London observers were wondering whether the medal Professor Antony Polonsky received earlier this year from the president of Lithuania for his PR work for the Lithuanian government may have something to do with his denial of Monica Lowenberg’s request, asking for five minutes for her father, a Holocaust survivor, to read out at next week’s conference her petition to the Lithuanian government, proposing constructive solutions to the issues at hand. The petition has to date garnered over 250 signatories from two dozen countries. The following is the correspondence, which started with Ms. Lowenberg’s appeal to Professor Ada Rapoport-Albert and Dr. Francois Guesnet. Dr. Guesnet, the Corob Reader in Jewish History at UCL is one of the conference coordinators on behalf of the Lithuanian government funded institutions financing the conference. Holocaust survivors consulted cannot understand why safe and secure academics who hold high posts at Western institutions should so fear “even to give five minutes for somebody else to come and disagree” with the conference’s pay-masters in the freedom of the British capital.
THE UCL CONFERENCE
UCL and its Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies find themselves challenged by a simple question:
Will freedom of speech and respect for the views of the Holocaust Survivor community be respected to the extent of five minutes being granted for the reading of a petition to the Lithuanian government, or does Lithuanian government financial sponsorship preclude the granting of the request?
Real story behind UCL’s slavish dedication to Lithuanian government PR policy?
The following email correspondence, none of it bearing on personal matters, was released today by Ms Lowenberg’s office in London, and is published below with permission from her office.
One of the emails, from Professor Polonsky, contains a lengthy and standard restatement of Lithuanian government talking points (the “Liekis talking points” version) somewhat tailored for Jewish audiences. Like any set of talking points, each relates somehow, often obliquely to the point made in the petition, without confronting it head on. The opposing points are view are expressed in Ms. Lowenberg’s petition.
- From: Monica Lowenberg
- Date: Sun, Dec 9, 2012 at 8:58 PM
- Subject: Request from Monica Lowenberg
- To: Ada Rapoport-Albert
Dear Professor Rapoport-Albert,
As head of the Hebrew and Jewish Studies Dept at UCL and as someone who was a signatory on last year’s petition presented to the Lithuanian embassy by Prof Danny Ben Moshe and Dr Denis MacShane MP, I would be grateful if you would view the petition I have set up on Change.org:
I naturally hope you will sign the petition and bring it to the attention of colleagues and students, but I write today on another matter.
I respectfully request permission to take five minutes of the opening session to read out the petition to the conference, together with my father, who is a 90 year old Holocaust Survivor.
After reading internet reports that Professor Donskis was moderating the opening session, I wrote to him. He kindly explained to me that I need to contact university or embassy authorities to gain permission for my father or myself to read out the permission to the opening session of the conference. Hence I now appeal to you. I will be quick and polite, and will leave after five minutes, or less.
I hope this is possible.
I look forward to hearing from you and thank you for your help in this matter.
With kind regards,
- From: Monica Lowenberg
- Sent: Wednesday, December 12, 2012 1:24 PM
- To: Guesnet, Francois
- Subject: Request from Monica Lowenberg
- 12 December 2012
Dear Dr Guesnet,
I am of the understanding from my colleague Dr Saul Isroff, who has already spoken to Prof Michael Berkowitz, that you are the organiser for this year’s second UCL conference of ‘No Simple Stories’ a conference, generously sponsored by the Lithuanian embassy for the second time in two years running.
On Sunday last, I was in email contact with Professor Donskis. Literature circulated, stated that he was the ‘Moderator’ for the conference and therefore I respectfully asked him if he would permit me in his position as ‘Moderator’ the opportunity to read out, with my 90 year old Holocaust survivor father, a petition I have set up and read out at the opening session on Tuesday 18 December 2012 at 10am, at JZ Young Lecture Theatre, UCL. Prof Donskis kindly explained that I need to contact university or embassy authorities to gain permission to read out the petition as he is not the ‘moderator’. Hence I now appeal to you as organiser of the UCL conference.
UCL as a university of high standing and academic merit has clearly no political interest in organising this controversial conference; however, it is quite evident from actions taken by the Lithuanian government in the past two years, in particular, that they do. When questioned whether my accusations of the Lithuanian government within the petition were false, Prof Donskis very bravely did not deny these claims but rather agreed with them ‘99%’ .
