Author Archives: Defending History
The journey of Julius Norwilla (Norvila) comprises the dynamic persona of: a child in Soviet-era Kaunas; a young intellectual dissident (of religious persuasion) in the waning days of the Soviet Union; theology student at Tallinn and Oxford; Protestant pastor in Vilnius; champion of all the minority people and cultures in Lithuania; love of the Lithuanian Jewish heritage and standing up against state efforts to manipulate that heritage and its history; intense study of Yiddish; combating Holocaust obfuscation and public worship of Holocaust participants (including peaceful, dignified protest at, and photo documentation of, each neo-Nazi march over many years); central figure in the movement to preserve Jewish cemeteries and mass graves; beloved teacher; and — through it all a rare paragon of personal steadfastness, loyalty, and integrity, equally unshakeable by offers of largesse, mammon, and career glories from one side or — by threats of personal and career destruction from the other. Such incentives sometimes come into play in the context of campaigns of defamation and personal destruction of colleagues; here is a human being who would never touch such tactics with a bargepole. Verily, such steadfastness and integrity is a rarefied trait when it comes to painful Jewish issues and history in the Baltics. All in the face of major powers and forces in a part of the world where respect for free speech and diversity of views continues to be a work in progress or, not infrequently, a public relations illusion. For close to a decade: author at Defending History.
The Defending History Community’s Statement on Putin’s Barbaric Assault on Ukraine (and the Free World)
[UPDATE — STATEMENT ORIGINALLY ISSUED ON 25 FEB. 2022]
Renewing our call of 25 Feb. 2022:
The Defending History community joins in calling for immediate restoration of peace and security for all the people of Ukraine, condemning unequivocally the savage and medievally barbaric invasion — and rain of death and destruction with mass murder and terrorization of a peaceful civilian population — by the neighboring big power, led by our century’s most dangerous and deranged warmonger dictator. Ukraine’s victory will be the victory of the free and democratic world everywhere, as will the fall of the Putinist regime of dictatorship, invasion, and mass murder of civilians.
As a small gesture of spiritual solidarity, our Yiddish Studies team has constructed a modest new collection of videos of Ukraine’s last Yiddish speaking survivors. Ukraine alone spans every modern dialect of the language.
See DH’s UKRAINE SECTION
Note: In response to onslaughts of attempts at defamation and personal destruction (including from far-right and neo-nazi groups), it can be useful to provide a screenshot (just below) of a front page text we introduced early in 2014, at first intermittently, and now for many years consistently. Years before that, our earlier (2011) reply was sent to a much more academically nuanced version of the Red Libel in a major Lithuanian journal of political science (it was, at the insistence of the late Prof. L. Donskis, finally posted on their website, but never carried, or we believe, mentioned, in the print edition; please check). The text is available in DH.
This year, the Vilnius “Roma Integration into Society Program,” which started in 2020, comes to an end. It is therefore an opportune moment to review how such projects work in Lithuania. Let me remind you that “Roma integration” project cost the taxpayers of our country 1.24 million euros. Looking from the standpoint of the “general public” in Lithuania, or from outside, it may appear that the Roma community lives well. An upper crust Roma restaurant has been operating in Vilnius for the third year. It promotes Roma culture. Roma performers can often be seen on television. In September 2023, the colorful International Roma Culture Festival called “Gypsy Fest” took place, during which a veritable caravan of luxury cars and carriages drove around Vilnius, emphasizing the romanticized vision of Roma life.
The sad truth is, however, that this is only a facade, a function of the tiny Roma elite, because the vast majority of Roma from the lower social strata, who call themselves “Čiorna Roma” (Black Roma), live as they have always lived — in social isolation and in abject poverty. It is the women and children who suffer the most. True, thanks to great efforts and good social initiatives, some sparks of hope do light up even for ordinary Roma. It is moreover good that the number of Roma women in prison has decreased significantly (see on this topic an earlier report in Defending History). They no longer constitute half the population of the Panevėžys women’s correctional facility, as had long been the case.
