Congratulations to the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, once known also as Kovno (in Yiddish Kóvne) on its selection as Europe’s “Capital of European Culture” in 2022, sharing the title with Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg.
The city’s leaders now have a splendid opportunity to take the moral high road in dealing with a number of ghosts from the present and the past. To start with the present, will the city’s officials now act rapidly to avoid a public perception disaster by moving this year’s neo-Nazi parade away from the city center during the February 16th Independence Day celebrations? Previous years’ marches have on occasion glorified actual Kaunas Holocaust collaborators, causing deep pain to Survivors and their families, as well to so many of the city’s people.
For history, there is now a genuine opportunity for the city to come to terms with its historic status as Birthplace of the Lithuanian Holocaust, where thousands of Jewish citizens were murdered in the week of 22 June 1941 by “nationalist heroes” and various pro-Nazi militias before the Germans arrived or before they took control. From the severed head of Rabbi Zalmen Osovsky, his torso left bent over the tome of Talmud he was studying, to the Lietukis Garage massacre, to the early barbaric slaughters at the Seventh Fort, the blood-soaked image of Kaunas is embedded deep in modern European history. Around 96% of Lithuania’s Jews were killed in the Holocaust, a proportion not unrelated to the gusto for activist participation as well as mere collaboration that was cemented in Kaunas and its region in the early days, when white-armbanded LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) militia members blocked all roads from the city, and many other towns, to prevent Jewish neighbors from escaping the impending Nazi chokehold. That various of the perpetrators continue to be honored in Kaunas is unacceptable in the New Europe. Kaunas had its proud share of Lithuanian rescuers who went against Nazis and their own nationalist leaders’ orders to just do the right thing and save a neighbor. They are the ones who should be honored.
“Kaunas 2022” is sure to become the focus of international efforts to combat Holocaust obfuscation and racist distortions of prewar cities in the region. One good place to start is rapid removal of street names and plaques that honor 1941 Holocaust collaborators and enablers. Another is to rapidly release Alicija Žukauskaitė’s “still suppressed” documentary film that starts with a reporter asking residents of Škirpa Street for whom their street is named (see Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas on Škirpa’s ideas on ethnic cleansing of the country’s Jewish population; also Milan Chersonski in the Lithuanian Jewish community’s longtime newspaper).
Then there is the 2012 fiasco of reburying with full honors the Nazi puppet prime minister who oversaw the Holocaust’s launch. The city’s famous university continues to glorify the man today with a bas-relief and lecture hall name. Many people from far and wide will refuse to set foot in this university until rectification.
No doubt rectification must come well before 2022 if the year is not to turn into an international “dark tourism” hot spot for seekers of the macabre. That rectification can only come from the heart, from the city’s and the university’s own core, not as some kind of “fear of the Jews coming to clobber you over the head” that was, alas, part of the spirit during the 2012 reburial scandal. It must clearly be in the forefront for those planning for the 2022 events.
Kaunas has a grand opportunity now to become a beacon of humanistic integrity by confronting its past with honesty, integrity and respect for the city’s rich multicultural history. In can yet unleash its vast potential to become one of Europe’s great cities.