E Y E W I T N E S S R E P O R T / O P I N I O N
by Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson
REYKAVÍK—On the first day of Rosh Hashona, the Jewish New Year (yesterday, 17 September 2012), Mr. Emanuelis Zingeris came to perform an official duty here in Iceland as chairman of the Lithuanian Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. He presented the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry’s Millennium Star to Steingrímur Hermannsson, a former prime minister of Iceland who passed away in 2010. Hermannsson‘s widow received the posthumous medal from Mr. Zingeris at a ceremony in the Icelandic Parliament, which was attended by an exceptionally small number of people.
This was not Zingeris’s first visit here. He had ably negotiated with Icelandic diplomats in Oslo in 1990 and in Reykjavík in 1991. It was back then when Iceland broke the ice by becoming the first Western state to acknowledge the independence of Lithuania. To this day the story lives on when Western tourists in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, ask about the history of Iceland Street (Islandijos, in the city center).
At that time, Mr. Hermannsson was Iceland’s prime minister. Mr. Zingeris apparently had one meeting with Steingrímur Hermannsson in 1991. Hermannsson expressed his sincere support for Lithuania.
Later, foreign minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson went on to join the barricades in Lithuania and became as close as anyone to achieving the status of Baltic national hero.
But today in Iceland some people are asking themselves what the late Mr. Hermannsson really did to deserve this posthumous honor from Lithuania, and why Zingeris, a long time (if self-proclaimed) spokesperson of the Jewish community in Lithuania (he is actually not part of the country’s Jewish Community, from which he resigned many years ago) had to celebrate Rosh Hashona in Iceland, where there is not even a synagogue, for this particular presentation of the exalted Millennium Star.
Jews, of course, come in all kind of degrees of observance of traditions, as do the extremely many medals and orders of Lithuania. The Lithuanian Millennium Star in not the most prestigious medal one can receive from Lithuania and quite a few seem to be receiving the Millennium Star. By contrast, several foreign dignitaries who didn’t play any significant role in the process of restoring freedom and independence in Lithuania have received the highest order of the Lithuanian president and Lithuanian State, but no Icelanders, not even Iceland’s former foreign minister Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson.
But perhaps a new Icelandic or Icelandic-Lithuanian star is needed, now that former foreign Minister Hannibalsson’s own star has fallen so abruptly from the skies of Iceland in a scandal of sexual misconduct. The former flamboyant minister was revealed as a stalker of an underage female family relation, to whom he wrote certain letters when he held the office of Icelandic Ambassador to the USA.
He wrote to the fourteen year old girl and told her, among many other things, about his special studies of prostitutes in the Baltic States, when he was on official visits in the region. The scandal broke shortly after Mr. Hannibalsson had made a vile comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany in an Icelandic Radio program. In the 1960s this Icelandic hero of Lithuania had very close contacts with KGB personnel at the Soviet Embassy in Reykjavík.
Hermannsson, who now receives this posthumous recognition from Lithuania, is from the second generation of a political clan in Iceland. His son is also a politician. His father was Hermann Jónasson who like his son held various offices in different Icelandic governments of the twentieth century. Jónasson is known for his firm stand against Jewish refugees who sought safe haven in Iceland. His ministry, together with the Icelandic State Police were involved in the expulsion of Jewish refugees to Denmark in 1939. The expulsion orders were accompanied by a message to the Danish authorities that the Icelandic authorities would pay for the onward transportation of the expelled Jews to Nazi Germany. So that’s why, among other reasons, there is still no synagogue in Iceland.
Relations with Lithuania are obviously now considered to be one of the greater enduring merits of Steingrímur Hermannsson. The lowest point in his political life, however, was his visit to Yasser Arafat in Tunisia in 1990.
Here Hermannsson fell for Arafat’s 10 agorot coin scam. Hermannsson returned to Iceland to announce in the media the sinister plans of the Israelis to occupy the entire Middle East, arguing that the pottery shard on the 10 agorot coin in Israel was really a map of a the Eretz Israel / Greater Israel plans of the Israeli state.
Mr. Hermannsson also proudly showed off to all his visitors a figurine his father had received from Heinrich Himmler when visiting Germany in the 1930s, when Hermann Jónasson was the chief of police in Reykjavík. This is a white porcelain figure of an SS officer on horseback, which had an honorary place on the grand piano in Hermannsson’s home. Then, in 1991, Steingrímur Hermannsson, fervently opposed the investigation into the crimes of Estonian war criminal Evald Mikson, who settled in Iceland and changed his name to Eðvald Hinriksson.
Emanuelis Zingeris, the chairman of the red-brown commission in Lithuania (formally known by its rather Orwellian name: The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania) has at least now given his foreign ministry’s Lithuanian Millennium Star to a person who had values in synch with his own road show.
Iceland, a special friend of the Baltic States, faces a less incriminating Nazi past than those states. But here the past is also a problem. Some Icelanders still find it difficult to address the guilt of Estonian war criminal Evald Mikson, who contrary to Jewish civilians seeking just a haven for life, was granted safe haven in Iceland and became a valued citizen who had many Icelandic politicians as customers in his massage parlor. The only Icelander to meet with Hitler, author Gunnars Gunnarsson, is not considered to be a Nazi, although he enjoyed fraternizing with Alfred Rosenberg, Heinrich Himmler, and Hinrich Lohse one of the henchmen of Riga.
I wonder if Mr. Zingeris knows any of this.
Or if he really cares?