During the 2020 Seimas elections, progressives in our society and human rights activists placed high hopes in the Freedom Party (the Liberals), which included in its program not only the aspiration to legalize same-sex partnerships partnership, but also to ratify the Istanbul Convention. In consequence, not only many LGBTQ+ people voted for the party, but also feminists, as well as activists fighting against various types of violence. The party not only entered the Seimas, but, very surprisingly for some, found itself in power after forming a coalition with the Homeland Union (Conservatives).
Party and Seimas member Morgana Danielė became a prominent leader in the fight against violence against women and children. She initiated important amendments to the criminal code, such as extending the statute of limitations for serious sexual crimes against children, and enacting punishment for sex without consent. However, her initiatives had difficulty finding their way through the system. Moreover, they were even ridiculed by the party’s coalition partners.
The process of ratifying the Istanbul Convention did not progress either, even with the great efforts of the Freedom Party to put pressure on Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda, who must constantly pander to supporters of “traditional values” and various marginals.
A ‘Shameful’ Public Letter by Five Vilnius Architects: Would They Be Saying This About a Christian Lithuanian Cemetery of 500 Years’ Vintage?
DOCUMENTS | OPINION | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
VILNIUS—Five eminent Vilnius architects have released to the public domain a letter to the mayor of Vilnius expressing their passionate views on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Shnípishok section, today’s Šnipiškės in beautiful, modern Vilnius). Many thousands of Vilna Jewish citizens still lie buried in the cemetery, though the Soviets pilfered all the gravestones and constructed the hated “Sports Palace” (long a derelict, dangerous ruin) in its center, followed by construction of “the two green buildings” under Lithuanian sovereignty early in the twenty-first century.
The timing of the five architects’ letter is pivotal, coming just before the anticipated announced conclusions of the current Working Group (also known as the “latest commission on the old Vilna cemetery”) set up to recommend solutions after its final meeting in late November (see DH’s comments on the published minutes of its previous meeting). Moreover, the letter inadvertently lets the proverbial cat out of the bag. The current Working Group was set up not to restore the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, but to destroy it, via refurbishment of a hated Soviet dump as a “multi-purpose arena” that will have various and sundry “Jewish toys” for tourists to “honor” the “former” Jewish cemetery. Anyone with a modicum of respect for the Jewish heritage knows that in that heritage there are no “former” Jewish cemeteries, a position in harmony with universal human rights ensuring the right of the deceased to rest in peace, and with principles of honoring plot purchases by the families of the deceased made freehold and in perpetuity (except for Jews?).
The paragraph in the architects’ letter described by an elderly Jewish resident in Vilnius today as “particularly sickening” reads as follows:
Vilnius Chabad Rabbi, Sholom Ber Krinsky, Circulates Appeal on Closing of Synagogue, Cites Concerns on Entanglement of ‘Conference of European Rabbis’ (CER) in Local Shenanigans
OPINION | DOCUMENTS | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | CHABAD IN VILNIUS | CONFERENCE OF EUROPEAN RABBIS (CER)
VILNIUS—A public statement distributed via email today by Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, Vilnius’s Chabad rabbi for thirty years, and the only full-time resident rabbi in the city during the three decade period, has by this evening reached hundreds, or possibly thousands, and is in the public domain. Defending History provides the text below, noting that the prime topic, the closure of the city’s Choral Synagogue for several months now on orders of the chairperson of the state-financed “Lithuanian Jewish Community” invokes such episodes in previous years, and had recently been the subject of an earlier public statement by Rabbi Elchonon Baron. Readers interested in more background are invited to peruse the following Defending History sections: Chabad in Lithuania; Lithuanian Jewish Community Affairs; Good Will Foundation (GWF); American Jewish Committee (AJC) and its damaging meddling in Lithuanian Jewish affairs; the Conference of European Rabbis (CER). Moreover, the CER’s erstwhile steadfast defense of the integrity, dignity and preservation of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery, has recently been called into question, following an alleged financial agreement with the GWF brokered a year ago by the AJC’s director of international affairs, Andrew Baker, himself a recipient of two major Lithuanian government medals, and one of the two non-rotating co-chairs of the board that alone decides how to distribute the tens of millions of euros of state restitution funding deriving from the allocated value of prewar Jewish religious properties. One of the many effects has been the de facto near-destruction of the democratic Vilnius Jewish Community. Rabbi Krinsky was one of the first, over six years ago, to publicly detail the abject immorality of the Good Will Foundation’s de facto structure and purposes and the power allegedly abused by its two nonrotating chairpersons, from LJC and, unbeknowest to the well intentioned donors to the AJC in America, the American Jewish Committee.
