by Dovid Katz
The following is the written version of Dovid Katz’s presentation at the International Conference on Holocaust Education organized by Rūta Vanagaitė as part of a Europe for Citizens project, held at Vilnius City Hall on 17 April 2015. Conference program. Conference’s final press release. Project website.
Politics, Policy, and Lithuanian Holocaust Discourse
Good afternoon. Sincerest thanks to everyone who made today possible, above all to dear Rūta Vanagaitė for successfully bringing together folks from many sides of today’s issues here in Vilnius for the first time in the twenty-first century, in the fine spirit of openness and tolerance that is particularly important, now, when politics and current events can easily deflate freedom of opinion on history, the progress of civil discourse, and the dignity of education.
Now there is an old Litvak tradition, from hundreds of years ago, originally about traveling speakers who would come to a town to give a talk on some festive occasion or other (and today’s conferences are a kind of fairgrounds, be it for products of ideas rather than manufacture). When you start talking, put your ghosts down right on the table in front of you so they too will sit and listen, instead of peering down from behind your ears. For close to sixteen years, I have lived part of the year here in Vilnius by choice. I love the city and Lithuania, and I have been treated beautifully and with kindness and good humor by everyday folks wherever I go. I came to pursue Yiddish dialectology and have been fortunate to interview thousands of Litvak survivors across the region from whom I also learned the victims’ and survivors’ perspectives on the Holocaust. And I came to take up a chair at Vilnius University, and will cherish all my life my eleven blissful years as professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University, and the many hundreds of Lithuanian students I’ve been privileged to work with. Incidentally, if Lithuania were not a genuine democracy, I wouldn’t be here today talking to you and saying whatever I want. Trust me, I have not been censored.
Let us then turn to the oft-conferenced issue of “Lithuanian-Jewish relations” (or as Prof. Sara Ginaitė, now of Toronto, puts it, “the so-called Lithuanian-Jewish relations”). Having followed the topic one way or another for most of my life, I can report to you that Lithuanian-Jewish relations are excellent. Better than ever. Lithuanians and Jews are making plans together for ventures and deals and events; for study, degrees and diplomas; for visits and vacations, meeting up here in Lithuania, and in Israel, in America, Britain, South Africa, Australia and more. There’s a brand new Israeli embassy here. Lithuanians and Jews are making new businesses and projects. They are making love and making children.
The problems come in large measure from state-sponsored entities able to disburse vast resources (that would be much better spent on the needs of the citizens of Lithuania) in the interests of a certain nationalist obsession with “fixing the Holocaust” at least in the sense of equalizing it with Soviet crimes to the point where there were Two Holocausts (Yitzhak Arad’s term for this effort) or none at all (“complicated times, you know, when everyone was killing everyone”). To look at the simple core issue empirically, one can travel through some 255 former shtétlakh (shtetls, towns with an appreciable prewar Jewish population). Thank God, there are Lithuanians and others of all shapes and sizes, but alas, the only traces that Jewish and Yiddish and Litvak people ever existed are the mass graves, sometimes remains of the old Jewish cemetery, some old buildings, and in some cases mentions or exhibits in museums.
The reasoning behind the revisionist activity is not overly hard to fathom. It includes:
(1) ultranationalism (wanting to have a perfect national record of victimhood, when all the nations on the planet have our many stains);
(2) anti-Russianism (the rational and correct fear of the current unpredictable, aggressive, dictatorial bear of a country to the east combined with the irrational and incorrect idea that falsifying World War II and the Holocaust is going to help anything);
(3) good old East European antisemitism (“Those Jews were all communists, and got what they deserve, ah but — we love today’s Jews from America and Israel and Western countries. Problem with the Jews here is that they think our nationalist heroes helped the Nazis kill their families and that they are alive because of being saved by the Russians”).
My friends, discourse about the Lithuanian Holocaust is not a Lithuanian-Jewish problem. It is a debate with two sides, and with both Lithuanians and Jews on both sides of the debate. It was a Jewish member of the Lithuanian parliament who signed the (in Litvak eyes, unfortunate) Prague Declaration of 2008, the central document of the Double Genocide movement, while eight proud non-Jewish Lithuanian parliamentarians signed the response, the Seventy Years Declaration of 2012, led by a signatory of the nation’s declaration of independence, Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis, now European Health Commissioner, whom we wish a speedy and full recovery after his surgery earlier this week here in Vilnius at Santariskės hospital.
