by Dovid Katz
VILNIUS—Two regular Sunday worshipers at the grand old church in Molėtai, a town of some 6,000 inhabitants in northeastern Lithuania, reported to the Defending History team in Vilnius earlier this week that their priest, Father Kęstutis Kazlauskas, has publicly announced that the church is organizing the production of a bas-relief to be commissioned from “a major Lithuanian artist” (?!) and erected within the sacred premises, to honor alleged Holocaust perpetrator Jonas Žvinys. Outside the two church goers, Defending History has been unable to obtain further corroboration of what would be a shocking development, and a very negative one for modern Lithuania, in a town where 100% of the Jewish residents were murdered in 1941 by the Nazis, with the majority of the actual killing, and its on-site organization, carried out by local nationalist elements.
For the Jews in Malát (the town’s Yiddish name) itself (as opposed to the surrounding countryside), there was not a single local rescuer. From the early hours of the Nazi onslaught of 22 June 1941, all roads of escape were blocked by supporters of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), and the Jewish citizens in town, with whom the Christians had lived in peaceful harmony for centuries, were subjected to barbaric inhuman degradation in preparation for the mass shooting of 29 August 1941, which included around three thousand Jews from the town as well as surrounding areas. It is estimated that there were over a thousand Jewish citizens of Malát itself at the time.
But over the course of the last year, Malát has become an international symbol of enlightened Lithuanian truth-telling, reconciliation and coming to terms with history. Early in 2016, the Israeli Tzvi-Hirsh Kritzer, a Vilnius-born son of a Malát native, in partnership with Leon Kaplan, another Vilnius-born son of a Malát native, launched a major new international project to commemorate the shtetl and its fate, including an exhibit, book, film, website, foundation and most famously a march, on the 75th anniversary of the genocide of Malát region Jewry, last August 29th, that attracted thousands of Lithuanian citizens. There was major international media coverage. Among the analyses published to date are those of Julius Norwilla in Defending History and my own in ISGAP Flashpoint.
“But does the town’s church really want to express glee at the successful ethnic cleansing of the town’s Jewish citizens?”
The phenomenon of “Malát” became a huge credit to modern Lithuania, thanks not least to two of its natives: the celebrated playwright Marius Ivaškevičius, whose articles remain permanent contributions; and, the founder-director of the regional museum, Viktorija Kazlienė, who together with Mr. Kaplan produced a pictorial book on pre-war Jewish life of Malát that was prominently featured in this year’s Vilnius Book Fair. A much less admired, and at best grudging role, has been played by the town’s mayor, Stasys Žvinys, himself a relative, and namesake, of the alleged Holocaust perpetrator.
This is where the plot thickens. Early in 2016, the renowned duo of Lithuanian Holocaust scholars Ruta Vanagaitė and Efraim Zuroff, working in tandem with the Malat project’s Max Dorensky of Vilnius, produced convincing evidence, first, that the wartime priest Jonas Žvinys had, in 1941, personally recruited and organized the killing squad to shoot the town’s Jewish citizens, all of them in fact (the shooters included his brother), and second, that plans were afoot, in 2016, in the town council to name a street (!) for Jonas Žvinys. But after Malát became a symbol of genuine national Lithuanian regret about the murder of the country’s Jews, plans for the street name were stalled out. Indeed, street names that honor Holocaust collaborators and perpetrators remain a sore point in this part of the world.
If the current reports prove to be correct, it will turn out that the thwarting of the street naming for a Holocaust perpetrator was a most pyrrhic of moral victories in the long hard road to the truth, and to bringing finally to a close the ability of small but powerful circles of far right ultranationalists in power in politics, academia, the media and the leading Christian denominations to damage Lithuania’s reputation when in fact everyday people harbor no such sentiments. The nation is one of the most successful democracies of those in the former Soviet sphere who gained accession to the European Union and NATO early this century.
Hopefully, national leaders will see to it that what would have been the national (and European) disgrace of a street named for an alleged local Holocaust perpetrator is not replaced by the national (and European) disgrace of a bas-relief erected in a town church in 2017 to glorify an alleged local Holocaust perpetrator who participated in the genocide of its Jewish citizens in 1941. Perchance there will be some guidance from Rome, too.