Et tu, Yivo? Holocaust Survivors Jolted by Plan for Lithuanian Foreign Minister to be ‘Guest of Honor’ at Vilna Ghetto Commemoration



O P I N I O N

by Dovid Katz

When you have loved an institution all your life — and written over decades about its impact on the history of ideas — it becomes a responsibility, even when painful, to try to dissuade it from making a serious error that would put in jeopardy its integrity.

The Lithuanian foreign minister, who has to date not apologized publicly for his widely reported antisemitic outburst in October 2010, has been named by the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research as its ‘guest of honor’ at a concert on 22 September 2011. The remnant Jewish community of Lithuania is small and fragile. Nevertheless it responded robustly, less than a year ago, to the foreign minister’s comments and proceeded to publish its response in English, Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish.

Yivo’s website enumerates the joint sponsorship for the 22 September 2011 event by ‘the Embassy Series in cooperation with the Lithuanian Consulate and the Lithuanian Delegation to the United Nations’. The event is being held to commemorate the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto on 23 September 1943.

Perpetrators glorified

In 2011 — to mark the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion, and  to the chagrin of Holocaust survivors internationally — the Lithuanian government has invested in a series of events honoring the local perpetrators who began to kill Jewish neighbors in dozens of towns before the Germans even arrived (a reading list on the history is available here). The ‘logic’ has been that they were actually rebelling against Soviet rule, though it is not disputed by historians that the Soviets were obviously fleeing the Nazi invasion.

In September 2010, the year 2011 was declared by the Lithuanian government as a year to commemorate Holocaust victims. Precisely one week later, it was also proclaimed as a year to commemorate various ‘heroes’ including the Holocaust’s local perpetrators and collaborators. At one point, the parliament’s English website had only the Holocaust year, while the Lithuanian language website featured the year of the ‘heroes’. The swift superimposition of the ‘second 2011 year of commemoration’  led to a statement by the Jewish community. Double-game Holocaust politics are becoming singularly distasteful.

Vilna Ghetto Holocaust Survivors defamed

The Yivo concert is being mounted in memory of the Vilna Ghetto and will be held on a date near the September 23rd anniversary of its liquidation (in 1943).  Survivors questioned find it unconscionable that the Yivo evening would not also be utilized as a forum for polite, constructive and appropriate protest at the Lithuanian government’s targeting precisely of Vilna Ghetto survivors (among other Holocaust survivors) for kangaroo ‘war crimes investigations’ that have drawn international protest.

In an ongoing campaign of defamation, a leading ‘Helsinki’ human rights association in Vilnius last December released a statement calling these survivors mass murderers (in effect for having survived by escaping the ghetto to join the anti-Nazi partisans). The statement also called  for their ‘sentencing’ though none has been accused of anything specific. It has been more a campaign of defamation than a prosecution.

In May 2008, several weeks after sending police to ‘look for’ two Vilna Ghetto women survivors, Lithuanian prosecutors announced that they ‘could not find’ the two  — Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky (born 1922) and Dr. Rachel Margolis (born 1921). Later that year, in response to massive international pressure, ‘part’ of the government’s first defamation campaign, against Svintsyán (Švenčionys) Ghetto survivor Dr. Yitzhak Arad was dropped, in a malevolent public statement calling on the public (‘the society’) to provide new ‘evidence’.

To this day, there has been no public statement of apology or regret by any Lithuanian government official with respect to state prosecutors’ defamation of these ghetto survivors and anti-Nazi partisan heroes.

Vilna Ghetto survivor, resistance veteran, biologist and Holocaust historian Dr. Rachel Margolis: Perhaps she should be the ‘guest of honor’ at Yivo’s 22 September event to commemorate the Vilna Ghetto?

Dr. Rachel Margolis, who recently spoke about the moment in the Vilna Ghetto when Hirsh Glik decided on the melody for Zog nit kéynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg, which became the Jewish partisan hymn, is resident in Rechovot, Israel. She feels unable to return to Lithuania for fear of prosecution, harassment and defamation. Despite numerous requests, the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv has failed to reach out to her. She will turn 90 in October, several weeks after the Yivo event.

The Yivo evening to mark the anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto is regarded in the survivor community as a unique opportunity to honor Holocaust survivor, resistance hero and historian, Dr. Margolis, alongside other Vilna Ghetto survivors and anti-Nazi resistance heroes.

Dr. Margolis is also a major contributor to Holocaust Studies. She helped establish the ‘Green House’ Holocaust museum in Vilnius, and in the 1990s rediscovered and then published in Polish the long-lost diary of the Christian Polish journalist Kazimierz Sakowicz, who was witness to many of the murders at Ponár (Polish Ponary, now Paneriai), the mass murder site near Vilna (Vilnius). The diary attested to the majority of the killers being enthusiastic local auxiliaries. The English edition, edited by Yitzhak Arad, was brought out by Yale University Press in 2005.

Campaign to downgrade the Holocaust in European History

While relations between Lithuanians and Jews are successfully developing at many levels — individual, academic, cultural, touristic, institutional — Litvaks and Holocaust survivors continue to be dismayed by the ‘double game Holocaust politics’ of the Lithuanian government, policies which must not be blamed on the Lithuanian people. In addition to the attempted prosecutions of survivors, state agencies —including the so-called ‘red-brown commission’, the Genocide Center, and the Genocide Museum —  have invested large sums in the movement in Europe to effectively write the Holocaust out of history and replace it with the ‘Two Holocausts’ distortion of history.