In the Holocaust, the three Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, sadly had the highest percentages of murder of their Jewish populations in all Hitler-occupied Europe, around the 95% mark (Yad Vashem’s Prof. Dina Porat has shown how the percentage for Lithuania hovers around 96% no matter how the counting is done, redone, tinkered with and retinkered). The reason for that magnitude, and for the importation of Jews from other countries for murder in the Baltics, and the export of killers from the Baltics to other countries during the Holocaust, is — among others — the extraordinarily high degree of enthusiastic, efficient collaboration in these countries, as in western Ukraine, and elsewhere, where participating in the actual killing (in distinction to other forms of collaboration further west, as you heard earlier from Dr. Zuroff) was often associated with supposed, albeit Hitler-grade, patriotism.
During the long Soviet occupation of close to half a century, there was no freedom of expression to deal with these matters in the public square. The great humanist Tomas Venclova has on a number of occasions explained it with a simple thought experiment (here paraphrased). Had the Western allies liberated Lithuania, those leaders of the 1941 Provisional Government would have been put on trial every bit as surely as Pétain and the Vichy government in France. Some would have been found guilty, some not guilty, but, you cannot even imagine that France’s government in the twenty-first century would be naming streets, shrines and university lecture halls for them.
What happened in Lithuania in the first decade or so from independence onward will attract keen attention from historians of ideas. A number of courageous and honorable citizens led the way toward simple, uncomplicated human honesty in confronting the Holocaust. Just a few ethical heroes of the decade are, in alphabetical order: Saulius Beržinis, President Algirdas Brazauskas, Jonas Morkus, Vaidotas Revytis, Liudas Truska, Alicija Žukauskaitė, and perhaps above all Linas Vildžiūnas whose House of Memory laid the groundwork for a Holocaust education in Lithuania that would be upstanding and self-standing, not a tendentious component of the perfidious larger political agenda to revise the history into two equal genocides. All of these people worked closely with leading personalities of the Lithuanian Jewish community, including Shimon Alperovich, Solomon Atamukas, Rachel Kostanian, Faina Kukliansky, Israel Lempertas, Meir Shub, Solomon Vaintraubas, and the remarkable Joseph Levinson, whom we just lost here in Vilnius last week at the age of 98.
The intellectual, ethical and spiritual lighthouse for this aspect of Lithuanian renewal based on the simple truth was of course Tomas Venclova. His 1975 essay “Jews and Lithuanians” appeared around a decade-and-a-half before independence, and like his essays on Poles and Lithuanians, and Russians and Lithuanians, it is a masterpiece of the humanistic essay.
Things were looking good in the 1990s for coming to terms with the Holocaust thanks to the plentiful and successful Lithuanian initiatives. Alas, this was not qualitatively matched in most cases by government agencies that were working in the opposite direction. As you heard from Efraim Zuroff, the gift-on-a-platter of an opportunity for free-nation courtroom justice, national catharsis and magnificent education, gifted by the Americans in the form of the return to Lithuania of some fifteen suspected war criminals — who should have had fair trials in their own country — was squandered by prosecutorial and political failure to treat the matter seriously (and, one might add, a pathetic lack of political will to stand up to the far-right ultranationalists who want Nazi collaborators as national heroes; more on that later). At the same time the lavishly financed Double Genocide industry in the country, featuring the Genocide Center the Genocide Museum, the Genocide-Center-provided texts at Grūto parkas, and endless events, was busy rewriting the narrative, trying to turn the local perpetrators into heroes on the grounds that they were anti-Soviet. My friends, what unbelievable nonsense even the most intelligent of people are susceptible to when it is spewed forth in flowing academic language from high institutions of state in grand halls with vaulted ceilings. Perhaps all of the many thousands of Holocaust perpetrators in Eastern Europe were “anti-Soviet” and to say therefore that they were ipso facto heroes is to reduce the genocide of a minority in the country, precisely in the words of the elder Le Pen in France, to “a detail of history,” one not worthy of mention, because it is can spoil the perfection of the “heroes.” As you heard today from Tomas Venclova, heroization of the perpetrators is no policy for anyone who loves Lithuania.
