O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
This comment on the event “Unresolved History: Jews and Lithuanians After the Holocaust,” held February 14, 2014 in New York City is based on the videotape of the event that Yivo has posted on its website. Readers may also wish to see Olga Zabludoff’s articles before and after the event, and the comments accruing during last month’s discussion in New York’s Algemeiner.Com. Geoff Vasil has covered a number of state-sponsored Holocaust events over the years, including one featuring some of the same participants last summer in Vilnius. Defending History’s openly critical views of the “red-brown commission” are available in the section dedicated to various of the debates in recent years. The commission’s own website is here.
On February 14, 2014, a small panel spoke at YIVO world headquarters in NYC. There weren’t many people in the audience, to judge from the crowd sounds, and at least one panelist wasn’t there. It had been delayed a day earlier when a massive ice storm hit the city and temperatures plummeted. Tomas Venclova wasn’t able to make it because of the weather and poor health.
Comments from the peanut gallery
Jonathan Brent, executive YIVO director, opened the panel discussion saying YIVO was working with the Lithuanian National Library and the Lithuanian state archives to digitize and preserve YIVO materials rediscovered in Vilna after the war. This material was “the bad stuff” Herman Kruk, Sutzkever et al. let Rosenberg have while they secreted the really valuable judaica in the Vilna ghetto. In an ironic twist of fate the good stuff was mostly destroyed when the Lithuanian and Estonian Nazis destroyed the Vilna Ghetto and rounded everyone up for execution and/or shipment to the concentration camps in Estonia. The “bad stuff” went by train to Frankfurt, was captured by the US Army in ’45 and ’47, and repatriated. Brent didn’t delve into the matter and quickly passed on quickly to bashing Russia for not confronting its Soviet past, segueing into the theme for the discussion, “unresolved history,” Eastern Europe’s confrontation and lack thereof with the Holocaust after the downfall of the Soviet Union. “Even at Babi Yar in Kiev there is not a single monument, including the menorah that was erected by Chabad, that has the word Jew in it, or Jewish people,” Brent laments, “and so the enormity of the catastrophe of Babi Yar is not even part of the public record in Ukraine.”
A good start, except for the de rigueur Russia-hating, but then Brent narrows down to Lithuania and fairly gushes with “great gratitude” to the Lithuanian authorities for agreeing to attend the conference. He then kisses the rings of Mikhail Issoel and a few others in and out of the YIVO house.
Lithuanian ambassador Zygimantas Pavilionis delivered some niceties while gloating that Lithuania was currently chairing the Security Council.
After that, Brent introduced former US ambassador to Lithuania Anne Derse, claiming she had done something to address the legacy of the Holocaust in Lithuania, a claim Derse also made in her short prepared statement.
After these statements by Lithuanian and American politicians, Bret introduced the speakers’ panel, and dropped the first real bombshell, saying: “Saulius Suziedelis…is one of the sanest, most rational, and balanced, and judicious voices in all of the controversies that have been raging over the Holocaust in Lithuania.”
Brent is certainly entitled to his opinion, but Suziedelis has made a career out of double-speak, saying one thing to one audience and another to the other, especially concerning the Holocaust. In his book Historical Dictionary of Lithuania (2nd edition, Scarecrow Press, 2011) he devotes half of one sentence to the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania. Apparently Litvak history is only synonymous with Lithuanian history for Suziedelis at select venues, and not at others.
Nor did Suziedelis and his mass-graveside manner disappoint at this YIVO conference. His initial statement was a bizarre and almost creepy scene, where he started out by saying: “You know, the very title, ‘Unresolved History,’ as a professional historian gives me a little pause because it suggests there will be such a thing—” followed by a long pause as he attempted to ascertain why his microphone was malfunctioning. The bizarre part was that after this, after the audience had more than enough time to anticipate what he was going to say and the only thing he could possibly be intending to say, he did say it, like this: “What I wanted to say was that the title ‘Unresolved History’ unfortunately from the professional historian’s point of view suggests there’s such a thing as resolved history,” and the meager audience burst forth in laughter on cue. It couldn’t have been spontaneous, even if one keeps in mind possibly slower linguistic digestion by non-native English speakers. Therefore it was creepy, canned laughter at a Holocaust conference at YIVO HQ. Suziedelis is intentionally misconstruing the popular meaning of “history” to argue in favor of Holocaust revisionism as a necessity for “professional” historians. He is doing this intentionally, fully understanding the complete lack of knowledge of the Holocaust among hoi polloi contemporary Lithuanians.
Suziedelis and the “professional historians” with whom he works on Lithuania’s so-called International Commission for the Assessment of the Crimes of the Communist and Nazi Occupational Regimes in Lithuania, entirely funded by the Lithuanian state, have been parroting the party line passed down to them by their employers for years. Their “two-prong” approach isn’t just the Double Genocide inherent in the long-winded title of their commission, it’s a duplicitous bilingual PR campaign with one message for the English, meaning international, audience, and another message which might charitably be described as sensitive to Lithuanian sensibilities, meaning it doesn’t challenge general Lithuanian ignorance and misconceptions.
None of the speakers had anything extremely interesting to say that day and all of them, with the exception of Mikhail Iossel and Lithuanian Jewish Community chairperson Faina Kukliansky, were either politicians or officials paid by the Lithuanian state to manage Holocaust issues. And even Iossel’s independence was questionable given the payment Anne Derse as US ambassador provided his annual Summer Literary Seminar (SLS) with, not to allow Efraim Zuroff of SWC to participate (as had been announced) at the 2011 literary seminar in Vilnius.
Kukliansky spoke to practical considerations for teaching the Holocaust to Lithuanians including to politicians receiving salaries for dealing with Holocaust issues, the only note of reality in an otherwise rarefied atmosphere of secret backroom deals by the mental gatekeepers in New York and Vilna. Truth be told, Leonidas Donskis, Lithuanian MEP, also had some interesting points.
Whether this conference or panel discussion has any significance to the issues at all, I don’t know, but YIVO is still hosting the complete video on their webpage.