[LAST UPDATE; ORIGINAL PUBLICATION 27 APRIL 2023]
OPINION | FILM | BOLD CITIZENS | SAULIUS BERŽINIS | SHEDUVA
Defending History proudly supports modern Lithuania’s first major Holocaust truth teller, documentary film maker
What is it all about? Allegedly, a major gang-up is underway against Vilnius’s beloved documentarian Saulius Beržinis who was perhaps the first to tell the truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania. His 2018 Rogatchi Humanist of the Year Award was presented the following year in a Vilnius ceremony that included the ambassadors of Finland, Norway and the United States. Back in 2004 he was Lithuania’s Person of Tolerance, and American journalist Ben Smith, in a 2001 feature article in the Forward, chronicled his earlier work including his sensational 1990s filmed interviews with actual Holocaust perpetrators.
Now, his new film, commissioned by the Museum of the Lost Shtetl), included the last eyewitnesses to the slaughter of the Jews of Sheduva, where the museum is situated (they too are gone now). The film’s revelations have bearing on the identity of the actual killers (nearly all local residents), recycling of the Jews’ teeth, clothing, homes, gravestones. There are also revealing segments of how the murdered Jews are viewed by some of today’s residents, and on the honoring of perpetrators on a plaque in the town church. The film was not only rejected by the new museum. When Saulius refused for his work to be buried, instead of allowing him to release those interviews with the last witnesses separately on his own responsibility as a major international document morally owned by humanity, they allegedly initiated legal proceedings that have already closed down his beloved non-profit Kopa Studio, endangered its Holocaust archive’s safety, and allegedly made financial claims that threaten his being able to continue owning his home and resulting in the freezing of his and 97 year old mother’s bank accounts. Some have called it a classic “campaign of personal destruction using lawyers.”
But who are they? The wider group includes the Brussels-based executive director of the museum (himself a major ink company director in Belgium), a Switzerland-resident South African billionaire donor, and the firm headed by a (truly delightful!) top Vilnius lawyer famous for his “love of the Jews” via a truly impressive Litvak art collection and a Litvak foundation (whom we have been honored to welcome to Defending History’s informal Mini Museum of Old Jewish Vilna). All against — Saulius Beržinis and his film, now known informally here in Vilnius as The Satanic Verses of Sheduva. That which must be deleted. That which must remain unseeable. In the spirit not only of Rushdie’s book but of the fatwa against it. For all the screens of smoke, fog and sand, the overriding, and lasting question is whether the testimony of the last Sheduva eyewitnesses will be prominently available or one way or another buried deep in the proverbial vaults (“Oh, no suppression, no need for online or films right now, it will one day be available to people who will come to the museum in Sheduva and ask for it” two and a half hours northwest of Vilnius).
“Like Salman Rushdie’s book, the Satanic Verses of Sheduva filmed by the master truth-telling camera of Saulius Beržinis will live forever.”
The international affair is, in this journal’s opinion, different from the minutiae of the legal case launched by a rich elite with functionally unlimited resources against a struggling lone filmmaker in his seventies who has spent three and a half decades telling the bitter truth about the Holocaust in the face of vast investment by government agencies to “fix the history” in a spirit of “double genocide” in which the killers are “also heroes.”
The international question: Will Saulius’s master interviews with the last Sheduva witnesses of the slaughter of the town’s Jews be kept locked away in the proverbial vaults, inaccessible to international viewers, historians and visitors to Lithuania, and indeed the people of Lithuania? Or will Saulius’s filmed interviews — an extraordinary humanistic achievement of which Lithuania may be proud — be permitted to see the light? That is Defending History’s opinion about what this is all about in the higher realms of ideas, freedom of ideas, and elementary principles of free speech that lie at the heart of the European Union’s ethos of human rights. It is about the fate of the Satanic Verses in Saulius’s film that the litigation against him is liable to prevent from seeing the light of day in addition to what we believe to be a malicious legal assault on the individual and, as a practical matter, on the security of his precious collection of Holocaust witness recordings. Indeed, if it were about a mundane division of credit and legal ownership or funding, an agreement would, in our view, be achievable in one hour flat.
