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)
Ninety-seven years ago, on February 16, 1918, Lithuania regained sovereignty for the first time in hundreds of years and the city of Kaunas (better known in the Jewish world by its Yiddish/ Hebrew name Kovno) was named the capital of the newly-established Lithuanian republic. To note that auspicious event, Lithuania continues to celebrate February 16 as Independence Day, despite the fact that it was occupied on June 15, 1940, by the Soviets, subsequently by the Nazis in June 1941, and was not free again until 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed.
This week, I went to Kaunas to monitor and protest against an event which has become a fixture on February 16 since 2008, an event which in my opinion badly mars what should be the spirit and message of Lithuanian independence. Instead of celebrating Lithuania’s freedom from Soviet oppression, the Union of Lithuanian Nationalist Youth annually organizes a march through the center of the city which expresses enmity toward minorities and seeks to rewrite their country’s bloody Holocaust history by glorifying those who collaborated with the Nazis and actively participated in the mass murder of their fellow Jewish citizens.
In that respect, there is no small irony in the geographic location of the starting point of this march of lies and hatred.Keep up to date on the latest opinion pieces on our new Opinion & Blogs Facebook page
The gathering place for the launch is right across the street from the Lietukis garage, the site of a particularly appalling murder of dozens of Jewish men from Kaunas during the initial days of the Nazi occupation in late June 1941, which has become a symbol of the zealous participation of numerous Lithuanians in Holocaust crimes.
On June 25, 1941, three days after the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa and invaded the Baltics, a gang of Lithuanian vigilantes took about 50 Jewish men to the Lietukis garage. There, on a large open square in the middle of the garage, before a large crowd of men, women and children, they murdered them one by one, by either beating them to death with crowbars or shoving fire hoses down their throats and turning on the water to explode their stomachs. Following this horrific spectacle, which was applauded by the crowd and captured on film by a German army photographer (scenes of which can be seen at Yad Vashem and other Holocaust museums), the crowd stood and sang the Lithuanian national anthem, as if they had just witnessed the most patriotic scene imaginable.
Thus it was particularly upsetting to see a very large banner at the head of this week’s parade honoring none other than Juozas Ambrazevicius, the prime minister of the provisional government (LPG) established by the Lithuanians on July 5, 1941. This political body fully supported the Third Reich, as well as the cruel measures taken against Lithuanian Jews which resulted in the mass murder of thousands during the LPG’s one-month existence. I shudder to think how a Jewish survivor living in Kaunas today would react to that image.
As far as the lack of tolerance for minorities, the main slogan shouted ad nauseam by the marchers was “Lietuva lietuvams,” and “Lietuvams Lietuva” (“Lithuania for Lithuanians” and “Lithuanians for Lithuania”). In other words, the only worthy and authentic residents of their country, in their opinion, are ethnic Lithuanians, a blatant and obvious insult to the thousands of Poles, Russians and Jews who have called Lithuania home for generations. The irony of such slogans in our context is that the Jewish objects of this exclusionary message are the few individuals who, despite the highly significant role played by ethnic Lithuanians in the Holocaust, have chosen to tie their futures to those of the residents of a country many of whose ethnic Lithuanians thought murdering Jews was the epitome of patriotism.
Several hundred people participated in this march, with nary a word of protest from the official Jewish community or any of the embassies, including Israel. Perhaps it is the inertia engendered by repeated marches, perhaps it is a desire not to rock the boat, or a sense that in a country so busy rewriting the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust to hide the crimes of local collaborators and promote the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes, what difference does a march like Monday’s really make? I beg to differ, however, since I believe that, despite Lithuania’s small size and population, the campaign that it has been pursuing so energetically has already reaped dangerous results, which ultimately threaten not only the country’s minorities, but the accepted narrative of World War II and the Holocaust as well. And both these issues represent a real and present danger.
The writer is director of Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office.