VILNIUS MARCHES | KAUNAS MARCHES | REGIONAL PRO-NAZI MARCHES | COLLABORATORS GLORIFIED | ANTISEMITISM | EVENTS | OPINION
By Defending History Staff
Photos by Julius Norwilla, Ruta Ostrovskaya, and Dovid Katz
VILNIUS—For the 11th year running, the center of Lithuania’s beautiful capital, Vilnius, was gifted in the high afternoon hours this past Sunday, Match 11th, to far-righters and neo-Nazis on the annual holiday cherished by the free world for its historic importance, in 1990, in the series of events that toppled the Soviet Union’s hated misrule. The Defending History community, all resolute admirers of Lithuania who celebrate its success, has monitored this event annually. The international outcry after the 2008 event, which featured “Juden raus” and a throng of swastikas had led to curious “compromises” each year between organizers and the municipality on what will and will not be done. But no sign yet of the mayor’s office, municipality or government finding the moral backbone to just say, “No, not in the center of our capital on our independence day.”
But first, the general opinion of the Defending History community. We believe in free speech, even for the most despicable speech. But there is a time and place for everything. By starting, for the first time in 2008, four years after accession to the European Union and NATO, to gift the neo-Nazis the center of the capital, on independence day, a statement was being made that for many constituted de facto legitimization of the view that Hitler and the Holocaust are to be celebrated in the interests of ethnic purity and hatred of the nation’s minorities. This, in a country where over 95% of the Jewish population were murdered via massive local voluntary collaboration in the killing process by “patriotic nationalist forces.” We have consistently, in the spirit of Yiddish lore, invoked the old Litvak Yiddish saying about something that is fit for Balbírishok (today’s Balbieriškis), a shtetl far away, but not for the central prospect of the capital (no disrespect to the fine people of Balbírishok, to cite a point that came up some years ago).
For some Holocaust survivors and their families the most painful part of these marches has been the flaunting of swastikas and other fascist symbols. Some years white armbands were the theme, invoking the 1941 killers of the Lithuanian Activist Front who began to slaughter their Jewish neighbors before the Nazi army even arrived. But the overriding source of pain has been the carrying of banners glorifying actual Lithuanian Holocaust collaborators, and this in a country with so many true heroes, heroes that can be cherished by all humanity, over a period of close to a thousand proud years of Lithuanian history in the European arena.
Sunday’s small Defending History monitoring team was made up of Leonas Kaplanas, Dovid Katz, Nicolas LaFay, Julius Norwilla (team coordinator), Ruta Ostrovskaja, and Grytė Ruzgė. DH published a public invitation for folks to consider joining around a week before the event. Two stalwarts of many years’ DH monitoring, Evaldas Balčiūnas and Milan Chersonski, were unable to attend this year because of health reasons. The only other evident, separate and uniquely individual monitoring/protesting presence was the well-known, flamboyant and controversial Vilnius Jewish personality, Daniel Lupshitz, an assistant to the mayor of Vilnius, who came once again wrapped in an Israeli-style Jewish prayer shawl or táles (tallit).
So how did this past Sunday stack up against previous marches, including this year for the first time, a February 16th Vilnius march that was moved from its usual Kaunas venue, where the DH team has likewise been monitoring the event for years? What was the result this time around of the neos’ negotiations with the municipality and mayor’s office that simply lacked the moral courage to Just Say No? The good news was that there were no banners of the Holocaust collaborators, but unlike February 16th, “Lietuva Lietuviams” — the clarion racist chants of “Lithuania for Lithuanians” — barred last month, were reintroduced both in the shouted chants for hours to the point of severe monotony, and on a huge banner out front, and smaller individual signs. Curiously, Lithuania is the most “ethnically pure” of the Baltic states, and one has to wonder about the deeper historic and racial-cleansing ethos of the marchers. Also, the march ended at Lukiškės Square, and did not reach Parliament, as in previous years. “Well done, city negotiators”. . . As ever, not a sign of the well-endowed “human rights monitoring NGOs” who enjoy lavish funding for lovely websites, conferences, reports and travels. But at one point, Leonas Kaplanas, part of the monitoring team, did shout back, when the “Lietuva Lietuviams” chants were reaching a hysterical crescendo, with a single, elegant cry-out of: “Lietuva visiems” — Lithuania for Everybody!
