by Dovid Katz
A“designer menorah” proposed as an official “new Litvak logo” featuring the candelabrum’s center replaced by a Lithuanian national symbol that is perfectly legitimate but has in recent years frequently been adopted by neo-Nazi and far-right nationalist groups? One that is also at the center of the logo of the far-right organization that sponsored a demonstration defaming 95 year old Holocaust survivor (and anti-Nazi partisan hero) Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky just a few months ago? One over which women’s rights campaigners have been prosecuted in recent years (at the whim of far-right groups) for “desecrating”? One which a far right political candidate has used on his poster along with swastikas?
The official Lithuanian Jewish Community website, lavishly financed in three languages by the restitution-funded “Good Will Foundation” has this week featured on its English and Lithuanian pages the design, under the headline A New Litvak Logo. The accompanying unsigned editorial purporting to represent the “Jewish community” boasts with some potentially obsequious glee that the Justice Ministry has graciously given the community “permission” to use the symbol in its “Jewish” logo, going on to announce for the benefit of readers that incorporating the symbol “into a Litvak logo makes perfect sense” and indeed, to warn any would-be copycats that this dazzling invention is being “patented”. There is no mention anywhere about any local Jewish people (in other words the members of the community in whose name various pronouncements are being made) being surveyed, questioned or consulted.
Lithuanian Jewry may be small and fragile but it is vibrant as ever. The first published protest came within minutes of its publication in the “Motke Chabad” blog on the website of the Vilnius Russian-language publication Obzor [update: following this article, a report appeared in Izrus.il].
Jews in Lithuania and their many friends on the local non-Jewish scene have been left in what many call “total shock” by the latest attempt to manipulate and commandeer the nation’s official “Jewish Community of Lithuania” into becoming a PR tool of the nationalist far right that wants to see Lithuanian Jewish culture and history and the Litvak legacy become a dejudaized part of hard-core Lithuanian nationalism. And that, of course, with little use for most of today’s living Jews. And, with cart blanche to deflect attention from the true circumstances of the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry and the ubiquitous participation of local nationalist elements. It is, in other words, a rank betrayal of both the victims of the Holocaust and today’s small but vibrant and indomitable community. That makes it very unfair, moreover, to the overwhelming majority of tolerant and terrific people in today’s Lithuania who would not have the slightest desire to usurp, misappropriate or abuse one of their historic national symbols, neither as a new symbol of neo-Nazis and the far right, nor as one imposed by some government lackeys on a spiritually bankrupt Jewish community leadership that at this point represents a tiny circle of people currently battling to avoid democratic elections in the community (ironically appropriate for far-right values).
The layers of coarse manipulation of a weak minority evident in the logo saga will merit serious studies in years to come. Nationalist government elements persuade pliant local “Jewish leaders” to help make kosher an old and proud military-national symbol that has in recent years become emblematic of neo-Nazis (when it is used for new groupings rather than in its erstwhile historic context). The same “Jewish leaders” are then persuaded to publish anonymously on the official website of the Jewish Community of Lithuania a paen to the logo which itself contains the “burnt offering” gift to the nationalists from “the Jews”: “Bearing in mind the number of descendants of Litvaks around the world, understanding how broadly spread around the world the Litvak diaspora is and knowing the influence Jews from Lithuania have in the world, one could only dream of such a unique success and coup in public relations, and for free, as this logo could bring about, this logo which the Lithuanian Jewish Community wants to possess.” Yes, it really says that.
There are of course many “Litvak logos” developed for different projects and groups over the years, including, in fact, Defending History’s, which takes deep pride in the heritage of Líte (Líto, Líta) — Lithuania, the heritage of being Litvish, by way of the Jewish alphabet letter lámed (for “L”) formed in part by an iconic street arch in the old Jewish quarter of Vilna. Pride in Lithuania without abject, humiliating submission to nationalist, ultranationalist and neo-Nazi symbology. Pride in Lithuania expressing the uniquely Jewish incarnation of Lithuania and the beauty of its storied streetlets. Not the militaristic imagery beloved of today’s far right.
Since 2009, this journal has maintained a section called Identity Theft of the Litvak Heritage (for some years it was called “Litvak Identity Theft as a Post-Holocaust Phenomenon”). Modern Lithuania is a successful (and we believe, delightful) democracy to which not a moonray of harm comes from constructive comment from the many diverse quarters proud to derive from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In fact, any harm on the public relations sphere comes not from such criticism but from those in high places who do things that are not appropriate to ethnic minorities, things worthy of open and frank criticism in the context of modern democratic life in Western civilization.