But in the 1990s something else was also happening. International Jewish organizations and Western governments tried to “force” the Baltics and other East European countries to come clean about the Holocaust as a precursor to joining the European Union and NATO. This was a grave error. They should instead have set up funds to help all the splendid local initiatives that were telling the truth because it is the right thing to do. Instead, the local non-Jewish truthtellers were shunted aside as the topic was swallowed up by the byzantine world of national and geostrategic politics, of ministries and chanceries, and frankly, of seasoned ex-Soviet operatives for whom the naive foreigners were no tactical match, least of all American Jewish figures enchantable by euphoric trips, meetings with high officials and medals and other trinkets, and newfound importance as putative historians, writers, artists or just plain “leaders.”
Pressuring the Baltic governments was a mistake also in principle. One cannot force free and proud countries to change their chosen nationalist narrative by diktat or ultimatum. By failing to empower the local private and NGO truthtellers in these successful new democracies, the naive Westerners were inadvertently empowering state-sponsored forces that combine what is Soviet in form with what is (ultra)nationalist in content to manipulate trends and events with the whole toolbox of political ruses (and budgets) of the state and its many tentacles. In the case of the Holocaust, the unchangeable role of the wartime USSR meant that at whim these matters could be referred to “security” units too.
And so it came to pass, that the Baltic states together decided to set up state commissions that would study both Nazi and Soviet crimes. Sure, the Holocaust would be taught and it would be researched, but never apart from the political effort to change the narrative into one of Double Genocide. The most effective was the Lithuanian commission, firstly because it was headed by an ambitious Jewish member of the conservative faction in parliament whose career always depended, and depends, on “bringing the foreign Jews along” for Holocaust revisionism, as well as on covering for revisionism and state-tolerated antisemitism with endless Jewish and Yiddish events primarily for the benefit of seasonal wined-and-dined visitors from abroad (not to take away from his sincerest wishes to commemorate the Litvak heritage and his own most admirable efforts to study it). The Lithuanian commission, is called (a name right out of Orwell) “The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania” (long since dubbed, for brevity, the “Red-Brown Commission” by the diplomatic community here). Excellent historians were engaged to do history. Excellent teachers were engaged to teach. Alas they were all working under the non-rotating political bosses at the top, and had no control over the political role of the commission and its shifting relations to national, regional and international politics and to (mis)perceived requirements of national security. Yes, given the then-and-now Russia issues, Holocaust studies was reconceived as a national security issue and the commission enlisted in the recent and current geopolitics. Moreover, it is frankly impossible for even professional academics to remain unaffected by the largesse of a nationalist state-funded political oversight. For example, we heard earlier from Dr. Zuroff about the more than forty locations in Lithuania where violence or murder broke out against Jewish neighbors before the arrival of the first German forces. Because nationalist politicians have decided that this “must not be the history,” commission members have from time to time debunked the well-documented history with glib statements about such events being the opinions of “Israeli” (read: Jewish) scholars; the executive director explained that any murders that occurred in the first days were not necessarily on an “ethnic” basis (between the lines: they must have all been communists…). From that it would follow that Rabbi Zalmen Osovsky, whose severed head was put in the store window underneath his study in Kaunas, must have been a communist too.
At the commission’s launch in 1998, the last active association of Holocaust survivors from Lithuania, headquartered in Tel Aviv, wrote to President Adamkus asking him to reconsider. The letter, signed by the association’s chairman, Kovno Ghetto survivor and veteran of the Jewish partisan resistance Joseph Melamed, includes these words:
“The linking of the histories of the Nazi and Soviet occupations is the heart of the problem. More than any other factor, this false symmetry has been a major obstacle to any serious soul-searching by Lithuanian society in regard to the extensive collaboration […] in the murder of Lithuanian Jewry. […] Even worse, false accusations and patent exaggerations regarding Jewish participation in Communist crimes against Lithuanians have been adduced time and again to explain, and in some cases even justify, the participation of Lithuanians in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust. […] We therefore urge you to reconsider and either establish two separate commissions or cancel the entire project.”
