VILNIUS—Chaim Bargman, Jewish guide in Kaunas, asked today in Vilnius that DefendingHistory.com record a statement in Yiddish from him on an incident that occurred on 6 September (video here). Bargman, a beloved guide and genealogist for international Jewish-interest tourists in the Kaunas (Kovno) area for decades, was immortalized in the late Dan Jacobson’s Heshel’s Kingdom (1998). September 6th was the date of this year’s annual commemoration ceremony for the murdered Jews of Ukmergė (Yiddish: Vílkomir) held at the nearby mass grave, where, according to the Lithuanian Holocaust Atlas, between 6,358 and 10,000 Jews from the region were humiliated and murdered. There was massive local collaboration as well as large-scale local participation in the slaughter of one of Lithuania’s most famous Jewish communities over many centuries. Disturbingly, for many, a town square in the heart of Ukmergė has a monument dedicating it to the memory of a notorious Holocaust perpetrator.
On the morning of September 6th, Chaim and a colleague headed from Kaunas to Ukmergė for the annual commemoration ceremony. Approaching the city near the end of the hour-and-a-quarter journey, they were stopped by police on the pretext of “your car’s motor sounds strange” and then arrested for not wearing seatbelts. The two (and their car) were taken to a police station. They were interrogated, stood up against a wall for three mugshots, and noticed that a plainclothes security officer seemed to be directing the entire “seatbelt” interrogation. The questions around the seatbelt were stretched out to fill as much time as possible, and they continued to be held even afterward — until the ceremony at the forest mass grave was over. This “trick” is well known to Lithuanian citizens of a certain age as commonplace in Soviet times.
Bargman’s companion in the car is a member of “Lithuania Without Nazism,” a controversial organization here. Bargman himself is not and was never a member, and explains that he agrees with them on the need to protest the shrines and monuments for Holocaust perpetrators that stand in different parts of the country, saying that “they don’t bring Lithuania honor.” From the first moment they were stopped, he asked to leave his passport with the police, to be able to attend the ceremony for the Jewish Holocaust victims of Ukmergė on his own, and then to come right afterwards to the police to be punished for the seatbelt violation. They refused.
In the interview he recounts the timeline of both his ordeal at the police station and the memorial event at the mass grave. He found that he and his travel companion were released as soon as the event was over.
The indomitable Bargman comments powerfully on the state of abuse of police powers in his beloved homeland, and calls the incident an example of “genuine antisemitism.”
It is hoped that on this occasion, human rights monitoring groups and international Jewish organizations will speak up politely but firmly and ensure that this kind of thing never happens again. Hopefully, the Jewish communities in Kaunas and Vilnius will look into the matter and speak out soon.
Defending History has long maintained that the people of Lithuania deserve the same freedoms of speech and expression as all other members of EU and NATO countries.