OPINION | JEWISH STUDIES AS COVER | YIDDISH AFFAIRS
VILNIUS—Beware of any academic conference hosted by a nation’s parliament. This isn’t about Lithuania, the Baltics, or Eastern Europe. It’s about the intellectual independence and academic integrity of bona fide academic conclaves anywhere. There are elementary questions. Was there a public call for papers? Was there an academic committee established to select those papers by the most competent specialists on the actual topic of the conference? An academic committee that would guard against the petty jealousies, politics of revenge and personal exclusions, as well as larger political correctnesses or state-sponsored-agency attempts to predetermine the proceedings or (ab)use them for governmental PR? Is the conference a free tribune for the exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of collegiality and mutual respect? One where scholars of opposing views can thrash it out, robustly and publicly — without the loss of interpersonal respect — to yield positive results for the area of human enquiry to which the conference was dedicated in the first place. One of the ironies is that Vilnius is nowadays host to some of the world’s best (and most academically free) conferences in an array of fields, both in the humanities and the sciences. That Soviet-style rigging should survive in the case of Judaic studies, of all things, will itself be studied one day.
Such questions become more acute, painful, and take on the characteristics of ethical litmus tests here on ground zero of the Holocaust. Various government units can easily manipulate “Jewish studies,” and even more emotionally “Yiddish studies” and the destroyed East European Jewish shtetl, to help cover for policies of Holocaust obfuscation. Most blatantly this is done via the politics and financial powers of state-sponsored commissions committed to the Prague Declaration’s rendering “equal” Nazi and Soviet crimes. This in its own turn reduces to downgrading the Holocaust, covering for local participation in Nazi genocide, turning local perpetrators into heroes, and criminalizing survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance. Invariably the whole lot is entangled with current East-West geopolitics. There is systematic exclusion of members of local Jewish communities where such conferences are held from the proceedings, especially if they happened to have ever stood up to state manipulation of the Holocaust.
For a conference coming up in Vilnius next week, all this comes into play, along with the alleged moral corruption of a Yiddishless “Yiddish institute” led by a member of the state’s mix-n-match commission on Nazi and Soviet crimes, and of an ersatz “Jewish Community leadership” in power by virtue of having allegedly stolen recent elections via a mid-campaign rule change guaranteeing the incumbent’s continued hold on power and the perquisites supported by the millions of euros of state restitution deriving from the value of the religious communal properties of the murdered Jews of Lithuania. (Nobody has been invited from the legitimately elected Vilnius Jewish Community.)
The conference is “Diaspora and Heritage: The Shtetl” and it will be held next Monday, 25 September 2017 right in the Lithuanian parliament (information in English; in Lithuanian). None of the local scholars who have dedicated decades to the study of the Lithuanian shtetl or its Yiddish cultural, folkloric and literary heritage are included in the conference program. The keynote opening session is moderated by Professor S. Liekis, director of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, which purged its only Yiddish professor in 2010, never replaced him, and has since been devoid of Yiddish studies (or Jewish academic staff) for eleven months each year (excepting the lucrative and excellent one-month summer program that pays for staff for eleven months of non-Yiddish activities in an elite Hollywood-set grade “Yiddish institute” premises for the benefit of VIPs visiting from abroad; if in doubt, just try to study Yiddish there now, during the academic year).
Prof. Liekis is a key member of the state’s commission that promotes the Prague Declaration, the “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania” (known for short in diplomatic circles here as “the red-brown commission”). He was appointed after successfully purging his own institute of its one Yiddish professor, in partnership with Indiana University’s eminent Prof. Dov-Ber Kerler, the Dr. Alice Field Cohn professor in Yiddish Studies at the Robert A. and Sandra S. Borns Jewish Studies Program. The “Yiddish institute’s” generous benefactors who were persuaded to go along with the de-Yiddishization, Richard and Natasha Maullin, have, like Prof. Kerler, received state honors and awards, some think in part for their compliance with state-sponsored Holocaust revisionism, particularly by the effort to cover for it via concurrent proclamation of love of Judaic studies and projects (some of which can actually be very good). In 2011, Prof. Liekis identified himself in the Economist as the Yiddish professor in Vilnius. Naturally the most intricate cultural questions concerning Yiddish language, literature, culture, folklore and values should continue to be addressed to him for a rapid and expert specialist response. In the field of Holocaust studies, there continue to be high hopes that he will howsoever politely challenge in public the vast volume of historic works published by the elder A. Liekis that try to make heroes of the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) killers who unleashed the murder of Lithuanian Jewry in some forty locations before the first German forces even arrived, during that last week of June 1941.