I am truly sorry to place you in this difficult situation but as I am certain you are aware, it is of intellectual, political and ethical integrity that as organiser of this conference you arrange that I am allowed to now speak and read out the petition at the beginning of the conference. UCL, an internationally respected university of high repute must not allow its good name to be damaged. As you recognised the importance of Prof Danny Ben Moshe reading out at the opening ceremony of last year’s UCL Part 1 No Simple Stories conference, a petition dated 7 February 2011, which I note your colleague Professor Rapoport-Albert signed , so I trust you will recognise the moral imperative of me being allowed to speak as well. In the light of the Lithuanian government not decreasing their agenda to excuse the inexcusable but rather intensify it, with the reburial of their puppet prime minister, only this year amidst glittering events and conferences, a man who signed the forms for the Jews of Kovno to be put into a ghetto, I am certain that even though this request places you in an exceptionally difficult situation, you recognise as organiser why it is morally important that you permit me to read out the petition at the beginning of the conference with my father, Holocaust survivor Ernst Loewenberg, whose family were in the main all murdered, present.
I would like to assure you that I will be quick, polite and take but five minutes. One of your colleagues Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith, who only this year on the 10 November conducted for my father, mother and myself a Kaddish service for 35 members of our family who perished in the Holocaust, can testify that I will be polite.
Please do let me know your agreement to this request before the close of this coming Friday. I will also aim to call you.
With kind regards and thanks for your consideration of this important moral issue,
On Wed, Dec 12, 2012 at 6:04 PM, Antony Polonsky wrote:
Dear Ms Lowenberg,
Francois Guesnet has passed on to me your message since I am the organiser of the academic conference to launch volume 25 of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry which has as its theme ‘Jews in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania since 1772’. This volume of Polin is the first to contain a core of articles devoted to the history of the Jews in the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (in Yiddish, Lite) in the modern period. That this is now possible is the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the re-emergence of an independent Lithuania, which was followed by a revival of many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities which languished in the conditions of Soviet censorship. One of the areas which benefited from the new freedom was the history and study of the Lithuanian Jewish past. The Holocaust and Soviet rule completely destroyed earlier Jewish creativity. During the entire Soviet period between 1940 and 1990, Jewish studies did not exist as an academic subject in Lithuania, as was the case elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The revived interest in the Jewish past of the country not only evoked scholarly interest but also presented Lithuanian society with a challenge. Jewish studies in Lithunia is a central topic in the difficult conversation on the history of Jewish-Lithuanian relations and is closely linked to the broader transformation of historical memory of the post-Soviet era and the problem of coming to terms with the widespread local collaboration in Lithuania during the Holocaust. This complex and painful issue was aired in a number of international scholarly conferences in the 1990s. which also saw the establishment in Lithuania of a number of academic institutions devoted to the Jewish past in Lithuania.
Initially the two sides were very far apart but groups of scholars soon began to emerge in Lithuania, in Israel, Europe and North America who began to investigate in a dispassionate and scholarly manner the history of once great community of which now only small traces remained. New works appeared on the anti-Judaic policies of the Catholic Church and the emergence of modern Lithuanian antisemitism, the development of Jewish-Lithuanian relations between the wars and the social and political impact of the crises which led to foreign occupations in the 1940s. The years of the First Republic (1918-1940) came to be seen as a significant period of transformation: the first modern polity dominated by ethnic Lithuanians decisively impacted inter-communal relations, especially those between Lithuanians and Jews.
The chapters in this volume reflect this new research and deal with a number of different themes: the specific character of Lithuanian Jewry, the way relations between Jews and Lithuanians developed in the years after 1772, first under tsarist rule and then in independent Lithuania, the devastating impact on the Jewish community and on Lithuanian-Jewish relations of the Soviet and Nazi occupations of the country between 1940 and 1944, the further negative consequences on Jewish life of the reoccupation of the country by the Soviets between 1944 and 1990 and finally the slow revival of Jewish life since the independence and the attempts which have been made since then both to investigate the Lithuanian-Jewish past and to come to terms with the difficult legacy of the Holocaust.
