Defending History’s Belgian correspondent Roland Binet has translated the 13 Jan. 2021 interview with Michael Levinas published on 13 Jan. 2021 in Actualite Juive. Michaël Levinas, who has approved the translation, is a French pianist and composer of renown. He has this year been appointed Vice-President of the French Academy of Fine Arts, has taught at the Paris National Superior Conservatory of Music and Dance and has been made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
For context see the Levinas Center Media Tracker page.
Son of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, pianist and composer, honorary professor at the CNSMDP [National Superior Conservatory of Dance and Music], member of the French Institute and the Academy of Fine Arts, Michaël Levinas has expressed his opposition to the inauguration last month of the Emmanuel Levinas Center in Lithuania. He explains why.
Actualité Juive: The city of Kaunas in Lithuania in December inaugurated a center that bears the name of your father, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Why do you oppose that initiative?
Michaël Levinas: During a visit in Paris by the philosopher Viktoras Bachmetjevas, I learned that he wished to create an Emmanuel Levinas Center in Kaunas. I immediately told him of my reservations to the use of his name at the very place where all our family had been murdered during the Holocaust by bullets with the proven complicity of the Lithuanian people. It is an employee of mygrandfather (who was a bookseller) who denounced the family and led the Lithuanian members of the militia to his home. I pointed out the fact that it was common knowledge that my father had on many occasions expressed the solemn vow never again to return to Lithuania and never again to have any contact with that country anymore. On the other hand, I told him that I was not opposed to the fact that, within the setting of a structure dedicated to contemporary philosophy, a section might be created dedicated to the study of Emmanuel Levinas’s work. One year later, I was contacted by the French ambassador in Lithuania, Mrs. Lignières-Counathe, who informed me of the progress of a project of setting up of an Emmanuel Levinas Center. Again, I expressed my reservations, reminding her of my father’s very firm stance and of my moral and intellectual responsibility as exclusive holder of the moral rights pertaining to his work, which are of course correlated with the respect of his name and its use.
Actualité Juive: What happened next?
Michaël Levinas: Following these exchanges, I was invited in March 2019 by the French Embassy in Vilnius to meet the responsible persons from the Kaunas mayor’s office and from universities from that city, within the official scope of a colloquium. An agreement had been achieved to initiate a “Contemporary Philosophy Center” which of course including Levinas studies. We paid a visit to the future site and many exchanges followed, from the most political to the more academic ones, favorably welcoming this proposal. Thus, the respect for the dead from the Holocaust could be preserved in a country where the work in progress of the memory and acknowledgment of the Lithuanian people’s responsibility has not genuinely begun. It is in fact true that the rector of the medical university had not been present at these ceremonies. It is only through a press article (in FigaroVox) that I was informed of the inauguration in Kaunas of an Emmanuel Levinas Center on December 6 last, within the setting of the University of Health Sciences. The agreement concluded in March 2019 had thus been broken.
A notorious fact: that inauguration took place in the sole presence of the Embassy of Israel and in the absence of the French Embassy in Lithuania, the Lithuanian Embassy in France, and from the Lithuanian governmental and cultural authorities who are also opposed to that unilateral initiative, as I have recently been informed by the Lithuanian Ambassador in France. That initiative had been carried out with my sister’s support and disregarding the reservations that I had publicly expressed as a son pertaining to the use of my father’s name, Emmanuel Levinas. Until now, the situation is juridically problematical, I do not know anything about that Center, its statutes, its scientific direction, its missions and partnerships. I am the only one from a family of survivors who, not only had not been informed (this includes my son Elie-Emmanuel Levinas) of the inauguration of that Center. And, we also did not know anything about its purpose.
Actualité Juive: Could Lithuania ignore the reservations from your father’s side — he did not wish to ever have any contact with that country where his family had been murdered?
Michaël Levinas: A press article lauding that inauguration explicitly quotes the directress of that center congratulating itself for “bringing back Emmanuel Levinas to Kaunas.” It is clear, that this person had not judged it necessary to contact me, had never even read one single line of Emmanuel Levinas’s work. Had that been the case, she would have felt more scrupulous to honor and respect the vow which would have horrified my father. He had so many times said that what had happened to his family was akin to a brain tumor — irreparable and incurable.
Actualité Juive: With your sister, Simone Hansel, you are the exclusive holder of the moral rights and responsible for the use of your father’s name, pertaining to his work. What do you particularly look after to preserve his moral and intellectual legacy?
Michaël Levinas: There is no discussion on that matter. I am the sole and exclusive holder of the moral rights as far as Emmanuel Levinas’s work is concerned. My sister contested my father’s will and the stipulations of his last will and testament. It is of public knowledge. In 2009, the court conclusively decided and recognized the stipulations made by my father.
Interview by Yaël Scemama