OPINION | LITVAK AFFAIRS | WHAT DO FAKE LITVAK GAMES LOOK LIKE? | VILNIUS JEWISH COMMUNITY’S STRUGGLE FOR JUSTICE | (AB)USE OF JEWISH EVENTS FOR HOLOCAUST REVISIONISM | WHEN GOV. MINISTRIES MEDDLE IN FRAGILE MINORITY CULTURE (& HISTORY DEBATES) | LITHUANIA
by Dovid Katz
Most Lithuanian government officials in diverse branches of its democratic government, including so many in its Culture and Education ministries, its local museums and libraries, its schools and cultural centers, have a warm and healthy attitude toward both the historic weight and tragic fate of the nation’s Jewish minority. This is important to keep in mind as we come yet again to provide a voice for the voiceless: the manipulation of the fragile Litvak and Yiddish culture, of the last survivors and their families, and of Holocaust history by some small and lavishly financed “Jewish fix-it units” including the Genocide Center, Genocide Museum, Red-Brown Commission, and a scattering of “Jewish, Yiddish and Litvak” centers in central Vilnius, a good part of which exclude from all professional participation people — including top specialists in the relevant field — who dare disagree with state revisionism on the Holocaust. In some cases, this policy brings about the succeeding phase of “Jewish” addresses without a single Jewish member of staff (think African American Cultural Center in Alabama, staffed by pure lily-whites who won’t mess up and peradventure say something contrary to local “patriotic” history-book narratives demanded by nationalists).
Even as the civilized world joins in condemning the barbaric, medieval Putinist invasion of peaceful Ukraine, and unites to embrace its people, and the freedom and simple peace they seek, the Lithuanian Seimas (parliament), is hosting the grand opening of the latest “Litvak Congress” (program here and here), at which none of Lithuania’s great Litvak achievers of recent years, have been invited to speak, or in most cases to even attend. They are being cancelled during their lifetime. The list is long. Just a few examples: Genrich Agranovski, Anna Avidan, Chaim Bargman, Roza Bieliauskienė, Ruta Bloshtein, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky (Brancovskaja), Dalija Epšteinaitė, Prof. Pinchos Fridberg, Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevičius), Irina Guzenberg, Elen Janovskaja, Regina Kopilevich, Arkady Kurliandchik, Polina Pailis, Prof. Josif Parasonis, and (now in retirement in Berlin) Rachel Kostanian. These and others have made empirically demonstrable and durable contributions to the Litvak heritage and its documentation and perpetuation well into the future, and have valiantly and selflessly fought for Litvak causes, a category in which defense of history is a cause as paramount as any.
QUESTION FOR A CONGRESS?
Is it right for the fragile, Holocaust-decimated Litvak remnant to be hijacked by a state’s “history-fixing units” and replaced with local power-pursuing political operatives, financed by state “restitution”, chosen by wanton destruction of Jewish community democracy, and underpinned by tranches of photo-op starved nókh-shleper from the U.S., South Africa, Israel, and more?
Then there are the remarkable Lithuanian citizens who have contributed so much to Litvak studies and genuine Holocaust history. They include Evaldas Balčiūnas, Saulius Beržinis, Dr. Valentinas Brandišauskas, Viktorija Kazlienė, Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas, Edmundas Kulikauskas, Julius Norvila (Norwilla), Danutė Selčinskaja, Dr. Liudas Truska, Valdas Valiūnas, Ruta Vanagaitė, Linas Vildžiūnas, Dr. Aleksandras Vitkus and numerous others. Not one of them is included for a sixty-second greeting to this month’s Litvak Congress in Vilnius. Have any been invited to attend? Will there be a mention of their works over decades and especially in recent years?
Not even the new head of the Vilnius Jewish Community, the democratically elected representative of the vast majority of Lithuania’s living Jewish community is slated for a single word of greeting at the conference. Oh, but, ah, yeah, as a major concession, he is rumored to have at the eleventh hour received an entrance-card to the closed event at the parliament on Monday morning 23 May. By contrast, the American professor who earned his first brownie points here in Vilnius, years ago, for coming to provide political cover for building a second of two buildings within the old Vilna Jewish cemetery is delivering a seminal paper on the deepest soul of the Litvak. As are the elites from major American Jewish organizations, shamefully including a top official at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), who actually joined the state’s “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania (ICECNSORL)” (the “red-brown commission” for short), a major engine of European Holocaust far-right revisionism (see a video clip from its director to understand the group’s “humanity” vis-à-vis Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance). Never mind that for a quarter century, Holocaust survivor Litvaks have with their last breath spoken and written of the pain, the twist of the knife, caused them by this commission. Have these grand American men (yes, seems to be men), ever bothered to read what the last Litvak Holocaust survivors thought of this commission’s actual purposes, and to give their words some thought before rushing to serve as PR history-fixing shields in exchange for junkets, appointments, gilded photo-ops with the high and mighty, gold and silver crosses and medals and more?