But the plot line of this conference seems to thicken further. Aside from the government’s Cultural Heritage Department, the prime conference sponsor is the government’s “Good Will Foundation,” itself deeply involved in the official “Jewish Community of Lithuania” leader’s alleged recent election-theft by way of mid-campaign rule changes to disenfranchise the 2,200 living Jewish people of Vilnius, in favor of a room full of oligarchs; it is this “official Jewish community” that is the co-organizer of the conference. See, for orientation into recent events, the full-hearted letter to the Good Will Foundation signed by twenty democratically elected members of the actual Vilnius Jewish Community. According to sources, Prof. Liekis may have indicated that the “Yiddish institute” led by himself, strangely one of the constituents of the “Jewish Community of Lithuania” would vote for an opposition candidate, but in the end, the Director of the Secretariat of the official state-sponsored community, Ms. Monika Antanaitytė, announced that there were zero votes for the opposing candidate. Meanwhile the Good Will Foundation announced the same week, on its list of allocations. a 5,000 euro donation to the “Yiddish institute” for its summer course. On the day of the stolen elections, a hundred Jews were kept out of the building by armed police while the institute’s assistant director, who has yet to learn any Yiddish after a dozen years in the post, was ushered in VIP-style by the security men. No doubt the other donors reportedly approached for summer course subsidies with passionate declarations of unending love for Yiddish, including Dr. Richard and Natasha Maullin, and Mr. Mark Klabin, were immediately informed of this fortuitous funding for the 2017 summer program.
According to a long-time employee of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, one who seems to have yearly pangs of conscience as the Jewish High Holidays draw near, next week’s conference needed one international Yiddish academic star who could boast Katz-bashing credentials going back to the last century. Extensive academic research by specialists turned up Professor Mikhail Krutikov, a major international scholar and head of the prestigious Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Michigan. Back in the 1990s, he was brought to Oxford University in a project to dismantle the world’s then most successful Yiddish studies program in a web of intrigue that resulted in the demise of all academic Yiddish studies at Oxford. After helping carry out the coup that would destroy Yiddish at Oxford (and in short order turn that institute into a Film Studies institute), Krutikov rushed to join in for the first stones hurled in Schadenfreude (before shortly thereafter bailing out himself to the greener pastures of the American Dream). Professors Kerler and Krutikov, both major scholars and educators, are among the Soviet-origin academics who have effectively taken over the university field of Yiddish in the United States. Meanwhile, the fragile and tragically weak field of Yiddish continues to be abused not only in a wide variety of local ruses such but in wider European politics, particularly as cover for the Far Left in Western Europe and the Far Right in Eastern Europe (more on this subject in the final chapter of Dovid Katz’s Yiddish and Power, Palgrave Macmillan 2015).
Whatever the ins-and-outs, let us all together wish this conference, Diaspora and Heritage: The Shtetl, the greatest success and godspeed. May it delve not only into the brickwork of old mikves and the angle of declivity of old synagogue ceilings, but also into the vibrant, beautiful, unique — and so brutally destroyed — language, folklore, literature and irreplaceable, still understudied Jewish content of the Lithuanian Jewish shtetl in particular; it is known far less than its southern (Polish and Ukrainian) counterparts, in part because the great Yiddish prose writers most read in translation nowadays who focused on the shtetl were indeed southerners (Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem, Y. L. Peretz, Sholem Ash among them).
There are precious few studies of the precise expressions of Jewish religion and traditional Jewish religious, spiritual and kabbalistic life in the Lithuanian shtetl. Hopefully some rabbinic specialists will be on hand to help elucidate some of the fascinating points that arise.
Then there are the irksome issues that arise in shtetl commemorations in our own times which cut to the chase of ongoing efforts to “fix” the history of the Holocaust, particularly in Lithuania where nearly all the shtetl Jews (“Jews in the provinces” in the academic literature) were murdered by the end of 1941. Perhaps attendees will be interested in various of the video archives of the last Litvak shtetl Jews who have disappeared from God’s earth only in the last several years, or even in some of the brief anthologies online. Perhaps the participants will be able to see Lithuanian film maker Saulius Beržinis’s End of the Road. Let us be clear that while the need to preserve and digitize, and make available, the videography of the last quarter century’s expeditions to Litvak shtetls (in Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, northeastern Poland, and eastern Ukraine) is a vital desideratum for cultural preservation, it is in an academic sense no more than raw material for aspects of Shtetl Studies in a scholarly sense, a field this conference could help to jump-start. What better academic goal for such a conference, and what better place than Vilnius?
There is more good news. Next week’s conference can be attended, in principle, by anyone who registers in advance. It is not a “closed conference” like various conferences on the old Jewish cemeteries of Lithuania. Please register here, and come and enjoy this conference on Diaspora and Heritage: The Shtetl, right in the nation’s parliament. Has the shtetl finally made it into the bigtime? See you there.