The rest, as they say, is history. Splendid educational projects like the House of Memory were put right out of business by the commission’s bulldozer of resources available to the state, which included, over years, convincing even the Soros Foundation and others further afield (e.g. the Tides Foundation) to effectively abandon the principled truthtellers in favor of projects that would shift the narrative toward Double Genocide also for Western audiences. Holocaust education and studies, even when excellent, became indelibly tainted components of the Double Genocide movement.
Joe Melamed’s words of 1998 proved to be prophetic, down to the fear of “false accusations” against Jews that would move from the realm of antisemitic discourse right on up to prosecutors’ kangaroo “pre-trial investigations.” Our small but proud Jewish community courageously protested. A lot of effort had earlier been put into legitimizing the Lithuanian commission with a single Holocaust Survivor member. Survivor Yitzhak Arad, a distinguished and gentle Israeli Holocaust scholar and former director of Yad Vashem, was persuaded to join. Then, in 2006, another branch of the Lithuanian government, state prosecutors with close links to the Genocide Center (itself a commission partner) defamed Arad as a war criminal by haplessly taking out of context some lines of his own book The Partisan.
To this day the Commission has never officially called for a state apology as its former member — like the late Sir Martin Gilbert, Arad resigned in protest — who is continually defamed on the internet and in academic books. The “investigations” were never going to lead to charges. It wasn’t about charges or proceedings. It was about cooking the narrative. After investigations were dropped in 2008, under international pressure, the prosecutors posted, and as of today still have up on their website, a defamatory page calling on the public to come forward with evidence (as PDF). This was followed in 2008 with a lowpoint of modern Lithuanian history: police coming to look for two further elderly Holocaust survivors, Rachel Margolis and Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, Vilna Ghetto inmates who escaped to join the Soviet partisans fighting the Nazis.
Then, in 2011, prosecutors sent Interpol (!) to disturb Joseph Melamed in Tel Aviv on suspicion of defaming Lithuanian heroes, based on his 1999 book, Crime and Punishment. A statement in the British Parliament put a swift end to that escapade. Later, in 2013, the Red-Brown Commission itself added to the flames by calling a beloved Vilna born Holocaust survivor, Professor Pinchos Fridberg, a “liar” for having dared correct a mistake made in a conference speech by a commission staff member. That slur remained on the commission’s website this morning (as screenshot); Professor Fridberg incidentally devoted years to locating, honoring and arranging support for Lithuanian rescuers. And in a 2015 documentary film soon to be released, the commission’s executive director, standing at the mass-murder site Ponár (Paneriai), takes a swipe at 93 year old Fania Brantsovsky, “explaining” that perpetrators are also victims and victims also perpetrators, hence the “need” to investigate her. Such a litany of degradation aimed at Holocaust survivors and resistance heroes would not be worth our notice if it were not coming from leaders of units funded by EU/NATO states, units also responsible for Holocaust research and education in our new European house.
Destructive as these abuses of state-sponsored entities are to Lithuanian-Jewish relations, and to the name of Lithuania, whose people take no part in causing such offense, they are but antisemitism-tainted side-blows. The big issue is that the commission officially supports the Prague Declaration (signed by its own chairman) on its website (as PDF), and fails to even mention the existence of the Seventy Years Declaration, signed, as noted before, by eight Lithuanian parliamentarians, in a classic Soviet-style presentation of selected sides of the debate, but practiced with all the wizardry of Western PR.
But the commission, a big part of the problem for Lithuania, is but a small part of the wider problem that involves Latvia and Estonia, and often, when right-wing governments are in power, also Hungary, the Czech Republic and others, and recently, of course, Ukraine. But the Baltic states have been the engine, pioneering the redefinition by inflation of “genocide” to encompass Soviet deportation and other crimes, making way for a legalistic and political coronation of the legitimacy of Double Genocide, what Esther Goldberg (Gilbert) has correctly called “downgrade of the Holocaust.”
