Joseph Levinson, 93, Holocaust Historian, Honored in London; But Q & A session is manipulated by translator

Joseph Levinson of Vilnius, born in March 1917  — an anti-Nazi war veteran, founding figure of Vilnius’s ‘Green House’, historian of the Lithuanian Holocaust, and author of The Book of Sorrow (Vilnius 1997) and The Shoah in Lithuania (English edition: Vilnius 2006)was honored in London’s Central Synagogue at a splendid event on Wednesday evening 1 September 2010. Details here.

Elegantly chaired by the synagogue’s Rabbi Barry Marcus, a scion of luminous Lithuanian rabbis, himself born in South Africa, it included speeches by Iain Duncan Smith (‘IDS’), Britain’s Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and the Israeli ambassador to the UK, HE Ron Prosor. The Central Synagogue’s hall was packed.  [Added 20 September 2010: See the 2 Sept report in The Jewish News, and Simon Round’s interview with Mr Levinson in The Jewish Chronicle.]

Left to right: Rabbi Barry Marcus, Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor, Vilnius Holocaust historian Joseph Levinson and UK secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith. Photo by John R. Rifkin. Courtesy Rabbi Barry Marcus & Central Synagogue.

HITB, whose editor attended the event, is sorry to have to report that the final portion of the evening, comprising Mr Levinson’s replies to questions from the audience, was manipulated by the Lithuanian translator.

Instead of being translated into English by a neutral interpreter, Levinson had to do his best to navigate the ‘reformulations’ of the questions, in Lithuanian, with which he was presented. His own replies were again filtered through the prism of contemporary Lithuanian establishment style PR on Jewish issues. Whether on the Holocaust per se, on today’s Holocaust education in Lithuania,  or current antisemitism in the country, the two-layered ‘filtering’ resulted in Mr Levinson’s views not being properly conveyed to the London audience. His son Alex, who accompanied his father throughout, was visibly taken aback. All parties were careful not to let the incident mar an otherwise exquisitely organized event in the British capital. It was an honest, innocent mistake. Synagogue officials naturally far from the nuances of Lithuanian-Jewish Holocaust issues had graciously accepted the ‘kind offer’ of a Lithuanian translator at the last moment.

On a related note, many in the audience, including a proud contingent of London’s Holocaust Survivors,  called repeatedly for the guest of honor to speak in his native Yiddish (instead of Lithuanian, which he had to speak because the translator did not know Yiddish). When the awkwardly manipulated Q & A session ended, Rabbi Marcus enabled the evening to end on a high note by whispering to Mr Levinson the request that he say some concluding words in Yiddish, which the audience cherished (video here thanks to Chuni Kahan).

Joseph Levinson’s Book of Sorrow provides locations and photographs of over 200 mass graves where nearly all of the Lithuanian Jewish population were murdered and lie buried throughout the country. His Shoah in Lithuania was the first work to collect and make available to a wide readership the text of the genocidal leaflets of the L.A.F. (Lithuanian Activist Front) nationalists, calling for murder of Jewish citizens even before the Nazis arrived. The London audience was not even apprised of this, Mr Levinson’s best known achievement, which is highly controversial in Lithuania, where the murderers are sometimes regarded as heroic ‘anti-Soviet partisans’ (see e.g. V. Brandisauskas’s critique of A. Liekis’s glorification of the murderers, here; also the panels glorifying the L.A.F. in the state-sponsored Genocide Museum on the capital’s main boulevard). [See for background on the L.A.F. and the 1941 Provisional Government extracts from The Shoah in Lithuania ― 4 meg PDF here; low res here].  The London audience was left with the translator’s impression of a country that seems to excel unproblematically in Holocaust education and commemoration. She answered a number of questions herself, without bothering to refer to the speaker, sometimes on highly sensitive issues. Among them was the question of who counts as a survivor and how many there are in Lithuania. The questioner was naturally interested in Mr Levinson’s views.

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