Is this Really What You Want To Do, Mr. Executive Director of Yivo?


by Milan Chersonski

Milan Chersonski (Chersonskij), longtime editor (1999-2011) of Jerusalem of Lithuania, quadrilingual (English-Lithuanian-Russian-Yiddish) newspaper of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, was previously (1979-1999) director of the Yiddish Folk Theater of Lithuania, which in Soviet times was the USSR’s only Yiddish amateur theater company. The views he expresses in DefendingHistory are his own. This is an authorized English version (updated by the author) by Ludmilla Makedonskaya (Los Angeles). Russian original.
Photo: Milan Chersonski at this desk at the Jewish Community of Lithuania (image © 2012 Jurgita Kunigiškytė). Milan Chersonski section.

Dear Mr. Jonathan Brent,

A little over a year ago, on 12 September 2011, I wrote my first open letter to you. I wrote that it is inappropriate to hold an event commemorating the Jews of Vilna who were victims of genocide together with the minister of foreign affairs of the Republic of Lithuania Audronis Ažubalis on the premises of Yivo. If you did not then find time to read my letter, you can find it now online.

I was, of course, not the only one to protest against A. Ažubalis being invited as guest of honor at the event. And the protests were not misplaced. Prior to your invitation A. Ažubalis allowed himself (and, alas, not for the first or last time) an antisemitic escapade, demonstrating his actual political position regarding our small Jewish minority here.

Following all the protests, you decided to go ahead with the Yivo meeting producing a kind of “change in the seating plan”: you didn’t cancel the event with Foreign Minister Ažubalis, but changed its plan: Ažubalis’s address to the audience gathered in Yivo for the event commemorating the victims of the Jews of Vilna was read not by the minister, but by the Consul General in New York of the Republic of Lithuania. While he was reading , the “main star,” Ažubalis himself, having deliberately come late to the meeting allegedly because of “being incredibly busy,” quietly slipped into the room and sat there like a mouse in its lair until being called to the stage late in the evening to receive applause from a pre-coached audience.

I read about the event from a report published in Yiddish in the newspaper Forverts (6 Oct  2011, page 4). According to the newspaper article, the evening was boring and unproductive. But apparently you were quite satisfied with this micro-drama and it seems to have inspired you to a new escapade.

Which takes us to why I am writing to you a second time.

And I do so again openly because, it seems to me, you did not draw any conclusions from the meeting with Ažubalis. You continue to work with the same “establishment” which exploits the so-called “Jewish issue” as a kind of speculation, to achieve personal as well as foreign and domestic policy goals that have nothing to do either with the tragedy of the Jewish people in Lithuania, its current incarnation, or our hopes for its future survival and development.

Looking at the Yivo website, which presents the program for your forthcoming lectures, I found a familiar name among the lecturers ― Markas Zingeris. This means that you are expanding cooperation with the Lithuanian “establishment,” which you love so much, and have invited M. Zingeris to lecture at Yivo.

OMISSION: The announcement for guest lecturer Markas Zingeris fails to mention that he is the official “Advisor on Genocide” to the Prime Minister of Lithuania.

Presenting M. Zingeris’s relevant biography in the schedule of your lectures, you call him a “distinguished Lithuanian-Jewish poet and writer.” Bestowing this title upon M. Zingeris, you could well be misleading the potential audience of the lecture.

Dear Mr. Executive Director! I would like to deal with the titles, which you so generously bestow upon M. Zingeris. Can we consider M. Zingeris a Jewish writer? If one of the main characters in one of  M. Zingeris’s four novels is a Jew, that’s not quite yet a reason to call M. Zingeris a Jewish writer.

Of course nobody wants to take away Mr. Zingeris’s accomplishments or awards in Lithuanian letters. His earliest awards were from industrial enterprises in Kaunas: in 1984 he got an award of a cotton and knitwear production association named after Petrauskas for a book of poems “The House of Cedar.” For his book of poems “Evening in Childhood” in 1989, he was presented with an award by the Kaunas factory of furniture fabrics called “Audejas.” In 2000, he received a prize entitled “One Lit” ― “for the impressive incarnation of kaleidoscopic life in a collection ‘Illusion’” (One lit is a small monetary unit in Lithuania. ― M. Kh.). Moreover, in 2003, he received a memorable award on the occasion of the invitation to Lithuania to join NATO.

