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
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
“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.
told him his contract wouldn’t be renewed if he continued and it
Liekis told Zuroff he had no part in Katz’s departure, adding
that his claims were “unprofessional” and constituted an “ad hominem
“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.
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
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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
“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
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.”