lithuanian fm 248 88 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Last month, I was invited to attend two important conferences convened to combat contemporary anti-Semitism. The larger and ostensibly more important one was the annual meeting of the Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism, which is sponsored by the Foreign Ministry and deals with the diverse forms of the problem all over the world. Its 500 participants include government officials, representatives of all the major Diaspora NGOs in the field and leading intellectuals and activists. From past experience, I know that it is a good venue to meet colleagues and exchange ideas, even if the speeches and deliberations are becoming annoyingly repetitive year after year.
The second conference, which was sponsored by the World Congress of Russian Jewry, was entitled "The Legacy of World War II and the Holocaust," and focused solely on the recent efforts in numerous post-communist countries to rewrite the history of the Holocaust and attempt to obtain official recognition that the crimes of communism are just as bad or worse than those of the Nazis.
The major motivation behind these efforts is to minimize the role of local collaborators in Nazi crimes and instead focus attention on the atrocities perpetrated by communists, and especially the Jews among them, thereby creating a false symmetry of genocidists, designed to silence Jewish criticism of the role played by Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Ukrainians, Croatians, etc. in the Holocaust, provide a justification for past and current local anti-Semitism and to switch the public's perception of the population of these countries from perpetrators of the most heinous crime to its victims.
The approximately 400 participants from Russia and the Russian-speaking "diaspora" (some 130 from Israel) were primarily leaders of organizations of Jewish World War II veterans and Jewish communities of Russian origin, as well as several Holocaust historians and educators.
NORMALLY, I would have gladly attended both conferences but unfortunately they were scheduled on the same dates on two different continents. While the Global Forum was meeting in Jerusalem, the conference on the legacy of the Holocaust was scheduled for Berlin. Given the prestigious status of the former and the fact that five colleagues of mine were planning to participate, the natural choice would have been Jerusalem, but in this case I opted for Berlin because of an extremely unfortunate decision made by the Foreign Ministry, which I believe will prove very detrimental to Jewish interests.
I am referring primarily to the invitation to Lithuanian Foreign Minister Vygaudas Usackas to participate as a special guest of the forum, but also to the presence there of two right-wing Hungarian politicians, Zsolt Semjen and Zoltan Balog, both of whom have made very negative comments about Hungarian Jews. Israel, which naturally welcomes the far-less-critical approach of the new (Eastern European) members of the European Union on Middle East affairs has, especially during the past decade, attempted to court these countries, despite their general failure to deliver on practically the entire range of practical Holocaust-related issues from prosecution and restitution to education and documentation.
Even worse, during the past two years, these countries and especially the Baltics, have spearheaded the above-mentioned campaign to achieve official recognition for the canard that communist crimes were just as bad as those of the Nazis, with all the dangerous implications thereof in relation to the attitude toward the Shoah.
And if there is a country which especially deserves to be criticized harshly in this regard it is Lithuania, whose government is actively helping to finance this campaign, and where its anti-Semitic implications have reached a despicable low during the past three years. Thus after making a mockery of the efforts to bring unprosecuted Lithuanian Nazi war criminals to justice by insuring that even those two local Security Police commanders and one operative who were prosecuted would not sit even one day in jail for their crimes, Lithuanian prosecutors launched investigations against several Jewish Soviet anti-Nazi partisans, among them Dr. Yitzhak Arad, former chairman of Yad Vashem, on bogus charges of war crimes against Lithuanians. Accompanied by hysterically anti-Semitic articles in the nationalist press, the campaign turned the victims of the Holocaust into perpetrators and the villains who assisted the Nazis in the mass murder of Jews into patriotic heroes, a distortion of the historical events much more palatable to the Lithuanian public.
If Usackas had been invited to Jerusalem to formally announce that his government was immediately stopping its communism equals Nazism campaign, would henceforth commit itself to teaching the painful truth about the extensive role of Lithuanian collaborators in the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania and elsewhere in Europe, would officially close all the cases against former Jewish partisans and officially apologize to them, his invitation to the Global Forum would certainly have been justified. But that was not the case.
IF ANYTHING, the opposite is true. On December 2, for example, Lithuanian Justice Minister Remigijus Simasius made a public statement defending Lithuania's abysmal record of extensive collaboration with the Nazis during World War II and absolving his countrymen of any blame for their role in Holocaust crimes. And instead of acknowledging Lithuanian complicity, he preferred to attack the US for its restrictive immigration policies during that period.
In fact, even Usackas himself, in a speech delivered a week prior to the forum, spoke of Lithuanian Righteous Among the Nations and Nazi collaborators as if they were equivalent phenomenon, despite the fact that the latter outnumbered the former many times over.
At the forum, the foreign minister repeated this lie, asking "how could it be that while some Lithuanians were risking their lives to save their Jewish neighbors, others were committing crimes by sending them to death?" a sanitized version of the Lithuanian reality during the Shoah in which many Lithuanians actively participated in the mass murder of Jews (and not like elsewhere in Europe, where local collaborators "merely" sent them to their deaths in Poland) and very few tried to assist them.
And while he did specify that the condemnation of Stalinism "should never be applied to diminish the moral and political lessons of the Holocaust," he did not say a word about halting the nefarious campaign his government is actively supporting to equate communism and Nazism or its practical implications as formulated in the Prague Declaration of June 2008, which calls for a joint commemoration day for the victims of the Nazis and the communists (which would make one specifically for the Shoah superfluous) and a joint research institute for totalitarian crimes (which would make institutions like Yad Vashem redundant).
To add insult to injury, after devoting most of his comments to the importance of fighting against anti-Semitism, I was told that the minister and his entire entourage left the forum immediately after his speech never to return, leaving his hosts without any justification for their unfortunate decision to give Usackas a very respectable platform to once again, in typical fashion, distort the history of the Holocaust and escape the harsh criticism that Lithuanian actions deserve.
Needless to say, there were no such problems at the Berlin conference, which was united in its condemnation of Holocaust distortion, especially in the Baltics and Ukraine, and which undertook to actively combat these dangerous phenomenon. In that respect, as hard as this is to believe, this past Hanukka, Berlin was a much more sympathetic venue to discuss the threat to the accuracy of the historical record of World War II and to Holocaust memory than was Jerusalem.
The writer is the Chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. His most recent book Operation Last Chance; One Man's Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice was published last month by Palgrave/Macmillan