On the subject of the cemetery (unmentioned in Rabbi Krinsky’s circular letter), unsubstantiated rumors have been circulating concerning the CER’s direct or indirect involvement with the officially “Orthodox Jewish” members of the new Working Group set up by the prime minister to determine the cemetery’s fate (with a foregone conclusion of establishing a major events center comprising a refurbished Soviet sports palace smack in the heart of the cemetery, thereby destroying rather than restoring it).
The following is the full text of Rabbi Krinsky’s circular today. Please use the handles in the upper left hand corner to turn pages. Alternatively, the document may be read or downloaded in PDF format.
Rabbi Elchonon Baron Adds Powerful Voice to International Appeals to ‘Working Group’ to Abandon Refurbishment of Hated Soviet Ruin and Restore the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery
DOCUMENTS | OPINION | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
VILNIUS—Shortly before yesterday’s meeting in Vilnius of the Lithuanian prime minister’s Working Group (commission) on the fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramont in the Shnípishok district (today’s Snipiskes section of modern Vilnius), the commission’s members received the text of the rabbinic edict signed by four of the world’s greatest Lithuanian-tradition (Litvak, Litvish) heads of yeshivas around the world, making clear that no museum, memorial center or other functional building may ever be set up or operate on hallowed Jewish cemetery grounds.
Afterwards, the commission’s members, including those who had flown in from the United States, Israel and Britain, were wined and dined at elegant chancery events in the highest halls of Lithuanian government, in apparent hopes that the commission would go on to rubberstamp plans of the ultranationalist establishment and corrupt business interests alike to effectively destroy the cemetery by reconstructing a huge Soviet ruin in its center rather than lovingly restore the cemetery as a genuine treasure of Lithuania and the storied Litvak heritage. During these events, some members of the commission received an open letter from Rabbi Elchonon Baron, head of the Lithuanian-tradition Yeshiva Ahavas Torah Baranovich, based in Jerusalem, and himself a scion of Litvak royalty. His late father was the legendary Litvak head-of-yeshiva Rabbi Aryeh Leib Baron.
The text of Rabbi Elchonon Baron’s open letter follows.
Four Leading Lithuanian-tradition (Litvak, Litvish) Heads of Yeshivas in U.S. and Israel Issue Edict on Fate of Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery
DOCUMENTS | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
VILNIUS—On the eve of today’s scheduled meeting here of the international “Working Group” or commission assembled by the prime minister of Lithuania’s office, comprising distinguished international figures, to determine the fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt in Shnípishok (in the Šnipiškės district of this thriving EU capital), four of the world’s leading Heads of Lithuanian Yeshivas together issued an edict making clear the status of the cemetery in Jewish law. For reference and background, see annotated minutes of the last Working Group meeting, and, in reverse chronological order, other very recent developments.
The original Hebrew edict representing the view of Lithuanian rabbinic Jewry worldwide, and a working translation widely circulating today are available in PDF format. The following is the text of the working translation. It is followed by an image of the historic edict in the original Hebrew.