This is not the issue. Moreover, no one disputes M. Zingeris’s Jewish origin. But the national origin of the writer and the national identity of his creative works are not necessarily one and the same. Anton Chekhov wrote the story “Rothschild’s Violin” but that does not mean that he was a Jewish writer. Russian writer Yevgeny Chirikov created a drama “Jews.” At the beginning of the last century it was a great success on many stages in Europe, but E. Chirikov was and is a Russian writer. And William Shakespeare wrote a tragedy “The Merchant of Venice,” but no one is saying that he was a Jew on account of that.

But neither is that the issue. It is a question of integrity and loyalty to the country’s small and struggling Jewish community, and the role played in Lithuania by a tiny number of “government Jews.”

Two Brothers

TALENTED BROTHERS ― Emanuelis (left) and Markas Zingeris. But do they represent Lithuanian Jewry? Emanuelis signed the 2008 Prague Declaration. Markas is official “advisor on genocide” to the prime minister.

According to the advertisement on your web page, dear Mr. Brent, M. Zingeris “repeatedly found himself in the center of the struggle for the fate of Lithuanian Jewry.”

I would like to know what “center of the struggle for the fate of Lithuanian Jewry” you are referring to. What do you know about it? Where, when and who created it? What fighting “for the fate of the Lithuanian Jews” did this “center” do? What role in this struggle did Mr. Zingeris play or is he still supposedly playing ?

Talking about Markas Zingeris’ public and official career, one can’t but mention the significant role which his younger brother Emanuelis Zingeris plays in his career.

In 1988 the Culture Society of Jews in Lithuania was established in Vilnius to protect the interests of the Jewish national minority in Lithuania, and a teacher of Lithuanian literature E. Zingeris was elected its chairman. In 1992 this body was transformed into the Jewish Community of Lithuania (JCL), and the famous Jewish writer Gregory Kanovich and Emanuelis Zingeris were elected as its co-chairmen.

Markas Zingeris, who is ten years older than Emanuelis, has never been elected or  appointed to any position in the culture society or the subsequent Jewish Community of Lithuania. None. So no one ever authorized him to represent the community and to protect its interests in any “center of the struggle for the fate of Lithuanian Jewry.”

Some biographical publications on Markas Zingeris stated that he was the leader of the Lithuanian social “Center for Understanding Between Lithuanians and Jews.” Where and when did such a center operate?  What is the address if it exists (because for sure, we residents of Vilnius have never been able to find it). What questions did it deal with? What were its activities, what results did it achieve? Did M. Zingeris reach any understanding between Jews and Lithuanians? Neither the center itself, nor any trace of its work can be found. Was the center perhaps a profoundly secretive organization?

M. Zingeris’ younger brother Emanuelis has repeatedly become a member of  the Lithuanian Seimas (parliament), but he was not elected by popular vote in single-member constituencies; he had to be pushes through via his party list ― the very right-wing Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (or the same organizations under different names), led by Vytautas Landsbergis, who can be called E. Zingeris’s godfather in politics.

On 23 February 1997 E. Zingeris publicly bolted from the Jewish Community of Lithuania by submitting a written application for cessation of his membership, and since then he hasn’t had any connection with the Jewish community, while abroad he is still trumpeted by government representatives as the leader of Lithuanian Jews. It should be particularly noted that E. Zingeris is not only the only Jew in the Lithuanian parliament, but also the only Jew in Europe who signed the infamous 2008 Prague Declaration, in which the crimes of Stalinism are equated with the Holocaust. I want to believe that the Jews beyond the borders of Lithuania understand that the Jewish Community of Lithuania did not give E. Zingeris any mandate to sign the Declaration, or indeed any declarations, let alone those which aim at the destruction of the memory of the Holocaust as a unique historic phenomenon.

The Case of Y. Arad and the Collapse of the International Commission

Perhaps you, Mr. Brent, consider the center of the struggle for the fate of Lithuanian Jewry to be the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania (hereafter: the Red-Brown Commission. ― M. Kh.), created in 1998 in Vilnius on the decision of Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus? This presidential Commission, objected to by Holocaust survivors and their advocates,  has played an important role in both brothers Zingeris’ professional careers.

