Leon (Liova) Kaplan (in Lithuanian: Leonas Kaplanas) is a native of Vilnius, Lithuania who settled in Washington DC in the early 1970s. He founded the Washington Conservatory of Music and is a noted pianist and master piano educator. He returned to live in Vilnius in 2004, and has over the past year and a half been one of the people involved in enabling the major series of events that culminated in a march by thousands, unveiling of a multilingual monument, and launch of an exhibition, book, and film, in the small town (former shtetl) Malát (Moletai, northeastern Lithuania) on 29 August 2016. The day marked the 75th anniversary of the 1941 massacre of the town’s 2,000 Jews, then a majority of its population. This year’s day of memorial events there has drawn wide and varied media comment and coverage.
The following is the English text of Liova Kaplan’s speech, provided by his office at the request of Defending History. At the event the speech was given in both English and Lithuanian.
Thank you to all gathered here, thanks to all those whose conscience does not allow them to forget the tragic events that happened here in Molėtai (Malát), and in almost 300 places across Lithuania, seventy-five years ago. Allow me to quote the book Night by Nobel prize laureate, the late Elie Wiesel:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed… Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”
Our preparations for this memorial event began almost a year and a half ago. And even after that much time this horrible night is still not ending for me. Personally, this day is an especially painful day, and one of huge responsibility.
Today I have an oppportunity to answer a few questions which some people have asked of me. One of them, a local from here in Molėtai, was asking: “Why are those Jews coming here? What do they want from us here?”
So I will answer him. My name is Leon Kaplan. I was born in Vilnius. Before the war my mother’s family had been living in Molėtai, and its immediate region, for more than three hundred years. My father’s family was from Kaunas, where they had been living for generations.
During my childhood, I remember so well, we would come here, to this place of murder, every year. Now I’m standing here again, because here is my and my late mother’s family history. Here in the grave it lies, they lie, almost one hundred family members.
Another gentleman, a historian, wanted to know what “interests” I have here. My interests and wishes are very simple. That which I want is, I think, what all of us want. But not everyone has it. I want to have my grandparents, my great grandparents, my uncles, aunts, cousins and their children. But they have all been so brutally humiliated and murdered here. I would like to see their photos in a family album. To listen to them singing and telling jokes. To taste grandmother’s stuffed carp (gefílte fish). To have an opportunity to present them with birthday gifts and to see them unwrap the gifts. And yes, I would like to inherit the old family wardrobe about which Ruta Vanagaitė wrote in her book Mūsiškiai (Our People).
I do not want to see streets, schools and squares named after those whose bloody hands participated in the mass murder. Just the opposite: I would like to see the names of the local people who saved a neighbor, the Righteous of the Nations, immortalized in the names of streets, schools and squares in our Lithuania.
That means, in effect, not just the names of those heroes who saved a life themselves. It means immortalizing the conscience of the Lithuanian nation. I want for all of us to be Us, and not divided into Us and Them. I wish for Lithuania to become an example to other European countries facing painful problems in their histories. And I hope that the relations between Lithuania and Israel will continue to flourish for the benefit of both nations. Is that too much to ask?
I have answered the questions asked of me. So now it is my turn to ask: Your Excellencies, Madame President, Honorable Prime Minister, Honorable Chairwoman of the Jewish Community, don’t you think the time has come for a national memorial to this nation’s Righteous Among the Nations, the Lithuanians who risked everything to save a life, so we could all together light a candle for their memory too?
I am holding here in my hands a 1965 photograph of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the liberation of a group of men from the Dachau concentration camp. Among those men there is also my father. I can see above their heads a sign that reads “Never Forget, Never Forgive.” We promise them not to forget this tragedy and to prevent denial of the historic facts of the Holocaust. For these horrors not to be repeated, we must forever remember the words of Simon Wiesenthal: “For evil to flourish only requires that good men do nothing.”