Julius Norwilla’s Final Appeal to the Members of the ‘Working Group’ asked to Help Determine Fate of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery
OPINION | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
by Julius Norwilla (Vilnius)
ear eminent members of the Prime Minister’s Working Group assembling this week in Vilnius to carry forth your deliberations on the future of the sacred Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Šnipiškės district of modern Vilnius, Yiddish Šnipiškės):
To introduce myself, I am a Kaunas-born former Protestant minister in Vilnius who has for years been active in projects in the field of Jewish culture, including preservation of mass graves and old Jewish cemeteries. Some years ago, I was honored to be invited to give a speech at the Israeli Embassy in Tel Aviv on the subject of the fate of the beloved old cemetery at Piramónt. I have also been studying Yiddish language and literature for years, and this semester am honored to be have been invited to commute each month to Białystok in Poland to teach a class in Yiddish. I invite you to look through some of my article on Jewish affairs and Jewish studies over the past years (available here in reverse chronological order).
First, to the foreign members of the Working Group: Welcome! If I can be of help to anyone during your stay in Vilnius, or show you some little-known Jewish gravesites in the region, and introduce you to some remarkable Jewish friends in town please let me know (email@example.com).
OPINION | DOCUMENTS | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | THE “CPJCE” LONDON GRAVE TRADERS | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS
by Dovid Katz
This week’s release of the official minutes, in Lithuanian and in English, of the 26 October 2023 meeting of the current international “Working Group” (list of members) established to advise on the future of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Shnípishok district, today’s Šnipiškės) contain some passages, in the view of this journal, worthy of George Orwell. Here are some samples from the official English language text (the entirety of which appears below, and is available in PDF format). Each quote in bold text is followed by some commentary.
“The objective is to honour and commemorate the centuries-long history of Lithuanian Jews and the Šnipiškės cemetery.”
Rabbi Elchonon Baron, Citing ‘Morally Despicable Plan to turn the Shnipishok Cemetery into a Museum’ Tells the World: ‘I will Not Remain Silent’
OPINION | DOCUMENTS | 2023 “WORKING GROUP” ON VILNA CEMETERY | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | HUMAN RIGHTS | CHABAD IN VILNIUS
VILNIUS—In a 1 Nov. 2023 statement circulating widely among Lithuanian officials as well as local and international Jewish leaders, Rabbi Elchonon Baron, head of the Lithuanian-tradition Yeshiva Ahavas Torah Baranovich, based in Jerusalem, writing in the capacity of rabbinical emissary to Lithuania representing the Council of Torah Sages of the US and Canada, challenges the extended closure of Vilnius’s Choral Synagogue at 69 Pylimo Street as point of departure for his critique of some of the government’s Jewish policies (including its supply of tens of millions of euros in “restitution” to the alleged control of a tiny number of government-indebted individuals, one of them representing the American Jewish Committee or AJC). The new statement is a follow-up to his publicly released letter to the prime minister and speaker of the Seimas (parliament) of 24 Sept. 2023. Rabbi Baron’s late father was the legendary Litvak head-of-yeshiva Rabbi Aryeh Leib Baron.
The issue of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery is the focus of one passage in the just-released statement.
“[…] (like the morally despicable plan to turn the Shnipishok cemetery into a museum)? I will not remain silent, no matter how many groups and people the Lithuanian government manages to pay off and silence through their well-paid proxies.”
Ruta Bloshtein, Author of Successful Petition, Calls on Jewish Orthodox Members of ‘Cemetery Commission’ to Stand Up for Preservation and Restoration of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery
VILNIUS—Ruta Bloshtein, author of the Change.org petition that garnered over 50,000 signatures and played a major role in the internationally praised 2021 cancellation by Lithuania’s prime minister of the project to turn the Soviet-era “Sports Palace” (Sporto rumai) ruin into a national congress center, today released for publication her 25 October letter to the Jewish Orthodox members appointed — in an apparent effort to confer legitimacy — to the current “working group” (commission) established, many believe, to rubber stamp a state (and Turto Bankas) project to renovate (rather than demolish) the Soviet eyesore that sits in the middle of the cemetery. Without even mentioning the view that hated Soviet ruin should be removed, official commission minutes include an array of future conference-center, museum, memorial and other public space aspirations, including business (and builders’) interests’ visuals, but not including a hint of the extant visuals in support of cemetery preservation and restoration.