Among the contributors to the volume are leading Jewish historians of the area as well as a number of Lithuanian historians who have adopted a critical attitude to the Lithuanian past. Several of them will be participating in the conference which will enable fruitful exchanges on the many difficult topics discussed in the volume. Accordingly we do not think your reading a statement at the conference will serve any useful purpose. The conference at University College is open to the public and members of the public are welcome to listen to the presentations and ask questions if they wish to so.
In response to the specific points you raise in your petition.
1. The attempt to prosecute Yitshak Arad for alleged war-crimes and to question Rachel Margolis and Fanya Brantsovskaya in regard to this accusation was clearly misguided and has been dropped by the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office, partly under pressure from some of those participating in the conference. I facilitated the translation and publication of Rachel Margolis’s memoirs in English to which I contributed a long introduction.
2. The reinterment of Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis provoked a widespread debate in Lithuania and led to an open letter to the government from many leading intellectuals in the country. It read “We the undersigned citizens and descendants of citizens of Lithuania strongly object to the official honoring of Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis, head of the Provisional Government of Lithuania that was active from June–August, 1941 during Lithuania’s occupation by Nazi Germany by the Government and Parliament of the Republic of Lithuania, officials of the City of Kaunas, and other dignitaries. In June 1941 many Lithuanians longed for any opportunity to liberate themselves from the Stalinist occupation. The motives, words and deeds of those who joined the anti-Soviet uprising must be judged individually. Alas, the uprising was marked by anti-Semitic rhetoric, pro-Nazi proclamations, and violence against innocent civilians. The Provisional Government was unquestionably inspired and headed by the Lithuanian Activist Front, whose anti-Semitic and authoritarian program is well-documented. The Government‘s rhetoric, actions and cooperation with German authorities, inescapably compromise its legitimacy and moral status. As Acting Prime Minister, Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis cannot avoid responsibility for its activities. Documents of the time show that the Provisional Government led by Ambrazavicius-Brazaitis did not distance itself from the pro-Nazi policies actively supported by Kazys Škirpa‘s Lithuanian Activist Front. Moreover, the Provisional Government declared its willingness to contribute to the organization of Europe on “New Foundations”as formulated by Nazi Germany. It is worth recalling that the Provisional Government identified as “enemies” even some members of Lithuania’s intelligentsia, for example, some of the faculty of Vytautas Magnus University.
A government which consigned an entire class of its citizenry to discrimination and persecution, and then subsequently failed to defend it from mass killings conducted by an occupying power and those collaborating with it, cannot properly claim to be defending freedom. The putative benefits of the Provisional Government’s unsuccessful attempts to reassert Lithuanian sovereignty are vastly overshadowed and defiled by the inhumane words and deeds to which it lent its authority. And what would be the value of sovereignty bought at the price of the blood of the innocent?
The recent state-sponsored commemoration of Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis’s life and legacy that took place on the occasion of his reburial was an egregious error of moral judgment. It exalted a would-be leader who showed no regret or remorse for having failed the most basic test of principled leadership: standing up for justice and for the innocent.
Family and friends of the deceased have the right to a private ceremony. However, by publicly honoring Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis and providing funding for the commemoration, the Lithuanian Government and those public officials and dignitaries who took part exacerbate the confusion among many regarding the values upon which the Republic of Lithuania is founded.
Public officials who turned down invitations to the commemoration should be congratulated.
But we must do more. We must firmly and unequivocally state that:
– we deplore the persecution and destruction of innocent Lithuanian citizens and others that took place during the tenure of the Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis Provisional Government;
– a critical evaluation of the Provisional Government’s words and deeds is not a matter of interest to only one or another group or organization, but a matter of principle for all Lithuanians;
– in Lithuania the rights and dignity of all must be defended; and
– there is no honor in gains achieved at their expense, however meaningful.”
Among those who signed this letter was the co-editor of volume 25 and a number of the Lithunian contributors.
3. The independence day marches, in which right-radicals and antisemites have participated have been permitted (not encouraged) by the Lithuanian authorities. The number of people who participated was small and they were also widely condemned by the more liberal elements in Lithuanian society. The issue here is of freedom of expression, which is an essential element in a free and open society. Lithuania is one of the more successful countries of the former Soviet Union in establishing a pluralist and outward looking political culture. It has recently (unlike Ukraine) conducted a parliamentary election which was for the most part held to be free and fair.