Defending History’s take: Saulius Beržinis singular filmed interviews with the last eyewitnesses to the Holocaust in Lithuania (they too are gone now) are an international humanistic treasure for the truth of history, ethics, prevention of future genocides, and for the honor of modern democratic Lithuania. Whosoever would try to suppress their widespread dissemination whether by “catch and kill” tactics of “sole ownership” or campaigns of personal destruction, brings only shame all around and to modern democratic Lithuania.
UPDATES OF 12 MAY 2023:
(1) Join us on 20 June 2023 at Vilnius County Court, Gedimino Prospect 40 at 2:30 PM to support Saulius! To find the room, look at the board downstairs for case No. e2—918—577/2023; Court Hearing No. 2—55—3—00900—2022—0. Or just ask the attendant where to go for Kanovich-Glasenberg-Ellex-Valiunas-Dingęs-Štetlas vs. — Saulius Beržinis. NOTE: If coming from far, please check with Kopa Studio (firstname.lastname@example.org) a day beforehand to check that the trial has not again been postponed.
(2) Write to donor Ivan Glasenberg whose generosity in Lithuania is being grossly abused in a campaign to destroy the life and work of one of the country’s primary Holocaust truth tellers over three decades. The benefactor deserves to know.
UPDATES OF 23 MAY 2023:
(1) At Mr. Glasenberg’s request this evening, the (completely public) address of his town’s central post office in Switzerland in this space was deleted today; readers wishing to contact him can easily find various public business affiliate addresses online (Glencore, etc). The Defending History community hopes that Mr. Glasenberg, now duly informed, will consider rapidly halting the legal proceedings that are so destructive to his own generously funded museum project in Lithuania, and allow Saulius’s historic film to survive and be available, separately from the Hollywood documentary on the museum/shtetl now in preparation — a Hollywood project that will no doubt prosper maximally by not being tied up with a campaign of destruction against another documentary project by an embattled and heroic veteran Lithuanian truth teller about the Holocaust.
(2) See our Facebook report on the packed hall central Vilnius viewing of Saulius Beržinis’s film organized by visiting American groups. The Q & A session was chaired by Helise Lieberman, director of the Warsaw based Taube Center for Jewish Life and Learning, and the vote of thanks delivered by Ann Toback, CEO of the New York based Workers Circle, a major Yiddish cultural organization.
(3) Elegant reaction to this page is received from the Executive Director of the Museum of the Lost Shtetl (Dingęs Štetlas — Šeduvos žydų istorijos muziejus, VšĮ), culminating with an incomprehensible threat (graymail?) against the editor of DefendingHistory.com. Perhaps Ellex Valiunas will be explaining with greater clarity this threat from the museum’s Executive Director. See also: DH’s Author’s Page for list of contributors to date and policy on transparency.
UPDATE OF 25 MAY 2023:
Two staff members at the Sheduva museum reported to Defending History today that Los Angeles based Roberta Grossman, considered by many to be the leading documentary filmmaker today internationally, has recently completed filming in Lithuania for the replacement film commissioned by the museum (we had no independent confirmation at the time, but a youtube teaser for the film appeared later the same day). Surely Ms. Grossman does not deserve for her new film to be — unbeknown to her — tainted for the ages by an unseemly tie to its financiers’ concomitant attempts to suppress in perpetuity the Holocaust-witness interviews achieved by the dissident (Holocaust truth-telling) Lithuanian filmmaker, award winning Vilnius-based documentarian Saulius Beržinis, whom they first commissioned to do the inaugural film for the new museum. His film was rejected over, we believe, its “satanic verses” (the unvarnished truth about the Holocaust in Sheduva through the incredibly salvaged words of the last eyewitnesses to the events), a saga that transpires in Lithuania not for the first time. Moreover, Ms. Grossman needs to be aware that in addition to suppressing the eyewitness accounts filmed, the ongoing legal action is seen by many in Vilnius as tantamount to a malicious-lawsuit campaign of personal destruction against Mr. Beržinis in the alleged de facto effort to repress his discoveries. By decisively ending the actions against Saulius, his studio, his personal security, and in many ways, his working life, and allowing the Satanic Verses, and indeed, Saulius’s original filmed interviews to exist in the public domain (with full accreditation to the commissioning museum if so desired), Ms. Grossman and her team would be adding a major achievement to what is sure to be their own cinematographic masterpiece. “Do not fear Saulius’s film and its interviews with the last Holocaust eyewitnesses also being out there…”
UPDATE OF 26 MAY 2023:
Defending History receives a threatening “Cease and Desist” letter from Ellex Valiunas law firm, accompanied by two PDFs, which will be posted on this page in due course. The subject line contains the ominous term “libelous” which Defending History vigorously disputes, while always welcoming corrections to errors and guaranteeing the right of reply to all within the usual limits of democratic discourse. Two inconsequential errors (first, about the legal reasons for delay of the 2 May hearing; second the alleged campaign of destruction involving freezing of bank accounts rather than a direct “lien on the house”) were corrected within minutes of receipt in DH’s longstanding tradition of rapid correction of errors pointed out. It is not clear whether this foreboding communication represents an effort to silence DH too. Concerned readers are always advised to make archived copies of pages that might be needed in the future via the Internet Archive (see the “Save page now” button at right).