Text of 2020 Litvak Rabbinic Decision on Old Vilna Cemetery and Powerful Statement of the Conference of European Rabbis (CER)
VILNIUS—In view of diverse characterizations circulating regarding the content of the judgment on the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery at Piramónt (in the Snípishok/Šnipiškės district), handed down by Litvak Jewry’s highest international rabbinic authority, on 9 February 2020 (14 Shvat 5780), signed also by the late and revered Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky (1928-2022) of blessed memory, Defending History is providing the original documents of the certified English translation released by the court, as well as the Hebrew original. This was followed below by the Conference of European Rabbis’ solemn repudiation of any role for the London-based CPJCE, issued on 29 Sept. 2020, after years of documentation of allegedly corrupt activities in the alleged de facto sale of East European cemeteries with which they have no historic ties of any kind.
A Different Kind of Holocaust Artist: Auschwitz Survivor David Olère’s Unedited and Unabastracted Realism
OPINION | ARTS | BOOKS | HISTORY | POLITICS OF MEMORY
by Roland Binet (De Panne, Belgium)
I want to share with our readers a remarkable book with reproductions of paintings and drawings by and about David Olère who had been a member of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz-Birkenau. But after the war he felt his mission was to bear witness to the truth, including the horrendous scenes he had seen and himself been part of: Vergessen oder Vergeben – Bilder aus der Todeszone by Alexandre Oler and David Olère [= David Oler]; zu Klampen! (Verlag- Springe/Deutschland; originally published in French in 1998 by his son Alexandre Oler: Un genocide en heritage.
Despite the millions of Jews killed by bullets or who died of beatings, pogroms, hunger or ill treatment in Poland and in the Republics of the USSR, the iconic symbols of Nazi evil remain, for a large segment of the world population, the gas chambers and crematories of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the five other extermination camps in Poland. Historians have stressed the fact that the Nazi killers and their helpers sometimes found those mass slaughters by bullets or asphyxiation inside trucks where monoxide of carbon had been injected to be too tedious and harsh to bear for the executioners. So, Nazi Germany switched to mass killings in gas chambers with Zyklon B and – concerned about leaving traces – devised the crematories. Searching for the roots of this industrialization process, Simon Wiesenthal had already come to that conclusion very early (as quoted by Guido Knopp in Die SS – Eine Warnung der Geschichte).
Are Members of the ‘International Working Group’ Being Tragically Misinformed on Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery?
by Julius Norwilla (Vilnius)
Like my fellow campaigners, over the years, in opposition to the project to plonk a national convention center in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery (via refurbishment of a hated Soviet “Sports Palace” dump that should have long ago been demolished), I felt nothing but relief and the need to express congratulations back in the summer of 2021 when our prime minister wisely cancelled the project. Over two years later, there is again fear, among Jews, Lithuanians, and many around the world who respect the right of the dead to lie in peace (verily a part of Human Rights), even when they are members of a minority. When the buried belong to a nation’s ethnic majority, there are usual no serious efforts to situate conference centers surrounded by subterranean graves (even when the above-ground gravestones have long disappeared).
[LAST UPDATE: 15 OCT.]
DOCUMENTS | OPINION | HUMAN RIGHTS | OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY AT PIRAMÓNT | OPPOSITION TO CONVENTION CENTER | CEMETERIES & MASS GRAVES | LITHUANIAN JEWISH COMMUNITY AFFAIRS | CHABAD IN VILNIUS
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.