Internationally recognized historians agreed to investigate the crimes of the Nazis and their collaborators in Lithuania during World War II as Commission members or members of its committee of experts: Sir Martin Gilbert (UK); former Director General of Yad Vashem, Dr. Yitzhak Arad (Israel); Prof. Gershon Greenberg (USA); Prof. Conrad Quiet (Australia); Prof. Dov Levin (Israel); also, the  Lithuanian origin historians Prof. Saulius Sužiedėlis. Then there was the Commission’s chairman: the “official court Jew” of the ruling conservative “establishment” Emanuelis Zingeris. There is nothing you can do to find for this conservative establishment a more valuable Jewish figure.

Markas Zingeris was appointed to coordinate the work of the Commission’s academicians – a person without any relevant academic degrees, who by university education or the nature of all his previous work has not proved to be either a professional historian or a professional organizer of academic research. Hardly anyone will be able to explain on the basis of what human and creative qualities, except, of course, family ties with Emanuelis Zingeris, that this particular coordinator was appointed for the Red-Brown Commission.

Thanks to the hard work of the presidential Commission’s historians three volumes of bilingual (Lithuanian and English) research and documents were published: 1. Liudas Truska and Vygandas Vareikis, The Preconditions for the Holocaust. Antisemitism in Lithuania (Second Half of the 19th Century – June 1941); 2. Christoph Dieckmann, Vytautas Toleikis, and Rimantas Zizas. Murders of Prisoners of War and of Civilian Population in Lithuania. 1941 – 1944;  3. Christoph Dieckmann and Saulius Sužiedėlis. The Persecution and Mass Murder of Lithuanian Jews During Summer and Fall of 1941.

The publication of these research volumes along with important illustrative documents inflicted a severe blow on the policies pursued by Lithuanian “establishment.” The restoration of the true picture of the prewar events and the first months of the war in Lithuania started with these three volumes. This caused discontent in the “establishment” which seeks to present the history of Lithuania during World War II as the struggle of Lithuanian patriots “against the retreating Soviet and coming Nazi invaders.” The publication of the three volumes of academic research contradicted the intentions of the ruling “establishment” and the question of replacing the anti-Nazi academic membership of the Commission was introduced into the de-facto agenda.

The only way to make this intention become reality was via the traditional method of political intrigues: to compromise excellent individuals. The former Soviet partisan Yitzhak Arad (Rudnitskiy), IDF reserve brigadier general, one of the world’s greatest authorities on Holocaust studies was chosen as the victim to be compromised.

The details of the Lithuanian prosecutor’ failed  attempts to manufacture incriminating evidence against Yitzhak Arad were exposed at the time in the Jewish community’s newspaper, Jerusalem of Lithuania.

So how did The Brothers Zingeris ― Emanuelis (chairman) and Markas (coordinator) act when that situation arose? Did they publicly defend the wrongfully Holocaust survivor and Jewish scholar? No. They kept silent. They did not rise to defend their colleague on the Commission, on whom prosecutors wanted to inflict suspicion of war crimes in the absence of any iota of evidence. They kept silent even when prosecutor Rita Vaytekunienė announced all over Lithuania that she was looking for former partisans Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis as witnesses to the crime, though the law enforcement authorities knew precisely where they were to be found. Their announcement had the “desired result” when endless antisemitic commentators on the internet had a field day writing the nonsense about the Jews “hiding their war criminals.”

What Does the Writer Markas Zingeris Say about Israel?

Dear Mr. Brent, you might be interested in the attitude of your forthcoming lecturer M. Zingeris concerning the existence of the State of Israel.

In November of 2001 he traveled to Israel, where, according to him, 70 years earlier his relative had migrated from the Lithuanian town Kražiai (in Yiddish Krozh). And on 4 April 2002, on page 4 of the leading newspaper in Lithuania Lietuvos rytas, M. Zingeris’s article “The bleeding Middle East ― far and near” appeared.

According to M. Zingeris, the relationship between Israel and the surrounding Arab states made a bad impression on him. When traveling in a taxi around Jerusalem Mr. M. Zingeris communicates with two Jews, taxi drivers, who are natives of the city. Both taxi drivers “admitted that East Jerusalem should become the capital of the future Palestinian state.” Conversation with taxi drivers is probably a vulgar journalistic ruse, sometimes, allowing the author to express his own risky opinion, but freeing himself from responsibility for his words: you never know what a virtually constructed  talkative taxi driver might go ahead and tell you.