That movement has included the 2008 Prague Declaration, which has been widely opposed by Holocaust survivors, and by human rights advocates in Europe and beyond. One of its corollary pieces of legislation in the European Parliament came down to defeat last December, after the movement’s far-right, antisemitic and Holocaust-trivializing overtones were brought into focus, among others, by the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Rampant antisemitism is tolerated

In 2011, authorities again issued a permit for a city-center neo-Nazi march on the country’s independence day. It was organized by an official of the state-sponsored Genocide Research Center and attended by a member of parliament.  The Genocide Center official (he has not been dismissed) also heads a neo-Nazi group that recently issued an Enemies List that included, frighteningly,  an official advisor to the Jewish community.

When the Ponár mass murder site suffered its worst desecration ever in July this year, the government covered up the incident, which was reported, with photographs, on DefendingHistory.com, and then covered on the New York Review of Books blog by Yale Professor Timothy Snyder.

Instead of acting to condemn the surge of antisemitic activity, the foreign minister slated to be ‘the guest of honor’ at the Yivo evening himself fanned the flames in late 2010 with his untoward remarks. Less than one year ago, the small and fragile Jewish community of Lithuania, for whom local polemics carry various risks, nevertheless published a robust statement of protest following publication of those remarks, that had been made ‘only’ to his party caucus members in the nation’s parliament. It is beyond belief that Yivo would now be celebrating this foreign minister as guest of honor. He has never apologized for or withdrawn his remarks.

Much of the newest wave of antisemitism is coming from state and elite institutions. There have been no initiatives in 2011 by the Lithuanian government to repeal either of the two 2010 laws that are repugnant to Holocaust survivors and the wider Jewish community. One was a court decision legalizing public swastikas.

Is it truly wise for the East European state that legalized swastikas in 2010 to be honored by Yivo in New York  in 2011?

Criminalization of the Western Holocaust narrative

A second was a law passed by parliament that criminalizes the opinion that the Holocaust was the one genocide in Lithuania. The maximum punishment is two years in prison. The bill, signed into law by the president, is a blow to democracy. It quickly stifled the voice of free-thinking historians who do not believe in ‘two equal genocides’ as the history of the twentieth century.

A similar law, maxing out at three years’ imprisonment,  was passed earlier in Hungary when that country’s right-wing government came to power in 2010.

Bold Lithuanian citizens speaking out

To the great credit of contemporary Lithuania, significant numbers of bold citizens of all backgrounds have risen to speak up against government policies on Holocaust Obfuscation, antisemitism and racism, and state policies to stifle the free democratic spirit of debate.

DefendingHistory.com has a page in their honor, which includes a number of translations into English. In recent times, Evaldas Balčiūnas, Liudas Truska, Nida Vasiliauskaitė and Tomas Venclova have been among those to speak out courageously against the state’s campaign to glorify the local mass muderers of 1941 as ‘national heroes’.

Yivo’s historic mission and loyalties — and backbone

The question being asked on the eve of the Yivo event is whether in the safety and security of New York City, the Vilna-founded Yivo might fail to rise to the occasion, and might be allowing its good name to be abused by a generous, well-oiled Lithuanian government PR offensive that has this year yielded a series of events in London, and a Vilnius conference from which Yad Vashem withdrew as participant at the last moment. One of the prime purposes of the campaign has been to offer lavish ‘Jewish events’ as cover for the various concurrent efforts to downgrade the Holocaust, sanitize and heroize the local perpetrators, defame Holocaust survivors, and tolerate an antisemitism run amok, apparently for fear of offending the far right.

Yivo’s wider community needs on this occasion to remind its leaders and board of directors of the need for loyalty to Yiddish language and culture which includes at its heart a loyalty to Yiddish speaking Jewry, the cherished diminishing numbers of survivors of the Holocaust around the world, and the remnant Jewish communities of Eastern Europe — not least in its own prewar hometown (without, frankly speaking, expecting that fragile community to ‘issue a statement’ about each event down the line).

For many years, the ‘Double Genocide’ maven-manipulators in the Lithuanian government have been trying to recruit the word Yivo as a PR crown jewel in the efforts to provide ’empty Jewish addresses’ as cover for unfortunate policies. Over the years these efforts have included everything from attempts to declare the ‘real’ Yivo to be in Vilnius, leading to a legendary international standoff in the 1990s, to failure to return original archives that are the legitimate property of Yivo. PR masters dealing with naive foreign Jewish leaders might even succeed to turn looting of Jewish books and papers into something remotely acceptable.

Throughout the many stages of post-Soviet Yivo-Lithuania relations, there has been one constant. That has been the desire of certain circles in government responsible for manipulation of Jewish issues to secure a physical ‘Yivo’ location in Vilnius, as PR bonanza for the obfuscation movement’s series of Vilnius Jewish addresses for the benefit of naive foreigners, without proceeding to reform the policies so offensive to Jewish communities everywhere.

To the contrary, 2011 has seen disturbing growth of the legal, social and political environment for legalized swastikas, city-center neo-Nazi marches on Independence Day, state glorification of the local participants in the slaughter of Lithuanian Jewry, and continuing defamation of Vilna Ghetto and other survivors. This runs parallel with the much more sophisticated academic and political campaign to ‘change the history’ as per the ultranationalists’ wishes, and the investment in ‘Jewish projects’ as cover for the lot.

Yivo owes it to its creators in Vilna and to its current constituency to Just Say No to the ongoing attempts by a right-wing East European government to buy up its brand.


Dovid Katz was professor of Yiddish Language, Literature and Culture at Vilnius University, Lithuania from 1999 to 2010. His course Lithuanian Jewish Civilization included three sessions each academic year on the history of Yivo in Vilna. There are sections on the history of Yivo in Vilna in his Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (revised edition NY 2007), Vilna Jewish Book Stamps (Vilnius 2008), and  Lithuanian Jewish Culture (revised edition Vilnius 2010).

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