4. The questions of Tuskulėnai is a complex and sad story and is fully discussed in an article in the volume by Ellen Cassedy. In 1994, 700 bodies were found buried under the green lawn of an old Vilnius estate called Tuskulėnai. Research determined that they were the remains of people who had been executed by the KGB shortly after the Second World War. In the newly independent republic, the discovery prompted nationwide outrage. Plans for a memorial got underway. But it soon came out that many of the bodies—hundreds, in fact—were those of Lithuanians who had helped to massacre Jews in 1941. The Jewish community protested ‘the erection of a common memorial to those who are considered to be freedom fighters and those who, based on all moral norms, are war criminals and indictable offenders’.
It was not possible to separate the bones into two neat piles—patriots here, criminals there—and so construction came to a halt and a stormy debate began over what to do with the bodies and with the site itself. Could a memorial be designed that would pay tribute to the fallen without enshrining evil deeds? After years of delay, a new blueprint was drawn up, this time not for a pantheon of heroes but for a ‘Park of Quiet’, a place of reflection, with an education wing exploring the complexities inherent in the site. When the Park of Quiet opened in November of 2004, however, no such wing had been created. In 2008, oversight of the memorial was transferred from the Ministry of Culture to the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, whose mission focused on the victims and misdeeds of the Soviet, not the Nazi, era. On a web page devoted to Tuskulėnai, the Centre made no mention of the complicated issues raised by the victims’ tangled identities. And the educational presentations offered at the memorial in 2010 concerned the Lithuanian flag; Lithuanian holidays that were outlawed during the Soviet era; and the ‘dullness of Soviet everyday life’. The opportunity to use the site to communicate the complex truths of two eras, has remained unfulfilled. This is one of the issues we will be discussing at the conference.
5. The main sponsors of the ‘Prague Declaration’ were Vaclav Havel, the late president of the Czech Republic and Joachim Gauck, now President of Germany, both figures whose moral authority is unquestioned. It does not seek to equate Soviet and Nazi crimes, but to draw attention to the enormous extent of the former, which have sometimes been forgotten.
On Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 1:43 AM, Monica Lowenberg wrote:
13 December 2012
Dear Professor Polonsky,
Many thanks indeed for your detailed reply and apologies for not getting back to you immediately, I am at this time of year like yourself and others exceptionally busy. As you can imagine, the international specialists we have consulted hold different views, and we are absolutely confident of the facts in my petition. Of course you have every right to publish your response, which would hopefully lead to a respectful, dignified and public exchange of views at whatever time you would wish to proceed with publication in an appropriate forum.
In the meantime, there is just one issue which needs a rapid reply: May I have five minutes to read my petition at the opening session of the conference, in the company of my 90 year old father Ernst Loewenberg, who is a Holocaust survivor. After reading the letter, I will leave. You and others would have all the time in the world to respond should you wish to, and of course, to publish your response when you feel ready, so that these grave issues may be discussed frankly and openly.
The wording of my petition, checked meticulously with Holocaust survivors from Lithuania, members of the Lithuanian Jewish community and scholars in different parts of the world, is the wording that has now been effectively approved by hundreds of signatories from close to two dozen countries. It is the document which I humbly and respectfully ask permission to read out at the conference.
May I have five minutes to read the petition at the conference’s opening session?
I would be most grateful if you would be so kind as to reply as a matter of urgency, on this one point: whether you permit me five minutes to read out the petition on Tuesday 18 December 2012 during the opening session. I ask to be accompanied by my father, Ernst Loewenberg, a Holocaust survivor. We will both leave immediately after the reading so as not to disturb your proceedings in any way.
As I have many commitments at this time of year I apologise for having to place pressure on you however, I would be most grateful if you would be so kind as to confirm, in writing by email, by this Friday 14 December 2012 by 12pm, whether you permit me to read out the petition on Tuesday 18 December 2012 at 10am, directly after the ambassadors welcome or at least within the first thirty minutes, so that departure can be assured by 10.30am at the latest. If you agree to me reading out the petition, I humbly request that you be so kind as to state exact venue address to where I should go and permit my father Ernst Loewenberg to be present as well. If I receive no response from yourself by email by this coming Friday 14 December 2012 by 12pm, I will very sadly have to assume that the answer is no and you have declined my request to read out the petition.
