O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
The following is a reprint, with the author’s permission, of his article in London’s Jewish Chronicle this week.
Wreaths Laid, but Doubt Hangs in the Air
Today is Lithuanian Holocaust Day. This is the day the Vilna Ghetto was “liquidated” in 1943, but is not generally known among Lithuanians. It does not even appear on the Wikipedia list of Lithuanian holidays, although Molotov-Ribbentrop Day, August 23, does. September 23 usually receives a few minutes on the evening news — after it’s over.
For Lithuania’s small population of surviving Jews, it seems as though the Vilna Ghetto liquidation is emphasized because it was carried out largely by non-Lithuanians. Many prefer a day such as October 29, when 10,000 Jews were killed at the Ninth Fort in Kaunas by enthusiastic Lithuanians, the largest one-day death toll in Baltic history.
Last year, Lithuanian politicians used the commemoration at Ponar, the mass-killing site near Vilnius, to unveil yet another paper initiative aimed at gaining favor from the international community and foreign Jewish dignitaries: that 2011 would be the Year of Holocaust Remembrance. This was hurriedly passed by the Lithuanian parliament. Within days, however, this became “2011: The Year of the Fight for Freedom and Great Losses,” with much of the program dedicated to honoring local Holocaust murderers, regarded as freedom fighters. How smashing the skulls of infants against trees contributed in any way to Lithuanian independence was not addressed in parliament, of course, just as it has never been addressed in society.
Events for September 23 this year made the news early.
In 2000, historian Algimantas Liekis published a book painting the 1941 pro-Nazi Provisional Government as heroic, and demanded Jewish Holocaust scholars “engaging in Bolshevik-style propaganda” turn over lists of names of Lithuanian perpetrators.
Unbeknowest to Dr. Liekis, the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel had done just that: attorney Joseph Melamed, himself a Kovno ghetto survivor, compiled a list of Lithuanian police, military and “partisans” responsible for the mass murders. Melamed sent it to Lithuanian prosecutors, received no response, and published the material in January 1999. What ensued was not a search for Holocaust criminals. Some of the names on Melamed’s list had been inscribed as national heroes in the stone facing of the “Museum of Genocide” in central Vilnius.
Instead of investigating the murderers, prosecutors last month used Interpol to get Israeli police to visit Melamed in Israel and interrogate him. The attempted prosecution of Melamed for libeling the dead follows Lithuanian government attempts to accuse other Jewish anti-Nazi heroes as war criminals — in effect for committing the crime of surviving.
Unexpected forces came to the aid of the diminishing numbers of survivors this month when Labour MP John Mann, Tory MP Peter Bottomley and Liberal Democrat Bob Russell tabled early day motion 2161 condemning the newest campaign against Melamed and asking Lithuania to investigate instead suspected war criminals on the list he submitted in 1999.
This week Yad Vashem cancelled an invitation to the Lithuanian minister of culture to attend a Vilna ghetto ceremony because of the new offensive against Melamed, now 86.