One highly inappropriate tendency has been that of Litvak Identity Theft. The Litvaks are the Northeastern Ashkenazim of Europe, whose historic (and wholly stateless) territory covered a large swath of lands congruent with current Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, northeastern Poland eastern Ukraine, and some other bordering areas. In the case of modern Lithuania, the congruence goes beyond etymological identity of nomenclature (the cherished L-word). It also prominently includes today’s Vilnius, the nation’s capital in three distinct Jewish guises (Yiddish Vílne, Ashkenazic Lithuanian Hebrew and Aramaic Vílno, modern Hebrew Vílna). In Jewish lore, the city was for centuries known as Yerusholáyim d’Líte. The vast majority of Litvaks were murdered in the Holocaust and today’s very diverse Litvak groups in many parts of the world do what they can to maintain one or another aspects of this very rich religious and secular Jewish heritage which has contributed much in numerous spheres.
The problem has arisen when ultranationalist elements in the government and high circles who obfuscate the Holocaust (often via the logic of the “Double Genocide” movement), and painful issues of antisemitism, and have little or no regard for the three or so thousand Jews still living in Lithuania (frequently offering the aside: “They are all basically Russians”), attempt to use the grand Jewish heritage of the Litvaks for government PR, often to cover over problems as well as to simply “incorporate” an array of empty symbols and slogans of “Litvak” PR as part of a program of international imaging and branding. That is an acute form of identity theft, particularly painful when it entails units financed by the lavish resources of a state against a small number of genuine Litvak people and entities who are proud and brave enough to fight for the actual Litvak heritage surviving, down to publicly calling out such instances of abuse as occur. Readers are invited to peruse Defending History’s sections comprising movingly courageous articles by Litvaks here and abroad alike, among them Shimon Alperovich, Yitzhak Arad, Danny Ben-Moshe, Ruta Bloshtein, Chaim Burshtein, Milan Chersonski, Samuel Jacob Feffer, Pinchos Fridberg, Leon Kaplan, Tzvi-Hirsh Kritzer, Dov Levin, Joseph Levinson, Zecharia Olitsky, Jacob Piliansky, and Efraim Zuroff.
Instances of attempted identity theft (rapidly challenged on these pages) include a diverse set of circumstance that deserve one day to be studied by more distanced scholarly investigation. Among them are:
♦ a 2009 Baltic Times report that inserted a list of Jewish Vilna Ghetto inmates under the incorrect caption indicating that it was a list of war criminals (the same article include a “Yiddish” institute’s director calling the last Litvak survivors in Israel “extreme right wingers”). Submitted replies and corrections were not published.
♦ a 2009 article by the head of a “Litvak Foundation” with odious antisemitic references to today’s living Jewish community, written after the said “head of the Litvak Foundation” left his job.
♦ a 2010 Lithuanian government sponsored initiative for a bogus “Litvak Heritage Forum” for which the prime minister’s chancellor boasted that “rich Litvaks” would be found to finance things; the “Litvak” group was then to be headed by the… deputy prime minister. In 2011 the list of “fake Litvaks” leading and manipulating the group was leaked to the media.
♦ a 2011 attempt to entice a British film company into a state PR film disguised as a documentary on Litvaks.
♦ a 2012 state-sponsored effort to entrap American Jewish “Litvaks” into supporting Baltic Holocaust revisionism in the spirit of right-wing “Double Genocide” (underpinned by an ambitious Jewish PR firm).
♦ a 2015 memorial at the mass murder site Ponár (Panerai) that featured nationalist costume and song but no rabbi or kaddish; an April 2017 ceremony there featured church music in memory of “the Litvaks”.
Vilnius Jewish Question of the Week:
Who is the real author of these “words of wisdom” that claim to speak for the “Lithuanian Jewish Community”?
“Bearing in mind the number of descendants of Litvaks around the world, understanding how broadly spread around the world the Litvak diaspora is and knowing the influence Jews from Lithuania have in the world, one could only dream of such a unique success and coup in public relations, and for free, as this logo could bring about, this logo which the Lithuanian Jewish Community wants to possess.”