In addition to the morally damaging effect on society, state policies of Holocaust Obfuscation have also had a deleterious effect on freedom of speech, and the encouraging of young people to think independently and critically. Following a law passed by Hungary’s then newly elected right-wing government in 2010, Lithuania that year and Latvia in 2014 passed laws in effect criminalizing the opinion that there was one genocide in these countries, that of the Nazis and their local collaborators, to which Soviet crimes, however horrendous, are not equal. During the 2009 effort to set up the criminalization in Lithuania, its drafters and proponents made very clear the purpose, to facilitate the EU’s “equating” of Nazi and Soviet crimes. The 2012 Estonian “Valentine’s Day Law” has a different emphasis, potentially prohibiting the unmasking of the Holocaust crimes of “freedom fighters.” And just one week ago, on the 9th of April, Ukraine’s government lamentably followed the trend by passing laws in effect criminalizing the Western (and honorable) view of World War II history, while enshrining as heroes murderous hordes responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens of that nation.
That incidentally reflects on the dual sense in which we understand Defending History. We are defending the narrative from being mauled by a politically driven state sponsored far-right East European nationalist bandwagon that cunningly (ab)uses genuine education and research to legitimize far-right revisionism. At the same time we are defending the freedom of people to speak up against such efforts without fear of prosecution of adverse effects on one’s life and work. The people of the Baltics and all of Eastern Europe verily deserve the same freedoms enjoyed by the “older” EU and NATO states.
“What is a student of ‘Holocaust Studies’ at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas to make of a lecture hall name and bas relief honoring the 1941 provisional government’s ‘prime minister’ Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, who put his signature on papers confirming the removal of Jewish citizens of his city to a concentration camp and the rest to a ghetto?”
Diminution of freedom, defamation of Holocaust survivors, inflation of definitions by legal fiat, all interact combustively with the most painful pillar of the far-right edifice. That is the glorification of perpetrators. If, as noted earlier, the local perpetrators were all anti-Soviet, and if that makes them heroes, then what effect can the worship of such “heroes” have on society? What is a student of “Holocaust Studies” (or for that matter History or Diplomacy or International Affairs) at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, not to talk of primary and secondary schools in the city, to make of a lecture hall name and bas relief at the famed university honoring the 1941 provisional government’s “prime minister,” Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis, who put his signature on papers confirming the removal of Jewish citizens of his city to a concentration camp (it was actually the Seventh Fort death camp), and the rest to a ghetto?
For the last Holocaust survivors who live here or visit here, for the last real Litvaks on the planet, nothing is as painful as a Škirpa Street or a June Twenty-Third Street in Vilnius, a Noreika Street in Kaunas, a Krikštaponis Square in Ukmergė, a Barzda memorial near Plungė and numerous other cases, in Lithuania and elsewhere. How simple it would be here in Lithuania to replace these with the real Lithuanian heroes of 1941, those amazingly inspirational people who risked everything to save a neighbor from the Nazis and the local fascists in an environment where it took a lot more courage than in most other countries. We saw yesterday a beautiful ceremony at the government administration building honoring families of rescuers. The hall was alas half empty but it was one of a series of encouraging events that portend well for the future.
But that “survivor’s instinct” about how to rename those streets, squared and university halls is of course not the only solution. Lithuania’s internationally cherished thousand-year history boasts some of Europe’s most inspiring heroes. Why on earth is an ultranationalist elite obsessed with “saving as national heroes” the Nazis’ partners of 1941 allowed to go on causing damage to the country? When the remains of Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis were brought back to Lithuania in 2012 for reburial with full honors, the eminent Lithuanian philosopher (and then MEP) Prof. Leonidas Donskis, courageously spoke out before the event, on the pages of Defending History:
“By trying to honor Ambrazevičius, our authorities dealt a blow and probably killed, nearly overnight, all their attempts to get things done and to improve the situation regarding historical justice and truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania, Holocaust education, our memory politics, etc. It is impossible to pursue two mutually exclusive political goals maintaining two packages which are impossible to reconcile. We cannot sympathize with both victims and perpetrators.”