The ubiquitous rogue member of the Emmanuel Levinas family is as ever on hand for some royal photo-ops and government smiles (they regard him as a particularly attractive “useful Jewish idiot”), not even mentioning the pained and profound opposition of Levinas’s son (based on Emmanuel Levinas’s own wishes) to the travesty of the “Levinas Center” in Kaunas against the family’s wishes that is widely considered to be part of a grand smokescreen for Kaunas’s failure to remove even a single public monument glorifying Holocaust perpetrators during the city’s year as “capital of European culture.” One of a number of such cases that expose the real state purpose in hosting a Congress supposedly dedicated to the largely annihilated minority that is being replaced in a case of cultural identity theft that will be studied for generations.
To tell the truth, bearing in mind that 96.4% of Lithuanian Jewry perished in the Holocaust, Litvak culture is doing rather well for a small, struggling remnant culture. On the religious side of things, there are hundreds of thousands of observant Jews in North America, Israel, Europe, and beyond, who identify with specifically Litvish (Litvak, Lithuanian Jewish) tradition. Some of today’s greatest yeshivas in that tradition continue to proudly carry the names of their Lithuanian towns of origin (among them, in Israel, Pónevezh — Panevėžys; in the United States, Telz/Telshe — Telšiai). Sometimes they are named for Litvak towns just across the border in modern Belarus (including Baranovich, Kletsk, Mir, Valozhin). In recent years, the heads of these academies have taken an active interest in modern Lithuania and visited here often, whether to help the Lithuanian government be saved from a disastrous proposal to house a convention center in the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, or, more easily, to make a Purim holiday celebration, this year, for local people (thanks to Rabbi Elchonon Baron of the Baranovitsh Yeshiva in Jerusalem), to which all Vilna residents were invited. Not one of them is included for a sixty-second greeting to this month’s Litvak Congress in Vilnius. Nolo existo.
Then there are the small, splendid NGOs that do so much. Within Lithuania these include the one genuine Lithuanian Jewish youth group, Sababa, and the foreign-domestic partnerships that thrive at Litvak World (Jerusalem of the North), Remembering Litvaks, Inc., Litvak SIG, the Moletai (Malát) Project, and more. Not one of them seems to be included for even a thirty-second greeting to this month’s Litvak Congress in Vilnius, neither in person nor by zoom. Ditto for international scholars of a wide array of backgrounds whose contributions to the Litvak world have in recent years been momentous. They include Rabbi Elchonon Baron, Silvia Foti, Chaya and Dov-Ber Fried, Tzvi Kritzer, Prof. Shnayer Leiman, Dan Rabinowitz, Philip Shapiro, Dr. Jerold Zoloto, Dr. Efraim Zuroff. The last Litvaks in Lithuania would love to hear from them, even on zoom, but that won’t happen at a “World Litvak Congress” where neither side (local Lithuanian Jewish people and international stars of Litvak culture achievement) is wanted or invited.
The government is responsible for abuse of the Litvak heritage for Holocaust “fixing” purposes, but the patently illegitimate (government restitution fueled) “Lithuanian Jewish Community” is responsible for most of the exclusions based on the simple pursuit of power, fame and financial control on the part of the tiny group that staged the coup of 2017, destroying community democracy. Browse through the reports. Or see JTA dispatches on gov. community’s accusations that actual Jews here are “Russians”; on a court’s weird reversal of its own verdict; on the Vilnius community’s proud public rally. Students of post-Holocaust East European restitution projects will long be studying the “Lithuanian disaster scenario”: State restitution is used to destroy the community of the living surviving Jews by excluding it and cancelling out its public existence and independent voices, enabled by simple disenfranchisement of those surviving Jews and replacing them with a board of sycophants who have the vote instead; and, naturally, the change, in 2017 was made smack in the middle of an election campaign that wasn’t going the way of the rich lawyer in command, in partnership with the American Jewish Committee’s shameful operative who bears deep responsibility, even as he earns ever more government medals (see e.g. Rabbi S.B. Krinsky’s bold publications in 2017, the publicly released 2017 letter of Vilnius Jewish Community elected board members [as PDF], and the 2020 open letter from three board members on Facebook [as PDF], as well as Rabbi Andrew Baker’s now-classic “diplomatic reply”).
