A RED ROSE is pictured during the March of the Living to honor Holocaust victims in Paneriai, near Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2012..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
It’s not every day that Lithuanian high school students block the entrance to their school to keep out their principal and demand the return to work of a beloved teacher who, in their opinion, was unfairly dismissed. In fact, as far as I could determine, the action taken recently by students at the Laisves (freedom) Gymnasium (high school) in Naujoji Vilnia, a suburb of the capital, Vilnius (Vilna), is unprecedented since Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.
So what prompted this unusual case of student insubordination, which garnered headlines in the largest of the Baltic republics? At this point, we must differentiate between the official version of the story and what appears to be the real reason for the events which took place at the high school several weeks ago. According to the principal, the teacher in question, Marius Janulevicius, who teaches Lithuanian language and literature, had spoken harshly to one of the school’s female cleaning staff, which prompted his immediate dismissal. Such a step might seem unduly harsh, but the real reason for his dismissal apparently had nothing to do with that incident. It was because of an unusual, and unprecedented, film project undertaken by Andzej Davlevic, Dominykas Versalovicius and Deividas Svencionis, three of the school’s pupils, with the encouragement and tutelage of Janulevicius. The film, The Forgotten, commemorates the Jewish victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania.
These same students had originally approached their history teacher with the idea for the film, but she strongly discouraged them, suggesting it would be far better to deal with historical tragedies which had befallen Lithuanians.
“Don’t deal with the fate of the Jews,” was her unequivocal message. But the three boys were determined to deal with the Holocaust and were able to carry out the project in their free time, with the enthusiastic help of Janulevicius.
The film was produced and put online (but has still not been screened at the school), and once it became public knowledge the reprisal from the school came very swiftly – once an excuse presented itself to fire Janulevicius. The authorities, however, did not anticipate the reaction of the students, who rallied to his defense, barricading the school and locking the principal in her office.
So within a short time, the principal has been dismissed and Janulevicius is about to be reinstated, a result which in my opinion would have been unthinkable only a year ago. Further proof of the positive changes in Lithuanian society in this regard were on abundant display two weeks ago in the wake of an outrageous incident on the Lithuanian version of the popular game show Name That Tune, on national television on a recent Friday night during prime time.
A female group was singing a song popularized by singer Simonas Donskovas, who apparently is Jewish although he does not identify as a member of the community. One of the panel participants, the popular actress and former member of Parliament Asta Baukute, jumped up from her seat, put two fingers under her nose to imitate Hitler’s mustache, gave a Nazi salute and started yelling “Zydas, Zydas, Zydas” (Jew), to the applause of the audience. The reaction was very swift, following a storm of protests on social media. The producer and host of the show issued public apologies and the director of Lithuanian television announced that the show was being dropped. In addition, Baukute was fired from a different TV program on which she had been appearing regularly for over 10 years.
During the following week, the local media was extremely preoccupied with this story, a fact which Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite noted was another indication of the positive change in the attitude of Lithuanian society to the Holocaust. In her words, “No one could have ever imagined two years ago that a person giving a Nazi salute on national television would create a national scandal. It has now become very unpopular and dangerous to be antisemitic in Lithuania, which was not the case previously.”
As for former MP Baukute, she had the chutzpah to claim that she loves the Jews, and that by making a Nazi salute she sought to draw public attention to the tragedy of the Jews, who are the most wonderful and smartest people in the world, a tragedy which should never happen again. A more accurate description of the situation, at least as far as the government is concerned, was supplied by well-known political commentator Rimvydas Valatka, who wrote on www.delfi.lt, the most popular and influential Lithuanian news portal, that, “If we were to think without any extra emotions about what Asta Baukute did, what those in government offices and the municipalities are not doing, we would realize that what she screamed out was nothing exceptional and let’s admit this. You don’t think so? Think again. Do we have monuments to the former shooters of Jews? Yes, we do. Do we have streets named for civil servants and other people who helped the Nazis solve the Jewish problem? Yes we do.”
What is clear, leaving aside Baukute’s lame excuses, is that on the one hand positive developments in the attitude of Lithuanian society to the Holocaust are taking place, but on the other hand these welcome changes in the attitudes of many younger, more educated Lithuanians have not yet succeeded in getting the government to admit the scope of Lithuanian complicity in the Shoa and stop supporting the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes. Only when that happens will the accuracy of the true narrative of World War II and the Holocaust be insured in Lithuania.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs. His most recent book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, is
Musiskiai; Kelione su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), Alma Littera, 2016. His websites are www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com. He can be followed on Twitter @EZuroff and on Facebook.
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