M. Zingeris calls establishing of Israel “the Zionist vision” and goes on to say that “for the Zionist vision peace and openness to neighbors are more dangerous than war.”

According to the writer, “Arab and Jewish hearts, hungry for peace and life, can bring peace ― however naive that may sound.” Naive enough, to say the least.

Mr. Zingeris contends that the “the returnees’ demographic output will be more effective than the horrific actions of suicide.” He nevertheless insists: “With pain I understand that tolerance and coexistence with the ‘others’ is more important than  one people’s  ‘national dreams’ (my emphasis―M. Kh.) For in the past we have gained not only strength, but intoxication.”

In essence, the author of the article “The bleeding Middle East ― far and near” suggests that the people of Israel voluntarily surrender their state to the Arab environs and  surrender themselves to the mercy of Arab victors, by declining to keep on strengthening their unique state, the only democratic state in the Middle East, and agree to mass return of supposed refugees.

Mr. Zingeris’s diagnosis of the Middle East situation: “However sad it may be, it appears that the moment of my ancestor’s farewell with my mother in Lithuania, illuminated by the sunrise, seems to have become the history, which a writer, and not a soldier can revive”…

Four year later, on 1 May 2006, speaking at a diplomatic reception hosted by the Israeli Embassy in the Baltics, M. Zingeris “forgot” about the “Zionist project.” By that time, there had been an orchestrated switcharound: the director of the State Jewish Museum named after Vilna Gaon once again appeared in the Lithuanian Seimas on the right wing Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat list, and the Jewish Museum director’s chair was handed from the younger brother Emanuelis to the older brother Markas in the midst of a concocted “fair” competition.

Congratulating the ambassador of Israel on the occasion of the 58th anniversary of the state’s declaration of independence, the new director of the State Jewish Museum named after the Vilna Gaon, M. Zingeris, declared that he always felt Israeli: “When I hear of an Israeli in a spacecraft or an Israeli Nobel Laureate, I’m proud and I tell my children that we are also Jewish. When blood accumulates in the media and the frenzy from a terrorist explosion in Jerusalem disco or in a Tel Aviv market is made known, I tell my children: Oh, I feel like I’m Israeli.”

Not a word about the “national dream of one nation,” the faultiness of the “Zionist project,” the need to make East Jerusalem the capital of an Arab state or the resolution of Israel’s problems through the creation of a single state for two peoples. If we compare this speech with M. Zingeris’ article in Lietuvos rytas, you would think that they were written by two different people.

I will not tell you here about M. Zingeris’s performance as director of the state Jewish museum named after the Vilna Gaon. I have published my views in Jerusalem of Lithuania.

What does “Empathy” have to do with it?

And finally, on to the topic of the forthcoming lecture at Yivo. According to the text of the  lecture schedule, M. Zingeris’s lecture “will be devoted to the need to create empathy between Lithuanian Catholics and Jews living in Lithuania and abroad, as well as explanation and discussion how the history of Lithuania must be rewritten after the 45 years of Soviet occupation, when the memory of their presence was suppressed.”

Dictionaries explain the meaning of the word empathy (derived from Greek empatheia) as a person’s ability to parallel experience of the emotions that arise in another person while communicating with one another.

The word empathy does not necessarily imply sympathy of one people toward another people. Collective empathy, demonstration of one nation’s sympathy to another nation, is in fact a political act that has nothing to do with sympathy and empathy between two individuals.

I must admit I do not understand “the need to create empathy between Lithuanian Catholics and Jews living inside and outside of Lithuania.” What does “empathy” have to do with it? Why should this feeling-requirement be applied only to the Lithuanian Catholics and Lithuanian Jews all over  the world? And what about freethinking Lithuanians or the ones with other religious beliefs? Should all Lithuanian Jews practice Orthodox Judaism to get to the mystical sphere of “empathy”?

Who has the right to determine “how the Jews should be written into the history of Lithuania after the memory of their presence was suppressed for 45 years of Soviet occupation”? Without anyone’s orders Jews have been part of Lithuanian history for six centuries.

What does M. Zingeris know about the postwar history of Lithuanian Jews that he sums up in the two words “Soviet occupation”? Does he know that after the war Jews opened two Jewish schools and two kindergartens, in which they collected orphaned Jewish children? Does he know how they created the amateur art groups and gave performances in Yiddish? Are these facts mentioned in today’s Jewish Museum headed by M. Zingeris? What does he know about the history of the Jewish amateur performances, revived in 1956 and continuing to this day?

