O P I N I O N
by Olga Zabludoff
I commend Didier Bertin’s knowledgeable and sensitive observations in his article “Lithuania and the Memory of the Holocaust.” My comments here are more in the form of a PS to Mr. Bertin’s words. My take-off point is his reference to the term “Double Genocide,” a government-endorsed concept that has been bandied about in Lithuanian political circles in recent times. But more about this later. Mr. Bertin borrows the term for application in a different dual context: the original genocide of the Jewish people and the current movement on the part of the Lithuanian government to neutralize if not to obliterate the remembrance of the Holocaust.
Last week I visited a photographic exhibition at the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. Sponsored by the Embassy of Lithuania, the exhibit was titled “The First Lithuanians in Texas.” The introduction to the exhibit explained that because the first Lithuanian immigrants to the United States had quickly assimilated into the mainly German community in which they had settled, their contributions to the economic and cultural development of Texas have never been recognized or commemorated. These first Lithuanian immigrants to the US constituted a small group of Evangelical Lutherans from Lithuania Minor who arrived in Yorktown, De Witt County, in South Texas in 1852.
The exhibit is based on more than thirty years of archival research and will travel and has traveled extensively. The research into this ethnic group’s migration has triggered the erection of historical markers by historical commissions, numerous articles in the press, archives implanted in the San Antonio Institute of Texan Cultures and the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture in Chicago — all this to preserve the memory of, to recognize and to honor the contributions of, the first Lithuanian immigrants to the US.
That is actually very worthy and commendable. They are preserving and extolling a true history of a small segment of their ancestry. But what I find ironic is the double standard: the expression of such national pride in their legacy in the US while simultaneously often omitting the memory of a once-thriving Lithuanian-Jewish community (except in events intended as PR for Jewish, American and other Western audiences). The Litvak community existed for centuries throughout Lithuania. Its contributions to the nation’s economy and culture were enormous. Yet the living remnants of that community, which include Holocaust survivors who had heroically resisted the Nazis, are currently being harassed and hounded by the Lithuanian government; while 96% of the last of the Litvak population lies mainly in mass grave sites that have melted into the landscape. In many cases the markers to these killing sites, put up thanks to Britain’s Lord Janner, were placed to be invisible from the adjacent main roads.
Having said this, it would not be entirely fair and balanced if I failed to mention the various initiatives of the Lithuanian government in recent times — initiatives focused on repairing the Jewish problems they face both in their country and with world Jewry in general.
The year 2011 has been proclaimed a Holocaust Commemorative Year in Lithuania, but the goodwill inspired was sadly more than counterbalanced by the parliament’s proclamation of a second commemorative year, one which in effect honors the killers, the members of the Lithuanian Activist Front and other “national heroes” who began to butcher Jewish neighbors in dozens of towns before the Germans had even arrived. It is morally incongruous to issue simultaneous years of commemoration — one for the victims, and one for the local participants in the genocide — and expect to have any good come of it for the country.
In early July memorial ceremonies were held at the mass grave at Ponár (Paneriai), where more than 70,000 Jews from the Vilna (Vilnius) area were murdered in the Holocaust. The following week a commemoration was held at the killing site in Plungyán (Plungė), where 1,800 Jews had been murdered. Both events were attended by Lithuanian dignitaries and foreign visitors who were embarrassed and appalled to discover that the memorials at these killing sites had been freshly desecrated. The filthy antisemitic graffiti was quickly covered up and cleaned up, but not a single arrest has been made and all mention of the desecration was avoided. These crimes of hatred appear to go uninvestigated in any serious way. And so it is with many of the “goodwill” gestures of the Lithuanian government: what it does with one hand it undoes with the other.
One has to question also the motives of the government in what appears on the surface to be an improved attitude toward their tiny Jewish minority, toward the Holocaust in general and other issues which interest world Jewry. But Lithuania’s new politics of the Holocaust is only one step up from revisionism: They are now marketing a new concept — “Double Genocide” — that equates the suffering and annihilation of the Jews under the Nazi regime with the pain and oppression of the Lithuanian people under the Soviet regime. In fact, they created a commission within their government to arrive at, and to export, these findings.
Cynical as it seems, I have to conclude that the motives of the government are more self-serving than soul-searching. Lithuania is out to improve its tarnished image in the world, especially as a member of the European Union. Strong nationalistic views dominate the society while their tiny Jewish population doesn’t carry much political weight.
It is a difficult balancing act, one that may not be possible. Until Lithuanian leaders realize that they cannot appease both world Jewry and far-right extremist factions simultaneously with two-track politics, their future will be as scarred as their past. I continue to live in the hope that enlightened Lithuanian people will themselves find the voice and courage to stand up proud and tall against the double-game policies of their government that are doing so much damage, and which could so rapidly be turned into constructive energy for partnership and genuine reconciliation.