VILNIUS—Milan Chersonski made public today the text of his letter to Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. Mr. Chersonski was editor-in-chief of the quadrilingual (English-Lithuanian-Russian-Yiddish) Jerusalem of Lithuania, the official publication of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, from 1999 to 2011. From 1979 to 1999 he was artistic director of the Jewish Folk Theatre in Vilnius, which for many years had been the only Yiddish theatre in the Soviet Union. A film documentary tribute to his work was released in 2012 (part 1; part 2).
Mr. Chersonski is a regular contributor to Defending History. This statement reflects his personal views.
An Open Letter to Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress
Vilnius, 25 July 2014
Dear Mr. Lauder,
I am one of your loyal admirers who for many years, as editor (in the years 1999-2011) of the quadrilingual newspaper of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, Jerusalem of Lithuania, has been following your achievements, and also your deep commitment to Judaism via a range of philanthropic initiatives that have made a substantial difference for the betterment of Jewish life. When you were appointed to the presidency of the World Jewish Congress in 2007, I was proud as editor to give the event and your many achievements front page coverage (see Jerusalem of Lithuania, 2007, no. 5-6: page 1).
Dear Mr. President of the World Jewish Congress, I appeal to you on a matter of pressing concern, speaking as a Jew, as a citizen of Lithuania, as the former editor of Jerusalem of Lithuania, and as former artistic director of the Jewish Folk Theater (from 1979 to 1999), which was for many years the only Yiddish theatre in the former Soviet Union.
This concerns the new Yiddish positions here in Vilnius that have been announced by the World Jewish Congress. I ask your solemn assurance that the beloved teacher who introduced and taught Yiddish here for so many years, Professor Dovid Katz, who moved the famous summer program he had founded at Oxford to Vilnius in 1998, be allowed to apply for one of the Yiddish teaching positions in Vilnius, alongside any and all other prospective candidates, in an honest and transparent process based on academic merit.
I first met with Professor Katz about a decade and a half ago. I asked about what brought him to Lithuania the first time (in 1990), and learned that it was the birthplace of his late father, the Yiddish poet Menke Katz. Dovid not only introduced and taught Yiddish language and culture but at every step continued to build important constructive projects that would benefit not only Yiddish studies, but also Lithuania, where he decided to settle and where he has been teaching Yiddish for so many years.
The difficulties here for many of us began after our country was admitted to NATO and the European Union. For a certain group of extreme nationalists, that became a moment to try to invest state resources to turn upside down the actual tragic history of the annihilation of more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust. There were many attempts to make the Holocaust “equal” to the postwar history, when many of the collaborators assuming the name of “forest brothers” went into the woods to unleash armed acts of violence against civilians of our country. I remember those times very well.
It all became part of the so-called “double genocide theory” which seeks to equalize as a matter of principle the casualties of the Jewish civilian population of Lithuania (the murder of 96.4% of the country’s Jews) with the victims of Soviet power in the postwar period.
In order to create the illusion of equivalence, in 2006 the state prosecution service started a shameful campaign to prosecute a group of Jews, all Holocaust survivors and ghetto residents who escaped certain death by valiantly joining the war against the Nazis and their local collaborators. The prosecutors’ “mission” was to equate the barbaric genocide of virtually the entire Jewish population of the country with the acts of warfare carried out by the anti-Nazi partisans against Nazi forces. These partisans have been acknowledged as heroes by east and west alike, one of the true international points of mainstream agreement across the board. To this date in 2014, there has still been no public apology, enabling antisemites and admirers of fascism to continue to defame the Jewish partisans widely, on the internet and elsewhere.
The first such “investigation” was initiated in 2006 against Yitzhak Arad (at the time a member of the government’s own commission on investigating crimes of the Nazi and Soviet regimes). Then in 2008 new investigations were announced against the former Jewish partisans Rachel Margolis and Fania Brantsovsky (Brancovskaja). An investigation for alleged “libel” of “national heroes” was launched against Kaunas-born survivor Joseph Melamed in 2011.
While some were understandably afraid to speak up here, Dovid Katz, mustering his academic talent and enormous courage, rushed in 2008 to defend Yitzhak Arad, Rachel Margolis and Fania Brantsovsky. At the same time, in 2008, Professor Dov Levin returned the award he had received from an earlier president of Lithuania as his own gesture of peaceful and dignified protest against the campaign targeting Jewish partisan veterans. The resignations from the government’s commission and the associated bodies have included Dr. Yitzhak Arad, Sir Martin Gilbert, Professor Dov Levin and Professor Konrad Kwiet.
Professor Katz continues to play a leading international role in combating the “theory of double genocide” and its Prague Declaration which is based on this false theory. He is co-author of the Seventy Years Declaration. He founded and continues to edit, gratis, the successful internet portal DefendingHistory.com, which has become the international address for this cause, expressing the beliefs and opinions of the (Yiddish speaking) survivor community, Jewish communities and enemies of fascism around the world, as well as providing news of the revisionists’ campaigns which have been largely ignored by the rest of the media.
As a result of the courageous and principled stand Dovid Katz has taken against the ultranationalist and antisemitic establishments throughout Eastern Europe, he was in 2010 discontinued from his post at Vilnius University, which he held for eleven incredibly successful years, during which time he worked tirelessly to create from scratch the Vilnius Yiddish Institute and bring it to the status of an internationally known institution. Since then he has continued to teach Yiddish literature, gratis, at the Jewish Community of Lithuania during the academic year. I have been a frequent participant in these excellent courses, the last of which was held in the spring of 2014.
Honorable Mr. Lauder! You too have spoken out courageously against Lithuanian government attempts to distort the history of the Holocaust.
On 2 December, 2009, Dovid Katz’s website was among the first to expose the written comments of the then justice minister of Lithuania that scandalously distorted the history of local collaboration in the Holocaust. Two days later, on 4 December, 2009, you issued your own very powerful statement which still appears proudly on the World Jewish Congress website, under the heading “Ronald Lauder criticizes revisionist theses of Lithuanian Justice Minister” which was then reported on both in Jerusalem of Lithuania and Defending History.
In that statement one can still find your powerful words:
“Such rewriting of history is totally misleading and unacceptable. Instead of recognizing that many ethnic Lithuanians actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers to round up Jewish citizens Minister Šimašius chooses to placate the revisionists in his country. It beggars belief that someone should today still argue that antisemitism played no role in the extermination of Lithuanian Jewry when the collaboration of so many Lithuanians with the Nazi occupiers is well-documented.”
Honorable Mr. Lauder! Precisely the same cabal of ultranationalist Holocaust revisionists, and their local Jewish lackeys, who arranged for Professor Dovid Katz’s discontinuation at the university in 2010, are now boasting that they have somehow, through whatever spider’s web of nooks and crannies, succeeded to persuade your own great organization, the World Jewish Congress, to participate in an injustice so obvious that it would be transparent that the cause of justice was not served: that new Yiddish positions announced in 2014 would be filled by teachers imported from abroad, while Professor Katz would not even be allowed to apply for a Yiddish position as part of the kind of fair and transparent selection process that would be worthy of the World Jewish Congress.
I respectfully call on you to urgently offer public assurance that any new Yiddish positions in Vilnius will be fairly and openly advertised and awarded on academic and professional merit. Under no circumstances should the World Jewish Congress join the ranks of distorters of the Holocaust in the Baltics who have found in Yiddish, the much weakened language of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, a convenient PR toy.
Thank you for your attention.Milan Chersonski, Vilnius Director of the Jewish Folk Theatre in Vilnius, 1979-1999 Editor-in-Chief of Jerusalem of Lithuania, official newspaper of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, 1999-2011