O P I N I O N
by Olga Zabludoff
NOTE: This article was submitted to the South African Jewish Report last spring. It never appeared and is therefore posted here for information and in the spirit of the ongoing discussion. It is again poignantly relevant in view of the South African contingent to be courted by government officials at the Fourth International Litvak Congress to be held in Vilnius later this month.
The Ball Is Now in Your Court
I have just returned from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The newly launched special exhibition, “Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust,” left me feeling drained. It’s not that I learned anything I didn’t already know. It’s just that the message, delivered in marquee-style displays, old photographs, video footage from the period, and recent oral testimonies, juxtaposed to create the sensation that I had been there — a victim.
“But what do we learn that resembles what we have seen? We have barely begun to understand the killing fields of Lithuania. . . .” writes Edward Rothstein in his review of the new exhibition (“Bystanders, Not So Innocent,” April 25, 2013, New York Times).
I am a Litvak on both my paternal and maternal sides going back centuries. My parents emigrated from Lithuania, arriving in Cape Town, South Africa in early 1930. I was born and grew up in Cape Town in the company of Litvaks. Although I am an American Litvak now, I hope my South African counterparts will not be offended when I tell them the ball is now in their court. They have the power to do good and important things.
A delegation of prominent government and business leaders from Lithuania visited South Africa in recent weeks, meeting with representatives of the Jewish community in Cape Town and in Johannesburg with a group of Jewish businessmen.
What was their mission?
In Cape Town the delegation, which included the mayor of Vilnius, requested a meeting with leaders of the South African Jewish community, aware of their strong ties with the Lithuanian Jewish community. The purpose was to discuss what is happening currently in Lithuania and to try to repair damages past and present. Speculation from insiders is that the Lithuanian delegation went to South Africa to try to raise millions of dollars from wealthy South African Litvaks for a project that has been in gestation for some time: architectural restoration of the pre-war Jewish quarter in Vilna including the Great Synagogue within the area that became the Holocaust-era Vilna Ghetto. The meeting with the businessmen in Johannesburg was presumably a more direct pitch for funds.
Why do modern-day Lithuanians ask modern-day Litvaks to fund a project that will commemorate the Jewish people and culture that were extinguished by local (Lithuanian) Nazi collaborators, the willing instruments of the Germans who invaded Lithuania in June 1941? The savagery and murder began even before the Germans had arrived. In the end around 95% of Lithuania’s Jews were massacred, a community of some 225,000, the largest percentage of Jewish deaths in any country in all of Holocaust Europe. It could never have happened without the massive collaboration of Hitler’s Lithuanian helpers.
The restoration project in itself could be worthy. Education is the best antidote to hate and bigotry; and museums are powerful tools of education. While it is ironic that Lithuania would be the beneficiary of a robust tourist industry which could be born from such a project, such ventures have proved successful where the motive has been moral. That is the heart of the matter.
While many EU/NATO countries have managed to rise out of their tainted histories by confronting their pasts with honesty and sincerity, Lithuania and her Baltic neighbors are still steeped in denial and distortion of their Holocaust history. With one face this nation, which assumed the presidency of the EU Council in July, flirts with the West and caters to Democracy’s civilized traditions, and with her other face she scorns the victims and survivors of the Holocaust by extensively appeasing the ultra-nationalists and the powerful antisemitic and Holocaust-distorting establishment.
Lithuania wants a great deal from the South African Litvak businessmen, giving them the power to effect reforms in the land of their ancestors. At the least, scions of Litvak civilization should present a unified list of requests to monitor what is happening in the country before writing the checks. To ignore this moral responsibility is to dishonor the memory of those buried in the 250 or so mass graves that dot the entire Lithuanian landscape.
Here are the issues that South African (and for that matter all) Litvaks need to address:
1) Public apologies to the Jewish Holocaust Survivors defamed in recent years by Lithuanian prosecutors, media and some government officials. The survivors, in their late 80s and 90s, were investigated as possible war criminals because they fought in the anti-Nazi resistance. They are Rachel Margolis, Yitzhak Arad, Fania Brantsovsky, Sara Ginaite, and Joseph Melamed.
2) A commitment to disallow the neo-Nazi parades in the city centers of Vilnius and Kaunas on national Independence Day holidays in 2014 and future years (with no prejudice to reassignment of venues on free speech grounds to sites and dates that do not imply state support).
3) Removal of all state-sponsored memorials in public places and state-funded institutions to Holocaust collaborators, perpetrators and other pro-Nazi figures and organizations. Most urgent are street names honouring 1941 murderers, the lecture hall and bas relief plaque at Vytautas Magnus University honoring the 1941 Nazi- puppet prime minister, and at public institutions such as the Genocide Museum and Tuskulėnai Park.
4) Removal of antisemitic exhibits and/or inscriptions in the Genocide Museum in central Vilnius. Repeal of the 2010 ruling permitting the public display of swastikas. (Just recently a demonstration in central Shavl/Siauliai featured swastikas.)
5) Guarantee of freedom of people in Lithuania, citizens and others, to support the Seventy Years Declaration (of 2012) and oppose the Prague Declaration (of 2008) without fear of repercussions.
6) Abandonment of the state’s financing of the campaign to obfuscate the Holocaust by equalizing Nazi and Soviet crimes, via commissions, conferences, events, publications and continuing pressure in the European Union and European Parliament.
7) Urgent action to preserve for posterity the last and only surviving Jewish partisan anti-Nazi fort, which is rapidly sinking into the earth and subject to vandalism and pilfering for firewood. It is a major international site testifying to the indomitable human spirit of survival against all odds.
For further information on the above issues, see https://defendinghistory.com/7-solutions.
South Africa section
Olga Zabludoff section