O P I N I O N
by Geoff Vasil
A colleague sent me a link to an article on the webpage of Lietuvos rytas that appeared in their Sunday edition during the first week of December, 2011 (PDF of the print version; full English translation; report in Defending History.com). The heading on the email said the article was antisemitic.
Lietuvos rytas (“Lithuanian Morning”) has been Lithuania’s main newspaper pretty much since independence from the Soviet Union. The quality of the newspaper has varied over the years, but they at least usually refrain from printing overtly antisemitic material, whereas competing newspapers and their editors-in-chief have made this their bread and butter at certain periods, especially Lietuvos aidas and Respublika, although Lietuvos aidas has all but disappeared as a real newspaper and Respublika appears to have turned into an advertising-driven newspaper distributed for free.
It’s not that Lietuvos rytas has been totally free of anti-minority material over the years. About ten years ago their Sostine (Capital) section ran a strange “article” about how Gypsy women were using magic in Vilnius to compel passers-by to turn over their money. Lietuvos rytas has also featured writings — editorials — by “house Jews” including Arkady Vinokur, who once called the Lithuanian Jewish community “piles of excrement” in print and who has pursued a policy at odds with the vast majority of Lithuanian Jews to secure a large piece of the Holocaust compensation pie for a very small group of government-lackey leaders and politicians. Even so, Lietuvos rytas has traditionally striven to present “both sides” and even printed a letter I wrote them against a plan in parliament to re-create a sort of Disneyland historical Jewish ghetto for tourists.
So I approached the article dubbed antisemitic with an open mind, not quite ready to accept that Lietuvos rytas had completely turned to the dark side of Lithuanian journalism à la Vytas Tomkus, owner of the Respublika group of papers.
I was convinced they had turned to the dark side before finishing the second paragraph in a large, three-full-page spread.
The author, Audronė Urbonaitė, asks seemingly rhetorical questions about the amount the Lithuanian government and parliament approved for compensating Jewish religious and communal real estate over ten years (2013 – 2023). This is the blurb in bold. Then, without preamble, her first paragraph says, “Oh, but first, I’d like to tell you a funny story.”
The story is what passes for history, journalism and reality among Lithuanian journalists and politicians. In short, she claims, when Lithuania returned some Torah scrolls to Jews in Israel as a gesture of good will, with a note attached to that effect, the Jews waiting at the airport (in Jerusalem, she says) made impromptu speeches against Lithuanian Jew-shooters with blood on their hands, everyone grabbed a scroll for him or herself, and then they scattered quickly with their loot. This, she claims, was followed by a bombardment (her word) of Lithuania by international Jewish organizations claiming the scrolls had been given to the wrong people, plus an addition demand: “they” wanted additional relics returned as well.
Let’s leave aside the veracity of her little anecdote for a second. She tells the story in order to make a rhetorical point. Lithuania, she says, was blamed for giving the wrong amount to the wrong people, and couldn’t this happen as well with the plan to compensate Jewish real estate for 128 million litas over ten years? So the story implies that no matter what sort of restitution Lithuania attempts to make for stealing the property of the Jews murdered by Lithuanians in the Holocaust, it will never be enough and someone will always come forward demanding more. It’s a fair point. There is no way to make restitution for the 96% to 98% of Lithuanian Jewish lives snuffed out by “Lithuanian activists” and 128 million litas has always been acknowledged as too little to compensate for Jewish communal and religious real estate, if not by all sides, at least by all the sides who matter. It was felt to be a good symbolic start toward finally making good after 20 years of foot-dragging and false starts.
Returning now to Urbonaitė’s second to seventh paragraphs, I’ve heard these sorts of stories before. This is the kind of gossip young reporters will indulge in when they find themselves together, but a good editor won’t let it into print without serious verification and a complete stylistic reformulation. It’s also the kind of “kitchen talk” certain Lithuanian politicians like to use in private. Just reading it the first time, I freely associated, presciently as it turned out, it with someone who appears in the article later, Vilius Kavaliauskas. Kavaliauskas acted as consultant for some big privatizations in Lithuania, was second in charge at the Lithuanian Journalists Union for some time and became the late Algirdas Brazauskas’s advisor on Jewish restitution. He seems to have continued acting as advisor to Brazauskas’s successor as prime minister Gediminas Kirkilas. Arkady Vinokur acted in the same function except without pay for the current prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, before resigning last June.
