Harrowing sights in the Baltics

Within the last two weeks, both Lithuania and Latvia hosted well-attended marches likely to send shivers down Holocaust survivors’ spines and arouse tragic memories.

By
March 23, 2011 22:54
4 minute read.
MONUMENT ERECTED at Paneriai to commemorate the 70,000 Jews killed at the site between 1941 and 1944

Paneriai Lithuania monument 311. (photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)

 
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These are hard times for the Jews of Lithuania and Latvia, especially for the Holocaust survivors among them. Within the last two weeks, one of the main avenues of the capital cities of each country hosted a well-attended march likely to send shivers down their spines and arouse tragic memories.

On March 11, about one thousand Lithuanian ultranationalists and neo- Nazis, bolstered by a delegation of their German counterparts, marched down Gediminas Avenue in the heart of Vilnius under police protection (the only persons arrested were two of the handful of brave Lithuanian protestors) shouting “Lithuania for Lithuanians” and waving swastika symbols, which in May 2010 were approved by a local court as “symbols of Lithuanian heritage.”

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Five days later, about 2,500 Latvians gathered to support a march in Riga by veterans of the Latvian SS Legion from a local church to lay wreaths at the Freedom Monument, the symbol of Latvian independence. And while the marches are ostensibly different – the one in Lithuania focusing on the present and the one in Latvia dedicated to remembering the past - they both broadcast a chilling message of hostility for minorities and support for the same fascist nationalism which spawned the zealous collaboration of so many of their countrymen with Nazi Germany in the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust.

THIS WAS not the first time these marches have taken place. The one in Lithuania was held for the fourth year in a row and the number of its participants has steadily grown. The Latvian march has been going on for longer, but in this case as well, it appears that this year’s crowd was larger than in the past. Every year, efforts are made in both countries to legally prohibit the events, but ultimately local courts opt for freedom of expression. After all, similar marches are held in Germany (without Nazi or SS symbols which are banned by law) and in the United States and other countries. Thus while Holocaust denial is a criminal offense in Lithuania punishable by incarceration, local officials and judges fail to see the connection between swastika- bearing demonstrators marching in the capital of a member-state in good standing of the European Union and NATO and the crimes committed under that very symbol.

In Latvia, the situation is slightly more complicated, but ultimately it is the same ultranationalism and xenophobia, coupled with a healthy dose of anti-Semitism, which feuls the determination of Latvians to glorify those who fought alongside Nazi Germany for a victory of the Third Reich.

Advocates of the march continue to insist that those who served in the Latvian SS Legion had no allegiance to Germany and were “freedom fighters,” battling for an independent Latvia, but the sad reality is that the Nazis had no such intentions, regardless of the number of locals serving in the Waffen-SS.

Even worse, these nationalists fail to acknowledge the important fact that many of Latvia’s worst murderers of Jews volunteered to serve in the Legion and were among its officers. Thus the attempts to turn these Legion veterans into Latvian heroes is not only a distortion of history, but is also a heartless affront to the Jewish community in general, and the survivors among them in particular.

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If these marches had been organized by marginal political elements and had been roundly criticized by local government leaders, it might have been possible to dismiss them as upsetting although not critical, but unfortunately, that is not the case.

In Lithuania, the political leadership failed to speak out in real time and only did so half-heartedly in response to criticism, mostly from Jewish groups abroad. Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius criticized the march only because it discredited “patriotism,” while it took President Dalia Grybauskaite five days to say that “patriotic parades are welcome, but marches inciting ethnic hatred shouldn’t take place.”

Given the fact that among the leaders of the march in Vilnius were Kazimieras Uoka, a member of parliament from the prime minister’s party and Ricardas Cekutis, a high official of the government-sponsored Genocide Research Center, much more unequivocal criticism was sorely lacking. In Latvia, Foreign Minister Girts Kristovskis has nothing bad to say about the march by SS veterans, but used the occasion to lump together Communist and Nazi crimes,as part of the ongoing campaign by the Baltic countries to relativize Holocaust crimes and help hide their own extensive complicity in the atrocities of the Shoa.

IN THIS dismal landscape, a letter of protest signed by 600 Lithuanian intellectuals calling upon the leaders of their country to “condemn and distance themselves from the march of the extreme right and neo-Nazis,” shines out like a beacon of hope, but without external support and pressure, the chances for its success are very minimal.

And in that context, the silence from Brussels, Washington, and Jerusalem is incomprehensible.

The writer is the Israel director and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research worldwide of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His most recent book is Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice published by Palgrave/Macmillan.

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