How will the tragic abuse of Lithuania’s Jewish restitution be remembered?
As ever, there are aspects to be applauded warmly. One is the overdue honoring of the late Saul Kagan (1922-2014), a major architect of Jewish Holocaust restitution, by the naming of the official Jewish community’s welfare center for him. We knew him well and this is richly deserved. At the same time, he’d be shifting in his grave to know that so much of the restitution he and others spent years fighting for went to prop up a lawyer-led ego-empire that destroyed the Jewish community’s democracy in 2017 by disenfranchising the country’s Jews and replacing their votes with those of her own little board (in the middle of an election, when things seemed to be going the other way). It is the result polarically opposite to the dreams of the Vilna-born Saul Kagan, a frequent DH dialogue partner, who loved each and every Jewish survivor in Lithuania (and their families and progeny) with all his heart, and would not want to believe, in this world or the next, that the real Vilna Jewish Community is excluded from participation in the Congress which replaces its surviving people with Israeli and American sycophants who accept the undemocratic election-rigging takeover by a rich lawyer with government restitution funding all for the fun-trips, tourist bonanzas, honors, medals, and glorious photo-ops.
As the Congress honors Saul Kagan’s memory, it will no doubt wish to celebrate the life of Milan Chersonski (1937-2021), on his first yórtsayt. For so many years, as editor-in-chief of the Jewish Community’s official newspaper, he championed Jewish causes and kept alive the Litvak tradition in four languages as the final editor (for a dozen years) of Jerusalem of Lithuania, the Jewish community’s amazing achievement that appeared for over two decades in four language editions (uniquely, among all the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe and far beyond). These treasures, in English, Lithuanian, Russian and Yiddish, urgently need to be collected, digitized, and posted online. And cherished. (We’ve been informed that not a single Vilnius library has a complete run, not even the National Library.) What a fine achievable goal and project that would be for a genuine Litvak Congress. But — not for a fake one that couldn’t care less.
Do ‘Litvak Congress’ guests know the recent history of democracy demolition, restitution diversion to a one-person state-sponsored empire of personal power, and the heartfelt protests by the living Litvaks of Lithuania? Browse through the reports. Or see JTA dispatches on gov. community’s accusations that actual Jews here are “Russians”; on a court’s weird reversal of its own verdict; on the Vilnius community’s proud public rally
But there’s still time for the Congress, which coincides with the 100th birthday of Jewish partisan hero Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, to at least arrange an event to honor her. She is the last surviving veteran of the “Jewish fort in the forest” (that awaits urgent preservation—a cause for a Litvak Congress?), a Holocaust and Yiddish Studies educator par excellence. This would be an ideal occasion for the government to give her the long overdue letter of apology for its campaign of defamation targeting Jewish partisans (peruse the history). All the more so when members of the Red-Brown Commission are major guests at the “Litvak Congress,” though its director has still not withdrawn his own filmed statement about Fania, last of the Vilna partisans, who is still with us here in Vilnius. What an opportunity to fix things for posterity. Fania Brantsovsky’s 100th birthday, coinciding with the Congress, is a kind of God given opportunity for the Congress to exceed expectations and take up the fragile, but just and inextinguishable cause of Litvak justice and continuity.
When the mostly Litvak-free Congress is over, it will be curious to see whether any of its attendees protested, howsoever mildly and politely, standing near the brand new plaque (with bas-relief sculpture) glorifying brutal Holocaust perpetrator Jonas Noreika, on the front of the prestigious Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences in central Vilnius, at the very time that Silvia Foti’s courageous book on Noreika, The Nazi’s Granddaughter, has appeared in America (and indeed here, in Lithuanian translation). A real Litvak Congress would have invited her as a guest of honor this year.
Still, conferences can take on a life of their own. Even this Fake Litvak Congress can result in happy and productive new relationships, dreams and plans. May it all be for the best. Godspeed and safe journeys home for all participants.
Update: see now Efraim Zuroff’s 25 May Times of Israel critique.