With many thanks for your kind consideration,
- From: Antony Polonsky
- Date: Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 1:24 PM
- Subject: Re: FW: Request from Monica Lowenberg
- To: Monica Lowenberg
Dear Ms Lowenberg,
As I explained in my letter your suggestion that you come to the conference, read a statement and then leave is contrary to all principles of academic discussion and I therefore cannot accept it.
On Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 9:38 PM, Monica Lowenberg wrote:
13 December 2012
Dear Professor Polonsky,
As you well know, my offer to leave after reading the petition was to avoid disturbing your conference; I would be more than happy to stay and discuss. This seems yet another lame attempt to deflect attention from the one and only main point: Whether people who attend this conference are permitted to know about the petition and these constructive requests being made to the Lithuanian government? The petition is not about your book or your colleagues. It is addressed to the Lithuanian government, as you well know.
I am shocked and flabbergasted that the request for five minutes to read out a petition to the Lithuanian government (that is sponsoring your conference at UCL), to read it out on behalf of the Holocaust survivor community and many hundreds of people who hold opinions different to your own, strikes you as contrary to principles of academic discussion. Hundreds of people have signed the petition, including Holocaust survivors from Lithuania, eminent scholars and many Lithuanian citizens. What is very sad for me is that an East European government’s PR budget to subvert open debate can jettison free discussion, to the point where professors from the west who have received awards and knighthoods from that government are so afraid that an audience in London might be exposed to a second opinion (one at odds with the government talking points you have sent me). The petition is a public, published document with hundreds of signatures. Your attempt, on behalf of the Lithuanian government, to try to ensure that those attending your conference never find out about the petition’s very existence must fail. We shall be taking this to the provost of UCL today.
All good wishes
- From: Antony Polonsky
- Date: Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 9:51 PM
- Subject: Re: Response with regards to Free Speech not permitted by Prof Polonsky, refusal to allow Monica Lowenberg to read out petition
To: Monica Lowenberg
Dear Ms Lowenberg,
You must do as you are best advised.
On 14/12/2012 11:37, Monica Lowenberg wrote:
14 December 2012
Dear Professor Berkowitz, Dr Guesnet, Prof Rapoport Albert,
Further to Professor Polonsky’s response to myself yesterday evening I am appealing to your good reason as organisers, hosts and heads of dept at UCL, an established and internationally respected university.
It has been shameful and hideous that UCL have made me beg like this to ask for 5 minutes to read out a petition to the Lithuanian government who you have in this instance tragically and unwisely collaborated with for a second time.
I am appealing to your good reason in the interest of the thousands of young people I have taught over 18 years in my capacity as a teacher in London and in Newcastle and as a former researcher and DPhil student at Sussex university. In the spirit of free speech and democracy and with the purpose of upholding all that we know is important, keeping the integrity of UCL alive a major world university which the Lithuanian government deliberately targeted for those reasons, I beg you to allow me and my father to read out the petition to the Lithuanian government on Tuesday 18 December at 10.00am.
I look forward to receiving a positive response from UCL
On Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 11:58 AM, Michael Berkowitz wrote:
If you have an opportunity to call me please do. I’ll try to explain why I support Professor Polonsky.
- From: Monica Lowenberg
- Date: Fri, Dec 14, 2012 at 12:20 PM
- Subject: Re: REquest for UCL staff to reconsider Monica Lowenberg’s request to read out the petition infront of the Lithuanian government Tuesday 18 December 2012 with her 90 year old father Ernst Loewenberg present
- To: Michael Berkowitz
Thank you for our conversation today and for confirming that you are unprepared to allow me to read out the petition today .
As a result and as mentioned, I now do not permit that you or any of your colleagues and students at UCL have access to the documents I gave in good faith to Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith only this November concerning the 35 member of my father’s family who were murdered in the Holocaust. I am copying Frank into this email.
In view of your recent decision I cannot allow documents so personally precious to us to be handled or used in any shape or form by a university department that supports a right wing, Baltic extremist government that is using this conference for their own political aims.