Where was Mr. Zingeris when his people took part  in the struggle against the antisemitism of the Soviet state and against mass assimilation? Did he fight for the preservation of the Yiddish language, the Jewish cultural heritage, literature, music, theater? How did he show his attitude to the struggle for free emigration of Jews in 1971 -1972 under the slogan “Let my people go”?

I dare say, Mr. Brent, you have picked another card from the same deck from which you took Mr. Ažubalis a year ago. This only shows that you, as the executive director of the Yivo have, to put it mildly, a very one-sided, highly politicized view of the profound and painful associated with the Jews in Lithuania.

What can the director of the Jewish museum tell your New York audience about the postwar history of  Lithuanian Jews, if there is no mention of this period, or the Yiddish cultural life we struggled to maintain,  in the very museum of which is the director?

You really think this is a lecturer representing Lithuanian Jewry, its literature, history and scholarship, don’t you?

Oh yes, and your notice of his qualifications seems to have just left out his current high office in the Lithuanian state: “official advisor on genocide to the prime minister of Lithuania,” a euphemism for the Double Genocide (“two equal holocausts”) movement emanating from the Baltic states and other parts of Eastern Europe. Perhaps your audience will ask the speaker what he thinks about the central document of that movement, the 2008 Prague Declaration, which the Commission he served did so very much to support?


After publication of an earlier version of this article, the Yivo lecture announcement was amended to include opening remarks by former US ambassador to Lithuania Anne Derse, who is misidentified as the current ambassador. The attitude of the US embassy (/State Department) during Ambassador Derse’s tenure has been, in the opinion of, rather one-sided (see e.g. here and here), covering for Lithuanian state Holocaust Obfuscation, even the 2012 reburial of the 1941 Nazi puppet PM, via an array of  PR projects. By contrast, some United States congressmen have spoken up with moral clarity. It is a curiosity that the congressional letter cites the authority of the same Wiesenthal Center scholar that the US embassy effectively blackballed from the Summer Literary Seminars program in Vilnius, bowing to the wishes of local far-right elements.

A chronology of the embassy’s lackluster record under Ambassador Derse is provided here. Rumors in Washington DC are rife concerning possible circles of undue policy influence including a single family’s ties to the Lithuanian embassy and its “Sunflower” group of supposed American Litvaks, a certain section of the DC Holocaust museum, the State Department and its personnel at the US embassy in Vilnius. While no conscious wrongdoing is suspected, the affair illustrates the excessive degree of influence the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry is exerting, directly and indirectly, upon the field of Holocaust studies and commemoration internationally.

But a fellow Western ambassador had a simpler explanation: “This particular ambassador was determined to get the restitution bill through parliament at all costs as her own success story in Vilnius, and for that there was a lobby in Washington. In return she had to cave on all sorts of issues where there is no great current concern in Washington, including the truth about World War II and the Holocaust, silence on glorification of Nazi collaborators and failing to speak up about antisemitic outrages like the independence day neo-Nazi parades in both major cities.”  There have been other interpretations concerning the shift in US policy toward Holocaust Obfuscation.

Among the “American issues” there is one that rises above any individual ambassador or particular administration in Washington. And that one is the honor and sacrifice of the United States of America in saving Europe (and ultimately the world) from Hitler and, with its allies. defeating Nazi Germany. The new Double Genocide doubletalk, with its “equal totalitarian regimes” commissionesque spin, and its local Nazi “heroes” who get reburied and glorified, its anti-Nazi partisans who get defamed, is rapidly sliding into a postmodernist mush of confusion and crossfire in which the role of America and her allies in World War II is unacceptably distorted, downgraded and diminished. America should not stand silently by. It possible to disagree with even a close ally on matters of history.

By contrast, the US ambassador who preceded her, John Cloud, had a record of consistent support for Holocaust survivors; fearless criticism of antisemitism, racism and homophobia; respect for the diversity of opinion in civil society and for support for the rights of American citizens living in town, whether or not their views were approved on each occasion by the Lithuanian government’s PR gurus. It is sincerely hoped that the soon-to-arrive ambassador will revert to these proud American traditions of support for human rights, openness and rapid condemnation of attempts to glorify Holocaust collaborators and perpetrators.

The revised Yivo announcement:

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