Furore over the ‘Baron Memorandum’ to Lithuania’s Prime Minister and Speaker of Seimas



First, the documents.

All these recent documents, circulated by now to hundreds (if not thousands) of recipients, whether by direct email blast or by multiple forwards of such blasts (by their own authors’ offices and supporters), are, needless to say, now in the public domain, and form part of an important record for the issues of today, and for the chronicles of history.

Most of the ongoing squabbling is, in the view of many of today’s Jews in Lithuania, directly or indirectly brought about by the Lithuanian government’s decision to plonk tens of millions of dollars in the hands of an (Orwellian-named) foundation (“Good Will Foundation”) controlled since its inception a dozen years ago by two non-rotating chairpersons, neither of whom legitimately represent Lithuania’s Jews. Then there are the issues, including the fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, the need for genuine Jewish community democracy and pluralism, the right of minority communities to opinions that digress from state agencies, including, of course, the freedom to speak up about prevalent far-right Holocaust revisionism that extends to public-space shrines glorifying Holocaust collaborators, in Vilnius, and beyond.

“But some think the real question here is whether the Conference of European Rabbis (CER) has taken steps toward a cave-in years after its classic letter on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery that became a major historical document in the quest to save Jewish cemeteries on the East European ground zero of the Holocaust.”

Regular Defending History readers will note that a number (not all) of the substantive points made in “the Baron Memorandum” (doc. no. 1 below) are rather congruent with Defending History positions over the years, albeit arrived at independently and via differing points of departure. For example, Rabbi Baron’s citing an official who told him “The people of Vilnius will not accept [the Jewish] cemetery in their midst” corresponds to our documentation of ultranationalist views that Vilnius must be Lithuanianized much more completely than at present, and that a large Jewish cemetery in its heart cannot be countenanced under any circumstances (quite separate from all the commercial and business interests).

  1. 24 Sept. 2023: Rabbi Elchonon Baron’s letter to the prime minister of Lithuania and the speaker of the Seimas (Lithuanian parliament).

  2. 28 Sept. 2023: Rabbi Sariel Rosenberg’s letter in Hebrew to major rabbinic leaders in response.

  3. 28 Sept. 2023: English translation of Rabbi Rosenberg’s letter.

  4. 4 Oct. 2023: Conference of European Rabbis (CER) letter to the prime minister of Lithuania and the speakers of the Seimas.

  5. Relevant document from 2020: The Conference of European Rabbis (CER) explicitly forbade the allegedly corrupt London-based CPJCE from any further involvement with the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery [following a lamentable record]. The question today: Will the CER now publicly support restoration of the cemetery and removal of the Soviet ruin marring its center, even after the reported recent agreement with the Good Will Foundation, AJC, LJC, etc?

  6. See also Defending History’s opinion piece of 27 Sept. on the fateful choice before the current Working Group on the future of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery [update of 15 October: Julius Norwilla’s report on the Working Group’s challenges; update of 29 October: Ruta Bloshtein’s direct appeal to Orthodox Jewish members of the Working Group].

Second, our opinions.

  1. The Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery: Powerful forces (including the financial interests of builders, contractors, politicians, ultranationalists (who do not want the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery near the middle of the capital) and alleged “London Jewish grave traders“) are again manipulating events in favor of the refurbishment, restoration and glorious future development of the hated Soviet-era Sports Palace ruin that the Soviets erected in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery.  This contrasts markedly with the overwhelming majority of views not linked to these special interests: that the Soviet eyesore must be removed, and the cemetery lovingly restored as per Jewish law as well as the universal principles of human and minority rights of the deceased to be left in peace. These rights are recognized by the European Union and the U.S. Congress. The timing of the recent documents is obviously related to the urgency of the cemetery’s future now being in the nominal hands of yet another “international working group”.

  2. The rich and powerful are again managing to totally bypass the living Jewish small-c community of Lithuania, encompassing several thousand who feel themselves part of the Vilnius Jewish Community, which was sidelined by the faked elections of 2017 and related delegation of the tens of millions of euros in government restitution to the personal will of two individuals. One is from the state-financed “Lithuanian Jewish Community” and one is from the American Jewish Committee (AJC), whose supporters and donors in the United States should be speaking up passionately against what is being done in their name. It is characteristic that none of the documents even mention the Vilnius Jewish Community, which comprises the overwhelming majority of today’s small Lithuanian Jewish small-c community. This is a story where the people about whom it’s supposed to all be about count for absolute zero as glory-hungry dignitaries fly in and out of Vilnius, playing the historic role of Useful Jewish Idiots.

