O P I N I O N
by Olga Zabludoff
When I learned that the municipality of Vilnius had again issued permits for a neo-Nazi march on Lithuania’s March 11th Independence Day, I was disturbed for more than one reason. Why would the government, which has been purporting its wish for reconciliation with its small Lithuanian Jewish community and Jews everywhere, sanction the resurrection of a Holocaust image? Why would the government, which has been purporting its wish to better its tarnished image with worldwide Jewry, accept and endorse the display of the LAF white armbands imprinted with the flaming swastika?
Most survivors of the Lithuanian Holocaust are more traumatized by memories of the white-armbanded Lithuanian Activist Front than by memories of Hitler’s Aryan henchmen. It was the local LAF murderers who began to butcher Jews who had been their neighbors — this even before their German Nazi masters/commanders came upon the scene. It was the LAF who unleashed the Holocaust in Lithuania. It was then that their slogan was born: “Lithuania for Lithuanians!” (Lietuva Lietuviams).
I am well aware of the constitutional right of free speech granted to all citizens in democratic countries. That is not even the issue here. All groups, no matter how repugnant their agendas, have the right to march and to chant. However, the government has the right to regulate when and where they march and chant. Independence Day in Lithuania is a special day on the calendar — a day to commemorate its freedom after nearly fifty years of Soviet repression. It is not a day to glorify the perpetrators and their nightmarish actions that led to the extermination of 95% of Lithuanian Jews and the large proportion of the country’s other ethnic minorities during World War II. It is not a day to honor the Nazi collaborators armed with their nauseating symbols and sickening chants. Is this under the guise of “patriotism” or a flawed, sinister concept of patriotism?
The government should not so appease neo-Nazis as to allow them to take over the heart of Vilnius on the sacred Independence Day, March 11. Under the permit issued by the government, up to 2,000 neo-Nazis are permitted to parade along Gedimino Prospect during prime time. Sure, they should be allowed to demonstrate, but on another day and at another location. Why is it that the human rights activists who plan to counter-march in Vilnius have been relegated to a much later hour — long after the neo-Nazi procession has left its footprints on Vilnius’s major boulevard? Why is there no accommodation for the human rights community to look the neo-Nazis in the face and peacefully and legally confront them?
The governments in various cities in Germany have taken actions regarding neo-Nazi marches: they do not permit these parades along major boulevards. Some forty years ago in Skokie, Illinois, USA (a community with a large number of Holocaust survivors), a group of fascists applied for a permit to march. After years of legal battles, permission for the march was rejected in Skokie. Instead, the group was permitted to march in a secluded area outside of Chicago. In my country there are neo-Nazis too as well as white supremacist groups and other organizations that promote hatred, intolerance and bigotry. But you don’t see them marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, on July 4 — our Independence Day.
Appalled by the government’s tacit approval of annual Independence Day neo-Nazi marches since 2008, I launched, in partnership with DefendingHistory.com, a petition to the Lithuanian Ambassador to the United States urging him to persuade his government to ban the 2012 Vilnius march. On the internet some opponents have asked why a foreigner would dare to interfere in their country’s policies and politics. The answer is very simple for me: Exactly seventy years ago the world remained silent while millions of human beings were gassed in death factories and exterminated in killing fields. We all live on the same planet. We are governed by human rights which have no boundaries.
Let me tell you what I have learned from the petition. If the theme of a petition strikes a universal chord, it travels far and wide, finding its way into remote places on the planet. It takes on a life of its own and connects strangers to one another through a common cause. In the first ten days of its life, the petition drew more than a thousand signatures from 42 countries on every continent. Many were accompanied by poignant statements (reasons for signing the petition). In some cases a single email or post, either from me or from a second party, can generate fifty signatures, and those fifty signatures can multiply into hundreds more.
“This is MY country and if I sign your petition, I will have problems, you understand?”
I stumbled onto a few Lithuanian Facebook websites and posted on their walls. First came a flurry of “Likes.” I had ventured into a network of Lithuanian youth. Then one of them asked: “This is MY country and if I sign your petition, I will have problems, you understand?” I responded that if he believed he would have problems, he should not sign. Within ten minutes his signature came in, followed in rapid succession by half a dozen others from the same town. In unity they felt empowered to speak their collective mind.
This kind of banding together for strength should send a signal to the government in Vilnius that their decent citizens want no part of resurrecting and glorifying neo-fascists. These young men and women are the true patriots who realize that their government’s sponsorship of neo-Nazism will ultimately bring their country down.
Here are some comments from Lithuanians who have signed the petition:
- “I am signing because I love my country.”
- “Our homeland is for all who want to live there.”
- “Even in a tolerant society racial hatred cannot be tolerated.”
- “I am ashamed that my nephews are growing up in Lithuania believing that such hate speech is considered ‘normal’ by the government. More should be done to support marches that are organized by tolerant Lithuanians.”
- “This march is not just about racism and anti-Semitism. It’s also about homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and an overall culture of violence, close-mindedness and hatred.”
- “I have found the Lithuanian government’s failure to acknowledge and accept the Lithuanian people’s part in the only Holocaust to have taken place in Lithuania, the murder of innocent Jews during 1941 to 1944, a disgrace and a shame for all the decent folk of the country.”
- “I don’t like hate and I doubly hate this because I’m ethnically Lithuanian.”
- “The parade in Vilnius on Lithuanian Independence Day is a tragic continuation of centuries of anti-Semitism that has brought shame to much of Europe.”
- “It is a pity that people don’t understand that Nazism will bring mankind to a catastrophe.”
- “It is shameful that neo-Nazis march through the heart of Vilnius on March 11, Independence Day.”
- “Live in peace and love.”
Every time a new signature is registered, the Lithuanian Ambassador to the US receives an email with the signed petition letter and comment (if one is made). Isn’t it time, Mr. Ambassador, to tell your government that the people of Lithuania do not support neo-Nazi parades? Instead of condoning these marches, Lithuanian leaders should be speaking out publicly against them — and certainly against these marches being held in the city center of the capital on Independence Day. Instead of appeasing the ultra-nationalist factions in the country, who have a strong political voice for their numbers, leaders should lend an ear to their worthy citizens who crave tolerance and harmony. Their numbers are greater than you may wish to acknowledge. Lithuanian leaders must realize that to be a viable part of the democratic world, they must take a vigorous stance against those groups who would honor the memory of the LAF and its heinous crimes against humanity. The LAF’s legacy is Lithuania’s shame. Those courageous Lithuanians who rescued Jewish neighbors from the LAF should be Lithuania’s pride.
Here is a percentage breakdown by country of the first 1,100 signatures to the petition:
United States 37.6
Lithuania 22.5 *
United Kingdom 4.9
Russian Federation 2.8
South Africa 1.7
28 other countries 5.6
The 28 other countries represented in the petition include: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Czech Republic, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Finland, Greenland, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, (South) Korea, Lebanon, Mexico, Moldova, Republic of Namibia, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Uruguay.
*Includes at least 31 Lithuanians living in other countries.
The petition is here. For a report on the recent neo-Nazi march which took place in Kaunas on February 16, see here and here. For a parallel petition against the Waffen SS march in Riga, Latvia, please see here.