Specifically, as I was reading paragraph 2 through 7, I recalled Kavaliauskas telling me the story of how Benjamin Netanyahu invited a Lithuanian delegation to Israel, including Kavaliauskas, to a party at a hotel. Kavaliauskas said it was lavish, but Netanyahu had to leave early. He told the Lithuanian delegation to have a good time. The long and the short of it was that the hotel tried to make the Lithuanian delegation pay for everything and they had to wire home for money or something. In still other words, not Kavaliauskas’s, the Jew Netanyahu jewly jewed them.
I’m no fan of Bibi and certainly don’t think he’s incapable of such things on a much grander scale, but the delight Kavaliauskas took in telling the tale gave me the impression he was really telling a million older tales Lithuanians have told over the years about Jews.
Later, when Kavaliauskas tried to avoid paying me some small sum for work I did for him translating into English an internet tribute he was doing on then-prime minister Brazauskas, I realized there was something deeply psychological going on. He finally claimed he couldn’t pay me, although he wanted to, because I had threatened him. I never threatened him. I did take an interest at that point in his past. I knew he knew that the then-president, Valdas Adamkus, who also delights in such anecdotal kitchen-talk, had served in the Hitler Youth under Nazi command during World War II. I knew because I came across research Kavaliauskas had done on exactly that. Around the same time, not of my doing in any way, the Lithuanian Lustration Committee took an interest in Kavaliauskas’s past as a possible KGB agent. This was around the same time that two or three Lithuanian ministers were more or less forced to resign after documents apparently proving they were stay-behind KGB officers surfaced. I felt sorry for Kavaliauskas and actually wrote the committee a letter in his defense, I guess to show to myself that I wasn’t harboring any hard feelings against him. Around that same time I learned he was in hospital being operated upon for a cancerous tumor. I called him several times to wish him a speedy recovery and asked him if I could bring him anything. Eventually he allowed me to visit him in hospital. I did, and he told me another anecdotal story about a Jewish man and some Lithuanian partisans during the war, the point seeming to be that it was all a very confused time and all sorts of people crossed all sorts of lines for good reasons and bad. That was the last time I saw Vilius Kavaliauskas, and that’s probably for the best. For whatever reason, he insisted I leave the hospital by a certain door, and even escorted me down the stairs to the right door. I wonder if there was a hit-team waiting for me at the other exit. I’ll never know, I guess.
According to eyewitnesses, he did appear with former president Valdas Adamkus at the screening of Uprising of the Enslaved, a film that glorifies the Lithuanian Activist Front fascists who unleashed the Holocaust against defenseless Jewish neighbors.
What didn’t make sense to me as I read over Urbonaitė’s paragraphs 2 through 7 was that Kavaliauskas ought to know there is no international airport in Jerusalem and that any cargo from Lithuania would have most likely transited Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. The angry Jewish mob snatching up Torahs like some kind of Black Friday at Walmart’s in the United States, while denouncing “Lithuanian Jew-shooters” (the compound word “Jew-shooter” is a Lithuanian invention) was a nice touch, recalling both the Jewish mob outside the Sanhedrin calling for Jesus’s execution and the Roman soldiers dividing up his robes during the Passion.
Whether Kavaliauskas gave birth to this tale or someone else, the rest of Urbonaitė’s “article” seems to be informed by him, including the idea that Brazauskas wanted no more than 50 million litas paid out in compensation, that Jewish negotiator Rabbi Andrew Baker personally threatened him (as he alleged to me I had threatened him?), that Baker wished him dead, and so on. One gem comes where the author is describing how the Lithuanian Jewish community sold some of their real estate to Austria years ago so Austria could set up an embassy in Vilnius. “[…] No one will believe that the Jews selling [the real estate] didn’t know how to count and [gave the Austrians] a bargain.” Oh those tricky money-grubbing Jews.
In between antisemitic comments and anecdotes, Urbonaitė does three things: she travels to some dilapidated wooden synagogues in former shtetls where there are no living Jews, she asks real estate experts what the fair market value of such buildings are and she talks to Moishe Bairak, head of a tiny group of Jews in Kaunas who is perhaps the only “religious” Jew Arkady Vinokur and Emanuel Zinger can point to as being outside the auspices of the Lithuanian Jewish community organization.
