E Y E W I T N E S S R E P O R T / O P I N I O N
by Joshua Markovitz (Jerusalem)
It was Thursday November 24th. Thanksgiving. One couldn’t really feel it in Jerusalem, though; the city was bustling as it would on any other crisp autumn morning. I made my way through its fashionable Baka neighborhood, asking several passersby where to find Efrata College. (One of them couldn’t understand my question, and asked me if I spoke English. I happily replied in the affirmative. When one is an immigrant to a faraway land, it’s quite delicious to be mistaken for a native!)
I arrived at Efrata College a bit after the conference (entitled “That Awful Summer” on the Lithuanian Holocaust in the summer of 1941) had started. I was greeted charmingly by several young women, one of whom wrote down my name and email address. Another handed me a folder with some paper and a pen and ushered me quietly into the hall where the conference was taking place. I managed to find a seat in the back; the hall was almost entirely full.
A tall, aristocratic-looking man was standing at the podium, speaking in almost unaccented English. He was speaking about the Lithuanian government’s efforts to “commemorate the Holocaust” and added that “no government has one more to do so over the past two years”.
Now a bit suspicious, I glanced down at my program. The man speaking was the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, Darius Degutis.
He continued: “We’re not going to all this trouble to commemorate the Holocaust in order to whitewash our past, as some misguided individuals have suggested.”
Hmm. “As some misguided individuals have suggested.” Doublespeak personified.
Degutis finished: “I’m very pleased that Prof. Sarunas Liekis is here to share his vast knowledge and experience with us today.”
I felt like asking him: Vast knowledge and experience in what, exactly? In covering up for Lithuanian persecution of Holocaust survivors? In providing an academic fig leaf for Lithuania’s efforts to obfuscate the Holocaust from history? I had spent the summer of 2009 at the Yiddish institute headed by Liekis, at which the lectures of its founder and one professor of Yiddish were barred and had to be held in private apartments. I couldn’t believe this crew was in Jerusalem shamelessly selling a very different bill of goods.
Mr. Degutis stepped down from the podium and left the conference shortly thereafter.
The conference then moved forward at a brisk pace, presenting lecture after lecture, mostly delivered in Hebrew, all delivered well. Most impressive for me was the lecture given in the early afternoon by a Prof. Boaz Cohen, a soft-spoken man with a refined, scholarly face and a rabbinic air. He prefaced his remarks with this:
“It’s a pity that the Lithuanian ambassador is no longer here, for I would have liked to say to him that for as long as the Lithuanian government prosecutes former Jewish partisans, Holocaust survivors like Dr. Yitzhak Arad, there cannot be reconciliation between the Lithuanian and the Jewish people. There can be reconciliation, but not while this is going on.”
Finally came the moment when Sarunas Liekis got up to speak. He cut a dashing figure, in a black suit and black shirt, a boyish face and thick, graying hair. He began speaking in English with a very strong accent; I’m sure it was incomprehensible to his mostly Israeli audience, and I’m also sure that did no disservice to his efforts to confuse and obfuscate.
Liekis spoke very quickly, using vague dissertation-esque terminology like: “national versus ethnic narratives”, “emerging conversations on collective memory” and “nationalist versus Western schools of history”.
The whole effect was to be stupefyingly boring — and this was to someone who could understand his accent and the words he was saying! I had seen this strategy before, in university. When an academic is trying to glide over a rather unsavory subject, he will try deliberately try to make his lecture intolerably bland and opaque at once. This way, his listeners arrive at the conclusion that the subject is too complicated and boring to investigate further. Which is precisely what he wants.
Fortunately, Holocaust historian, author and the world’s leading Nazi hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff, was the next (and last) scheduled speaker. Over a period of more than two decades, Zuroff has been tracking and exposing the Baltic record on the Holocaust, on which he has published extensively.
After being introduced, Dr. Zuroff was invited to the podium and began speaking in Hebrew.
“I must stress that every country in Europe had its fair share of collaborators with the Nazis. Lithuanians, however would like you to believe that it was just ‘hooligans’ who carried out mass killings of Jews and collaborated with the Nazis. In fact, it was the intelligentsia and Lithuanian national leaders!
“We at the Simon Wiesenthal Center were the ones who revealed to the New York Times that scores of Lithuanian murderers did receive rehabilitations from the Lithuanian government. And we’re talking about commanders at Majdanek and deputy commanders at the biggest killing fields.
“The Lithuanian ambassador said this morning that no other country in Europe has done more to commemorate the Holocaust. And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that no other country has done more to distort the memory of the Holocaust and to destroy its status as an event unique in history!”
The audience then had an opportunity to ask questions. They presented Liekis with the toughest ones, but his answers skillfully elided their concerns away.
About antisemitism in the Lithuanian media: “The media is very diverse; it’s hard to generalize about it.”
About antisemitism in the Lithuanian church: “Well, the church is very conservative and resistant to change. You mean the Roman Catholic church, of course. I’m not Roman Catholic.” As if that makes a difference.
About the “Genocide Museum” in Vilnius that makes almost no mention of the Holocaust: “That museum was built consistent with the ‘national narrative’ and the Holocaust is a ‘Jewish’ issue, thereby falling under the ‘minority narrative’.”
What does that even mean?
Then it was Dr. Zuroff’s turn to speak. He chose to mention Prof. Dovid Katz, the Yiddish institute’s founder whose inspiring lectures I had to hear in private apartments in the summer of 2009 when the grand democrat Liekis, incredibly director of the Yiddish institute (knowing Yiddish seems not to be a criterion for that in Lithuania), banned the professor who brought him to the institute in the first place.
Zuroff said: “For his first nine years in Vilnius, Katz just concentrated on his Yiddish work. Then, once the Lithuanian government started prosecuting former partisans, he spoke up. Then, after eleven years of service, they fired him for speaking up.”
This is when the conference got interesting. Sarunas Liekis had been sitting at his seat, perfectly composed, for the better part of ten hours. Now, upon hearing the name “Dovid Katz” in a lecture otherwise exclusively in Hebrew (of which Liekis had professed to understand “only a little” before starting his own lecture) he jumped out of his seat, strode over to the podium where Dr. Zuroff was lecturing and started shouting at him in his heavily accented English.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about! Dovid Katz never had a contract with the university. It was the American Friends of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Santa Monica who didn’t renew his contract!”
“I know you’re a doctor of something”, Liekis shrieked. “But what you did was unprofessional. Ad hominem!”
Zuroff then turned to the incensed academic at the foot of the stage and replied:
“No, what you did is unprofessional.”
Liekis, in full battle-mode, lashed back up at Zuroff:
“No, what you did was unprofessional!”
Then, fuming, the boyish-faced Liekis sputtered: “Well, you don’t have the facts, and I won’t tolerate this kind of talk.” He then turned around and walked back to his seat. It seemed not to matter to him that Professor Katz was a well-known professor at Vilnius University from 1999 to 2010, and that he, Liekis, had now usurped the Yiddish institute to serve up Lithuanian government PR for foreign Jewish audiences and was being sent around the world for that task.
Nor did Liekis bother to mention that the Lithuanian parliament passed a law in 2010 in effect criminalizing (with punishment up to two years in prison) the opinion that the Holocaust was the one genocide that occurred in the country.
The audience didn’t seem sure whether they were meant to be embarrassed, amused, or outraged at the spectacle. The conference’s chairwoman spared everyone the confusion with a reminder that the conference had reached its end and thanked us for coming.
I gathered my coat and my notes and walked out into the Jerusalem twilight.
It started to rain.