There were “only a few swastikas” worn by marchers adept at hiding in the middle of crowds. But no “classic swastikas” were observed, just the “Lithuanian swastika” with the added lines (meant to invoke a medieval symbol) and the “curved swastika”. In fact swastikas were made legal in the country in a 2010 court ruling, but the international outcry has led the government to try hard to persuade the neo-Nazis to avoid its use. The DH team managed to document a number of instances including these two:
Most of this year’s crowd were middle aged to older, without many of the regulars who, we were told, were encouraged to lead events elsewhere. For much of the time, the crowd was smaller than in previous years, numbering a few hundred, but it swelled to around one thousand at max, on the march up Gedimino Boulevard. One personality “of many years’ standing” was the former top official of the state-sponsored Genocide Research Center, Ričardas Čekutis, wearing his trademark White Power scarf.
The Pepe the Frog meme, imported from the United States, where it has been appropriated by the alt-right, was back in town too.
There were various and sundry far-right and fascist symbols. Among them were the following.
As usual, it was both sad and surreal to see the neo-Nazi marches throng pass the sign marking the Vilnius Jewish Public Library, and, this year, the newly added sign for the World Jewish Congress International Yiddish Center. By contrast, it was more “natural” for them to be passing the memorial stone honoring the notorious Holocaust collaborator Jonas Noreika (alias “Generolas Vetra”) on the Genocide Museum wall. Mr. Noreika would have been well pleased with such honors in store in 2018.
Indeed, failure to appreciate the genocide that was the Holocaust, and to honor as heroes local collaborators and perpetrators, continues to lead to misappropriation of the word “genocide” for a variety of perceived wrongs. As ever, there was a banner about that too, claiming that the Lithuanian people were being subjected to genocide.
The far right Ukrainian presence was the only military-garbed unit with the day’s event, and the militia in town for the parade attracted considerable adoration.
The event concluded with speeches by far-right personalities at Lukiškės Square. In addition to Sakalas Gorodeckis, chairman of the fascistic Nationalist Union , who last year used Independence Day to launch a public attack against Lithuania’s oldest Holocaust survivor, there were representatives of neo-Nazi and far right parties from Germany (the Young Nationalists), and three groups from Ukraine, the Right Sector, Swaboda, and a group of military-clad members of the so-called National Corpus militia.
As far as the DH monitoring team could see, there were almost no counter protesters. Previous years brought out a variety of folks. Why is the number now almost zero? But the operative word is “almost”. There were two young men who stood up to the throng with a variety of home-made signs. They brought genuine honor to the center of the Lithuanian capital and will hopefully achieve the recognition they deserve for coming to espouse the values of the European Union and equality and dignity of each person. The sign on the left proudly displays the motto of the EU, “United in Diversity” in Latin and English. The one on the right says it in plain Lithuanian; the text translates: “Lithuanian society is not made up of one ethnicity!” using a word, which has correlates in various East European languages, that can mean “nation” but is used for the equivalent of “ethnicity” or “ethnic nation.” Bravo to both of them!
Below, an image of three of the “Jewish dissenters” meeting up before the event. From left: Nicolas LaFay (with hat), Daniel Lupschitz (with prayer shawl), and Leonas Kaplanas, a commentator on Lithuanian Jewish affairs well-known for “telling it straight.” Lefay and Kaplanas were part of the DH monitoring team on the day.
Mr. Lupshitz actually entered the throng to argue with those bearing the “Lithuania for Lithuanians” banner:
Far right themes, including those espoused by a contingent of Ukrainian nationalists, mostly in military garb, flaunting symbols of the Swoboda party and the Right Sector, and a few anti-LGBT posters, were the primary but not the only causes espoused by marchers. There were contingents opposed to the Russian built nuclear power plant being constructed right across the nearby border in western Belarus, protesters against the domestic security services, and against the EU and adoption of the euro.
As usual, the Vilnius police did a splendidly professional (and discreet) job of keeping peace and order and ensuring that incidents did not occur.