She discusses the current state of the wooden synagogues at two sites where there are no longer any Jews since they were all murdered at the onset of World War II. Her descriptions aren’t bad, but they lack any cultural context.
Her information on real estate assessment focuses on methods or methodologies, fair market value being only one. Apparently Lithuanian real estate assessors recently used a different method, which stopped in 2005. There is also what she calls the methodology of assessing how much it would cost to restore a building. This is all very interesting, I’m sure, but she doesn’t come to any clear conclusions, and she doesn’t consider any other possible methods. Instead, the point seems to be that most of the sites on some list by a former government of Jewish communal/religious sites which should be returned to Jewish organizations or compensated with money do not appear on another list of real estate kept by a separate bureaucracy. The other point seems to be that according to fair market value, the sites on the first list probably aren’t worth 128 million litas. Implying those tricky Jews made out like bandits again.
Her discussion/interview with Moishe Bairak contains numerous slurs by him, including the favorite old canard of Lithuanian antisemites that most of the Jews in Lithuania today aren’t Lithuanian Jews, i.e. aren’t Litvaks, but are Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union. Bairak claims that chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish community Simon Alperovich has somehow “sold out” to the Americans and isn’t interested in reviving Jewish culture, then he goes on to try to guilt trip whatever American conscience he thinks is reading the interview by saying how strange it is that America so famous for her democracy is supporting the creation of an undemocratic fund to distribute Lithuanian compensation. Undemocratic because Bairak isn’t given status equal to the Lithuanian Jewish community, never mind his congregation consists of about a dozen people while the Lithuanian Jewish community represents pretty much every other Jew in Lithuania, minus Arkady Vinokur and Emanuel Zinger. Urbonaitė then goes back to Kavaliauskas, who confirms that Bairak is being ignored by “representatives of other Jewish organizations”.
Urbonaitė’s “article” contains a number of slurs targeting Lithuanian Jews, Jews, Simon Alperovich and others, by both named and unnamed sources. The antisemitic statements alone are enough to bring a case to the Journalists’ Ethics Commission for violating rules and laws against fomenting ethnic strife. As if it weren’t strange enough that Lietuvos rytas chief editors let this verbal diarrhea grace and disgrace their pages, Vytas Tomkus, the antisemitic owner of the anti-Semitic Respublika group of newspapers, Lietuvos rytas’s competition, reprinted it in an edited form without attribution in his Vakaro žinios newspaper (PDF; report). He only managed to insert one more factual error into the anti-Jewish hit-piece, and that only in a photo caption about some supposed fisticuffs at the Choral Synagogue in 1995. The incident (misreported, and without context) happened in 2004.
Why did Vilius Kavaliauskas decide to come forward at this time to stir up the pot of Lithuanian relations with the ever-smaller Lithuanian Jewish minority in Lithuania? Is it, as Moishe Bairak tries to pin on Simon Alperovich in the article, a case of Russian influence interceding in internal Lithuanian politics? Is it the Zinger-Vinokur-Bairak cabal hiring a former master of PR and a personal friend to come to the aid of their failing project to wrest control of as much compensation as possible? I’m afraid it’s none of the above. My personal feeling is it’s for internal consumption by Lithuanian politicians deadlocked in a decision on next year’s budget under the Conservative government of Andrius Kubilius. First Snoras Bank failed, then Lithuania failed to secure a loan at the interest rate they expected, then critics came out of the woodwork to denounce Kubilius’s budget policies. The 128 million litas represents an easy target, Jews, in a larger political campaign against Kubilius.
Speaking of easy targets, Hitler Youth veteran and former president Valdas Adamkus recently published yet another autobiography which contains details of how he and others managed to call the prosecutors off Yitzhak Arad, Jewish partisan and former Yad Vashem director, for alleged war crimes. See, when there’s a political will, it is possible to interfere with the highly politicized work of Lithuanian prosecutors, despite everything Lithuanian representatives have said about their inability to influence prosecutors to publicly drop the absurd investigations of war crimes against Jewish partisans Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis. The two women are much easier targets than Israeli veteran and world-famous author Arad.
Just as Jewish women and children were much easier targets for Lithuanian “freedom fighters” than Soviet troops.