In the Seimas, two MPs, Vytenis Andriukaitis and Algirdas Sysas protested. In a dramatic scene on May 17th 2012, one worthy of the British House of Commons, then-MP Andriukaitis got up and said to then foreign minister Ažubalis on the occasion of a special booklet honoring the reinterment of Brazaitis with full honors:
“The information published in the booklet has very serious omissions. I have in my hands the protocols of the  Provisional Government of Lithuania relating to the establishment of a concentration camp for Jews, to the nationalization of Jewish property, and to organizing a Jewish ghetto in Kaunas. Unfortunately, this information is not contained in the booklet.
“Do tell us, is it true that the government financed it and allocated 30,000 litas for the commemoration and moving the mortal remains and for organizing the events?”
I would like to take the opportunity today to introduce you to some of the members of our team at Defending History. In recent years, Evaldas Balčiūnas has time and again asked the question: “As a proud Lithuanian citizen, I want to know why my government keeps honoring Holocaust perpetrators?” One of his earliest articles ends with the question: “Isn’t it time to stop mocking the memory of their victims?” But instead of being honored as he should be for his series of articles on honors for perpetrators, instead of being invited to speak to school children, he has been subjected to police and prosecutorial harassment, interrogation, threats and humiliation at his place of work. The man deserves a medal. We have here today Geoff Vasil (Vasiliauskas), one of our key writers from the outset; Andrius Kulikauskas whose major historical essay this year will not be forgotten; and Julius Norwilla, an original cultural critic, Protestant pastor and member of our city’s Polish community. Milan Chersonski, who was previously for a dozen years the editor of the Jewish community’s quadrilingual newspaper is in Israel today. Prof. Pinchos Fridberg is recovering from illness here in Vilnius; we wish him rapid recovery. We are also proud to be the recorders of the views of Rachel Kostanian, for so many years head of the Green House Holocaust exhibit here in Vilnius.
Let me hasten to add that none of them necessarily agrees with what I’ve said today. Our community of dozens of authors comprises a diversity of views from the wider liberal, progressive, anti-far-right perspective that believes minority rights are worth fighting for; that racism, antisemitism, homophobia merit spirited opposition; and that state manipulation of history also merits spirited opposition; that we must work tirelessly to keep alive the remnant Litvak heritage. In a modest gesture at honoring Lithuanian citizens who stand up for human rights, we have established the annual symbolic Prophet Amos Awards with seven Lithuanian citizens as laureates in 2014-2015. We are doing our modest best to participate in the wider human rights movement in the region with emphasis on the issues undercovered by the funded NGOs. It is all interrelated: the same far-right pretending-to-be-center-right forces in power that squander the nation’s resources in trying to rewrite history are the same forces who also placate the neo-Nazi and overtly racist and antisemitic elements. Indeed —
Some of us are occasionally faulted for our twice-a-year silent protests at the neo-Nazi marches allowed by the authorities to take over the center of Kaunas on the February 16th independence day, and the center of Vilnius on March 11th. For years now we have been joined by Dr. Zuroff who flies into the winter ice from Jerusalem, while many Lithuanian friends who quietly encourage us are afraid to join, thinking rightly or wrongly, that it would do their status and career no good. Some state-sponsored bodies even spread the slander that anyone associated with our opposition to Double Genocide or city-center neo-Nazi marches is a stooge or agent of Moscow! In the current environment that can be quite enough to convince folks not to touch Holocaust dissidents with a bargepole. But I ask you, my friends, is it not the true friend of Lithuania who disagrees with the huge banner of a Nazi collaborator’s visage defiling February 16th in Kaunas, when the betrayed thirty thousand Lithuanian citizens of Kaunas who were Jewish lie in mass graves not far? Who disagreed this very year with an SS styled flag with a swastika hoisted outside the Seimas here in Vilnius for over an hour on the March 11th Independence Day holiday? When asked, a policeman explained (politely and correctly) that the swastika was in fact legalized in 2010. We must be patient. As surely as summer follows spring, history will record who it was in these years who was a true friend of Lithuania. The day shall surely come when mayors and presidents will one day not gift the centers of the country’s great cities on independence days for the flags and symbols of Nazi Germany and grandiose images of Hitler’s local collaborators.
“As surely as summer follows spring, history will record who it was in these years who was a true friend of Lithuania.”