UPDATE OF 12 JUNE 2023:
A number of guides, lecturers and instructors at the Paiedeia (European Institute for Jewish Studies) Alumni Conference in Vilnius, held from 8 to 11 June, had mentioned the campaign against Saulius Berržinis and the new film on Sheduva. As a result, a number of participants themselves arranged a private, non-commercial screening of the film in Vilnius today, which proceeded with a packed audience and a profound question and answer session with Saulius that followed the film. Participants from a dozen countries left vowing to ensure that the remarkable filmed testimony of the last witnesses to the Holocaust in Sheduva (themselves now gone too) would soon reach the world and be beyond suppression in the age of free information.
UPDATE OF 16 JUNE 2023:
Kopa Studio II releases a Vimeo link for informal, informational, non-commercial viewing along with strict requests to viewers not to copy or distribute. Please see report for details for obtaining link and password (valid until 22 June 2023).
UPDATE OF 19 JUNE 2023:
The Vilnius District Court scheduling service announced that tomorrow’s hearing has been postponed to a date to be announced.
UPDATE OF 7 AUGUST 2023:
B’nai B’rith Australia & New Zealand presents Saulius Beržinis its Lifetime Achievement Award (please click on image for higher-res):
UPDATE OF 21 AUGUST 2023:
B’nai B’rith of Australia & New Zealand issues a press release on its lifetime achievement award to Saulius Beržinis, explicitly making note of the de facto banning of his new film containing his extraordinary videographed interviews with Lithuania’s last witnesses of the Holocaust, filmed in Sheduva.
UPDATE OF 31 AUGUST 2023:
Report in the Australian Jewish News.
Defending History Proudly Supports
Saulius Beržinis’s early 1990s Farewell Jerusalem of Lithuania helped open the door to the documentary stream of Holocaust truth telling in Eastern Europe. His incredible interviews with local Holocaust killers in Lovely Faces of the Murderers remain classic in 21st century Holocaust studies and are preserved at the United State Holocaust Memorial Museum and other major international museums. Join us at Vilnius District Court at Gedimino Prospect 40, on Tuesday afternoon, June 20th, at 2:30 PM, to monitor these historic proceedings, and to offer moral support to Saulius, as he is being sued by a coalition of powerful forces. And, personally ruined — his longtime nonprofit Kopa Studios was forced to close down, his and his 97 year old mother’s bank accounts allegedly frozen, and his unique Holocaust film archive now left seriously endangered.
Hopefully the Hollywood masters brought in to make a brand new film for the museum will speak out, first, for Saulius’s documentary to be available to the public as well (“as a separate issue”), and, second, for a rapid halt to the campaign of personal destruction against him. Surely it is awkward to be associated with a generously endowed new museum of the Lithuanian Jewish shtetl whose first major “achievement” was forcing the demise of Kopa Studio, Lithuania’s major independent Holocaust archive, and the producer of a series of uniquely honest documentaries about the Holocaust in Lithuania. Something is not quite adding up. Surely this “achievement” needs to be rapidly reversed, with apologies and compensation to undo, as far as possible, the damage wrought.
