scholar who criticized the government’s Holocaust remembrance policy.
“Dovid Katz, who taught for 11 years at Vilnius and is a leading expert in Yiddish, initially didn’t deal with politics at all,” he said. “But when the Lithuanian government started going after Holocaust survivors [for alleged defamation and war crimes] he got involved.
They told him his contract wouldn’t be renewed if he continued and it wasn’t.
Liekis told Zuroff he had no part in Katz’s departure, adding that his claims were “unprofessional” and constituted an “ad hominem attack.”
“Dovid Katz was not hired by the institute but by its friends in America,” he said. “When his contract ended it was not renewed for professional reasons, the same reasons it was not renewed at Oxford. I have no influence over people in Santa Monica that I could get him fired.”
“The problem with Efraim is that he’s never interested in the facts,” he added.
The recriminations between the two are part of a broader debate relating to how events that took place in the Baltics during World War Two are remembered. Since gaining independence from the Soviet Union, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia have lionized local nationalists who fought the communists alongside the Nazis during the war. But Zuroff and other Jewish groups say the esteem with which the nationalists are held in those countries ignores their complicity in the systematic murder of Jews.
“Not a single Lithuanian has been brought to justice by these governments,” said Zuroff, referring to the killing of thousands of Jews by nationalists in a wave of pogroms in 1941. “They’ve always waited until they are too old to prosecute.
There’s always been an effort to create a false symmetry between the crimes of the Nazis and the communists and there’s no question that in the past five years this has increased.”
Accusations have flown both ways. In 2007 Lithuania wanted Yad Vashem Director Yitzhak Arad extradited from Israel on suspicion of committing war crimes against Lithuanians when he was a partisan fighter in the forests during the war. A few months ago Vilnius asked Israel to quiz Holocaust survivor Joseph Melamed for allegedly defaming eight Lithuanian nationalists he said were involved in atrocities against Jews.
Lithuania’s ambassador to Israel Darius Degutis, who also attended the gathering in Jerusalem, highlighted Lithuania’s recent support for Israel in the international arena and asked to separate between the crimes of the Nazis and the communists.
“We are not equating between our tragedy and yours,” he said. “We are saying, please understand our tragedy the way we understand yours.”
Degutis vehemently defended his country’s record regarding Holocaust remembrance saying it has made great strides forward in recent years.
“One of the key priorities of our country is not just to remember the Holocaust but to do everything we can to rebuild and restore the Jewish community’s culture, history and heritage,” he said. “What has been done by this government – and I say this from a personal experience [as] I know how much has been done – I don’t think any other government in Europe has done as much in the last couple of years.”
Some Jewish observers agree with Degutis. Evan Zimroth, a professor of English and Jewish Studies at Queens College, the City University of New York, who has been involved in Holocaust remembrance in Lithuania for a decade, praised Vilnius for the progress she said it has made.
“The way I see it, things are moving forward,” she said over the phone from the UK last week. “I deal with the Lithuanian government and my dealings with them and parts of the Jewish community involved in restitution issues have been very positive.”
She said Lithuania had recently passed a restitution law and was doing its best to battle occasional manifestations of anti-Semitism in the country, but added that change cannot happen overnight.
“Nobody wants to whitewash anything and nobody should want to whitewash something,” she said. “Are there problems in Lithuania? Sure, it’s a new country. Can you control the press? The freedom of speech? The display of swastikas? Even in the United States marches where people carry swastikas are defended by the First Amendment.”
But Zuroff believes the recent concessions made by Vilnuis including the restitution law are a smoke-screen intended to placate some parts of the Jewish community while hiding Lithuanian complicity in the genocide of Jews during World War Two.
He said that if Lithuania was serious about its commitment to Holocaust remembrance then first it must pull out of the 2008 Prague Declaration, a treaty signed by several east European countries which he argues equates the crimes of the Nazis and communists.
“What I want to see first of all is a Lithuanian ambassador come and say the Prague declaration is untenable – he would be a welcome guest,” he said.
“All dealings of the Holocaust have to deal with Lithuanian complicity. For instance, there is a museum in Vilnius called the genocide museum housed in the building where the KGB sat but before that it was where the Gestapo was.
“There wasn’t a word about the Holocaust in this museum.
Only after much criticism the government took one small cell and installed an exhibition on the Holocaust in Lithuania but it didn’t have a word about who the killers were. It’s unbelievable and it’s the heart of the problem. You have to tell the truth and teach the truth.”