Lithuania is the exciting microcosm of a much larger debate. The East European Double Genocidists have not been content with imposition of this ultranationalist model in their own societies. They have been busy exporting the revisionist model to the far corners of the West, while trashing the West’s understanding of Nazism and the Holocaust as some kind of Hollywood charade. The word “Spielberg” is regularly tossed into the brew as a clinching-wrench and crowd-pleaser. Moreover, revisionists who find ways to make heroes of Hitler’s henchmen, and villains of the tiny remnant that escaped to join the partisans, are able to make much headway in the current geopolitical climate of “Anything that’s somehow against the Russians of any period must be good for everybody.”
Let’s take a closer look at the actual text of one major export, the aforementioned Prague Declaration of 2008. The word “same” occurs five times (italics added for quick reference) in a document remarkable also for its explicit exemplification of the phenomenon of Holocaust Envy which can at times be rather harder to isolate.
1 “Consciousness of the crimes against humanity committed by the Communist regimes […] must inform all European minds to the same extent as the Nazi regime’s crimes did”
2 “Believing that millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to […] recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized” [What this means is that deportation of a minority, evil as that is, is the same as genocide of an entire people]
3 “Recognition that many crimes committed in the name of Communism should be assessed as crimes against humanity […] in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal”
4 “Establishment of 23rd August, the day of signing of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, as a day of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, in the same way Europe remembers the victims of the Holocaust on January 27th”
5 “Adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks so that children could learn and be warned about Communism and its crimes in the same way as they have been taught to assess the Nazi crimes”
We are confident that the Seventy Years Declaration position, that the crimes of Nazism and Stalinism need to be studied separately, the Nazi genocide not downgraded, the perpetrators not honored, and the partisans against Hitler not demeaned, will stand the test of European time and history. The eight Lithuanian signatories among the seventy-one across Europe will be honored by future scholars and leaders alike, even as they were trashed by the government of the day in 2012. They are, in addition to Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis — Vilija Blinkevičiūtė, the late Justinas Karosas, Justas Paleckis, Marija Aušrinė Pavilionienė, Julius Sabatauskas, Algirdas Sysas, and Birutė Vėsaitė.
The debate rings ever more loudly in the West, not only about the Baltics but nowadays increasingly about Ukraine. There is also growing unease as the Ukrainian government enacts ever more honors for Stepan Bandera, the UPA and OUN and other fascist groupings responsible for the Hitler-inspired slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Jewish, Polish, Russian and indeed Ukrainian civilians. A major new academic book on Bandera is being repressed in the mainstream Western media outlets. But covering for the sanitization and glorification of Holocaust perpetrators and collaborators is not consistent with Western values. It is only a matter of time before history is defended much more widely in this ever-growing, and dangerous trend, in which the West follows the ultranationalist East in weaponizing history for (sometimes themselves worthy) geopolitical goals and for (never praiseworthy) far-right ideas and ideals.
Holocaust educators everywhere are usually very courageous and special people. They have chosen a painful and controversial line of work. In this part of the world they have to work under myriad and conflicting pressures. Nobody should ever force such work on anyone. The least they deserve is to be freed of the yoke of politics by rapid de-coupling of Holocaust education and research from the political campaigns to enact Double Genocide in Europe and to degrade its opponents.
Holocaust education everywhere must include respect for the views of the victims and survivors, too. We just last week, as mentioned, lost Joseph Levinson. I would just add that his book Shoah: The Holocaust in Lithuania, that appeared in separate Lithuanian and English editions, would be an important tool for educators and students alike. I’d like to cite the last line from his book, as we honor his memory. Talking about the Double Genocide movement’s expertise in using high-caliber sophistries to confuse perpetrators and victims, Levinson writes defiantly, speaking of his native shtetl, Vishéy (Veisiejai), in southern Lithuania:
“An exchange of places between the killers and their victims — defenseless peaceful people — is hardly possible, even with the help of the cleverest ‘research.’” . . .
My friends, by saying farewell to Soviet style control-organs for history, and to the far-right’s gentrified manipulations of history, starting with Double Genocide, we can move forward European scholarship and education, and friendship between the many peoples of this great city, while embracing the humanistic values that include, and will forever include, the very clear differentiation between perpetrators and victims. Between right and wrong. Thank you.