  3. This journal has for years championed the rights of Chabad Lubavitch and its deeply dedicated rabbi — the only rabbi to have lived in Vilna full time for three decades  — to continue their resolute, consistent and invaluable work, and we have stood with its leaders and community during years when the state-financed community used police and massive funding to destroy the group (funding derived, incidentally, from part of the value of prewar religious property assets controlled by the LJC and AJC bosses). At the same time—and there is not the slightest contradiction here—this journal has supported the need for a traditional Litvak tradition option in town (what Jewish shtetl doesn’t have two shuls?). Life can be strange, and Vilna Jewish community issues can be more strange still (see the humorous takes by Motke Chabad). The 2017 “peace” that ended the persecution of Chabad (after a campaign against that persecution spearheaded by Defending History) resulted, ironically, in the de-facto decommissioning of weekly and holiday services at the separate Chabad synagogue (which had been a sheer delight to attend whatever one’s personal persuasion) and amalgamation of the Choral Synagogue into the illegitimate resitution-funded structure of the same LJC that persecuted it for so long. The result is  a synagogue where  many Jewish residents of Vilna no longer feel comfortable in the atmospherics of an authoritarian LJC/GWF Big Brother keeping watch on who goeth and who cometh. Vilna’s Jews yearn for a return to the days of two happy and successful prayerhouses in town, Chabad and the traditional Litvish shul. Needless to say, many attended both on numerous occasions during the yearly cycle making for a community that felt so normal before the injection of tens of millions of restitution in the care of two non-rotating bosses. In this connection, we applaud the occasional Jewish holiday events organized by visiting Litvak Misnagdic (Lithuanian tradition) rabbis, usually in a hotel, but hasten to point out the almost cruel insufficiency, of (for example, as this past year), providing a lovely Purim holiday and then leaving this community high and dry for Passover and all the other holidays, right down to the High Holidays coming to an end in several days. Impassioned pleas for a very small sum needed to bring a beloved Jerusalem Litvak cantor to town for Yom Kippur were summarily ignored. The need for the wider rabbinic community to arrange regular (rather than once in a blue moon) Lithuanian-tradition services and holidays in Vilna does not in the least detract from the beauty of the Purim celebration, singlehandedly provided by Rabbi Baron on site. To the contrary, it demonstrated the urgent need felt by a traditionalist segment of the community, and their dismay that so many rabbis fly in and out for photo events without bothering to set up an entity that would be independent of the restitution-funded community from which so many feel utterly excluded. It is vital that the powerful rabbinic organizations so quick to circulate missives and denunciations of colleagues would also provide for the holidays and prayers in town, on a regular basis, as well as speak out clearly, and fearlessly, against the new plans to turn the old Vilna Jewish cemetery into a conference center under “Jewish” auspices.

  4. For all their squabbling and exchanges of missives to the prime minister and the speaker of the Seimas, and all the expensive junkets for photo-ops with the high and mighty in Lithuania, are any of these folks going to establish even a tiny, modest Litvak tradition house of prayer and holiday celebration (think: the traditional Litvak kloyz) that is open every day of every week of the year, where all are welcome, and that is totally separate from the state-sponsored “Jewish affairs ministry” community? This option implicitly (or not so implicitly) makes the profound point that a few thousand Jews living in today’s free, democratic and delightful Lithuania, may be a small remnant, but they are not zero, and their Jewish and human needs must remain at the forefront of foreign Jewish intervention in the country.

  • All the foregoing, on issues important in themselves, is not unrelated to the wider historic integrity and dignity of  history on a number of fronts, including the history of the Holocaust, a topic on which, alas, a number of East European countries have invested many millions, directly and indirectly, in fostering a bogus narrative of “Double Genocide” intended to downgrade the Holocaust, inter alia by recasting the most cruel and brutal local collaborators and perpetrators as “heroes,” a topic boldly raised last month by Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan and covered by mainstream international media including the London Times. One of the major tools of East European governments’ campaigns to downgrade the Holocaust while seeking to delegitimize other opinions and local dissidents, is to find “important Jews” and manipulate just how much, and when, they are allowed to dissent from state history revisionism.

  • Finally, if we cast aside the current rabbis’ “wars of the missives” (and who is “empowered” to represent whom), and continue to think just about the important issues, it must again be said that Rabbi Baron’s text dares to raise, in his own rabbinic style, the real issues that need to be on the agenda, and for that alone Litvak history will include his text in its historic memory. By pouring tens of millions of euros into funds solely controlled by the above-cited LJC and AJC, there is malign impact on freedom of discussion of all issues, including the Holocaust, the accurate prewar magnitude of the Jewish minority, and the fate of old Jewish cemeteries. Rabbi Baron’s 24 Sept. 2023 missive (no. 1 in the series linked above) makes this point: “The Lithuanian government only recognizes Andrew Baker, Faina Kukliansky and the [London-based] CPJCE to represent Jewry. In other words the government reverted to the position that only Jews who are paid by the Lithuanian government are allowed to represent international Jewry” [note: three embedded links have been added; “payment” here refers of course to the tens of millions of the Good Will Foundation and government agencies, with all decision making in the hands of the two non-rotating chairs, not to personal payments]. Rabbi Baron’s text, in addition to sundry other substantive points also makes the point that a recent plaque at a Jewish mass grave site uses the word “forced” (inserted by the far-right, ultranationalist state-sponsored Genocide Center) to describe the local murderers whose spree of voluntary and enthusiastic slaughter of thousands of their neighbors started on 23 June 1941, in dozens of locations before the first German soldiers’ arrival. This one will go down in history as a case where a single, in-itself innocuous word (“forced”) serves to falsify history. But the world is now looking (no longer just a small band of dissidents in Vilnius). The falsification of history must and will fail.


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