Upon arrival at on 20 June 2023 at Vilnius County Court, Gedimino Prospect 40 at 2:30 PM, please look at the board downstairs for case No. e2—918—577/2023; Court Hearing No. 2—55—3—00900—2022—0. Or just ask the attendant where to go for Kanovich-Glasenberg-Ellex-Valiunas-Dingęs-Štetlas vs. — Saulius Beržinis.
Who would be suing Saulius Beržinis and over what?
Allegedly the new Sheduva (Šeduva) “Museum of the Lost Shtetl” over a film draft that “may have just revealed too much” — names of the town’s locals who massacred the Jewish population, recipients of Jewish teeth, clothing and household possessions, and the town church’s current plaque honoring “local heroes” who participated in the humiliation, incarceration and murder of the town’s Jews. But the plot thickens: The museum was able to hire the top, and super-expensive law firm in Vilnius to run the case against the beloved 72 year old film maker. The plot thickens. The head of that law firm is himself a cofounder of Litvak World (previously known as Jerusalem of the North), a major “Litvak [!] foundation” in Vilnius and a copious collector of Jewish art. Some local Jewish people are perhaps too harsh in calling such endeavors “the local dead Jew business” but there should perhaps be some modicum of sensitivity and humility about participation in a campaign to ruin the life and work of Lithuania’s most prominent Holocaust-truth-telling film maker, who is beloved by the living, small, remnant Vilnius Jewish community. Is there not, moreover, peradventure a profound moral (rather than legal) conflict of interest in pursuing a Litvak foundation while pursuing the de facto suppression of the most important Lithuanian Holocaust eyewitness testimony garnered in many years, testimony of which a bona fide Jewish museum should be proud? Moral conflict of interest in having allegedly contributed to the destruction of Kopa Studio, which for over three decades was a beacon of pride in Lithuania for Holocaust truth telling, assembling of precious filmed interviews with perpetrators, survivors and witnesses, and construction of a one-in-the-world archive. Some of Mr. Valiunas’s partners in the Litvak World foundation naturally feel shocked and betrayed.
Incidentally, the “Jewish” museum in Sheduva does not have a single Jewish member of staff (think: a museum of African American Culture in Mobile, Alabama without a single African American member of staff). Its executive director, Sergey Kanovich lives in — Brussels, where he is a director at Strk Solution Europe, and a top international specialist on digital ink (also a fine essayist and poet). In Vilnius’s Jewish community, he is at times remembered in the context of the 2017 Jewish community elections (when the Jewish residents of Lithuania were disenfranchised in the middle of the election campaign for head of community, and replaced by a board of the powerful).
The Question: Does South African born museum sponsor Ivan Glasenberg of Glencore renown (Forbes’ daily estimate of his wealth, tabulated in billions-with-a-b) know that his generosity is conceivably being abused to destroy the life, studio and work of one of the most courageous Lithuanian truth tellers about the Holocaust?
History repeating itself? See the 2012 report by Milan Chersonski (1937-2021), longtime editor of the official newspaper of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, on the fate of Saulius Beržinis’s film on the Holocaust in another Lithuanian town — Jurbarkas (Yúrberik). See also his 2001 film on the Holocaust in Kėdainiai (Keydán).
Related: DH’s Saulius Beržinis section. DH Sheduva (Šeduva) section (on the town and the new museum). Evaldas Balčiūnas on Names of the Šeduva murderers of the town’s entire Jewish population; on his mini-drama, “Museum of the Lost Truth“; see also Dovid Katz’s 2017 welcome of the news of the new museum in Šeduva.
Perhaps for a future documentary on Jewish Šeduva: DH’s associated LYVA project (the Lithuanian Yiddish Video Archive) includes 1999/2000 videos of the last Yiddish speaker of Šeduva (Yiddish: Shádeve, older: Shádev), the Lithuanian Christian Elena Rimdžiūtė (full interview, and four-minute excerpt with translation in Youtube description box of the Christian Yiddish speaker’s inspirationally honest description of the Holocaust in her town). Some very powerful forces might learn something about the beauty of unadulterated honesty from the dear, late Elena Rimdžiūtė (earlier interviews with her from 1999 remain to be digitized when resources permit).