OPINION | ISRAEL ISSUES | PONÁR | POLITICS OF MEMORY
VILNIUS—This week, Wednesday the 23rd of May, as for a number of years, Vilnius and its Jewish community will be welcoming a group of truly inspiring Israelis who have made the bold decision to visit the land of their forefathers, to honor the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to work to increase awareness about the historic truth of history’s worst genocide while establishing relations with the delightful citizens —of all backgrounds — of modern democratic Lithuania. The blossoming of Lithuanian-Jewish and Lithuanian-Israeli relations is a blessing to be nurtured. But not to be abused.
The question is, will this week bring a repeat of the sad annual ritual whereby some of the group’s leaders abuse the occasion for a veritable orgy of self-glorification, via photo-ops and receptions with presidents, prime ministers and other bigwigs as part of state attempts to distort and obfuscate the Holocaust, and for the occasion to be used as a decoy for the real issues that need to be discussed in an atmosphere of intellectual dignity and simple human honesty. The abuses in recent years have even extended to monies from state restitution intended for the survival of the Jews of Lithuania being allocated to related Israeli travel groups, and the abuse of the trips to bolster the status of the “fake election” government-choice leader of the local Jewish community, while excluding from all events the bona fide Jewish leader who was duly elected by the Jewish people of Vilnius.
“Ah, but it’s only that DefendingHistory.com.” Wrong. See from just recent months Haaretz, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Tablet, JTA, LA Times, Jewish Currents, Maariv, and the Jerusalem Post, among others.
The barometer, as usual, will come, in the flowery speeches on the day of the actual march, at the mass killing site Ponár, where 100,000 innocent people were murdered by the Nazis and their local partners, 70,000 of them for being Jews. Will the speeches this year make any polite and diplomatic reference to the issues of the day, especially those that relate to Israel, that need to be mentioned if the event is to have any intellectual integrity. Among them are the following:
♦ The need for state apologies for the three Israeli citizens, Yitzhak Arad (born in 1926), Rachel Margolis (1921-2015), and Joseph Melamed (1924-2017) whom state agencies have defamed for posterity. All three were heroes of the anti-Nazi partisan resistance in the forests of Lithuania. Two of the three were heroes of Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Two were accused of being war criminals (for having joined the anti-Nazi resistance), and one was accused of maligning national “heroes” for asking for investigation of alleged Holocaust collaborators. Will the speakers at Ponár find the courage to even mention the “words” Yitzhak Arad, Rachel Margolis, and Joseph Melamed? To say something about the lifetime achievements in relation to Ponár and the Holocaust of the two who have passed away in recent years? (Hey, some folks on this trip are coming through the organization that Mr. Melamed gave decades of his life to build, sustain and lead with meaning and integrity; Will his death, that transpired since the last March of the Living, merit mention at Ponár? See DH’s Joe Melamed section). See more on the campaign against survivors who resisted.
♦ The need for polite response to Israel’s ambassador to Lithuania who in 2017 managed to provide the lowpoint of twenty-first century Israeli diplomacy: the honoring of an alleged Nazi collaborator by posing with his portrait, after the Simon Wiesenthal Center had explained the issue internationally (and Lithuania’s superb ethicist Evaldas Balciunas had written on it locally). This was flaunted by the far-right media as evidence of Israel’s alleged support for such glorification of alleged collaborators, and was earlier this month cited in the United States by those who attempted to place a monument for the alleged collaborator in New Britain, Connecticut.
♦ The need for polite opposition to plans to turn Vilna’s old Jewish cemetery into a new national convention center despite the massive local and international opposition (this would not be the fate of a Christian Lithuanian cemetery). An international petition underway (authored, incidentally, by a Vilnius-resident, Hebrew-speaking Israeli citizen who has yet to be reached out to by the group’s leaders), has achieved over 43,000 signatures to date. Israel’s chief rabbi, the chief rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites, and all the leading Litvak yeshiva heads have pleaded with the Lithuanian government to move the convention center project to another site and restore the old cemetery. Twelve United States congressmen have joined their call. This is a Holocaust issue. It is because of the genocide that the thousands buried in the cemetery have no descendants to stand up. Is it too much to ask for the Marchers of the Living to say a few words on this?
♦ The need for polite opposition to the ongoing glorification of alleged Holocaust collaborators by way of street names and official monuments, as well as 2018 being named for an alleged collaborator (now being lamely “balanced” for PR by the naming of 2020 for the Gaon of Vilna…).
♦ This year’s leaders and marchers are no doubt aware of Ruta Vanagaite and Efraim Zuroff’s new Hebrew edition of Ms. Vanagaite’s 2016 book in Lithuanian on the Holocaust. Late in 2017, all of her books were banned in Lithuania and she was subject to a campaign of vilification and defamation. This reached the New Yorker and PEN America. This bears affinity, incidentally, to the fate of all who have spoken up in defiance of state-sponsored distortion of the Holocaust. Surely, these folks merit some words of public encouragement by the fancy speeches at Ponár by Israelis who have nothing to fear, and who would, simultaneously, be supporting the free speech right of the Lithuanian people. Even as the speeches and festivities of the Marchers unfold, the nation’s parliament is considering a law that would make it illegal to publish books disagreeing, in effect, with the state’s “official history.”
♦ The need for serious dialogue about a number of outstanding issues, all of which could be readily solved by sincere dialogue (or further thwarted by PR events intended to deflect attention from the issues at hand). This journal’s proposal of “seven solutions”…
This journal considers development of Israeli-Lithuanian friendship, partnership and future achievement to be an inspiring and important goal for both sides and for humanity. But the goal is not helped by the Holocaust being abused by elements of some government units intent on “fixing” the history of the Holocaust and finding the honoring of some Israeli tour leaders as a convenient and inexpensive tool in that effort.
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