- O P I N I O N
- Questions from Mindaugas Peleckis and answers from Dovid Katz (Text of documents sent by email on 21 August 2010).
- [Update: This interview resulted in the article published in Čikagos aidas on 16 Dec 2010. The unabridged text was posted on this page on 23 Dec 2010, by agreement of the interviewer and the interviewee.]
1. I would like to talk to you about Jewish-Lithuanian relationships. You’ve published the wonderful book ‘Lithuanian Jewish Culture’, which sheds light on many things concerning Jewish life in Lithuania and around it. What do you think about when Lithuanians became, so to say, antisemitic? In the 19th and 20th centuries? Or earlier?
Thank you Mindaugas, for your kind words, and for taking the time to speak with me. For some 600 years, Lithuania arguably had the best record of tolerance toward its Jewish minority, a heritage hailing from the days of the Grand Duchy, and the grand tolerance toward Others inherent in multitheist empires, and of course, aspects of that grand multitheist heritage continued on for centuries even after the official adoption of Christianity. But it is not only about religion, it is a testament to the Lithuanian people that tolerance was for so many centuries a hallmark of Lithuania, all the more so in the centuries when western and central Europe were sinking in a bloodshed borne of nothing more than religious differences.
From Gediminas and Vytautas through to the twentieth century, Lithuania was a paragon of light in building a multicultural society where diversity is the norm. Even in the interwar Republic of Lithuania, where there were many issues, problems and sadly antisemitic episodes, the record of tolerance and non-violence was one of the best (or the best) in all of Eastern Europe. We must never lose the comparative context or the temporal context.
2. Why and how did antisemitism emerge, as Jews and Lithuanians earlier were friends, good colleagues etc?
Well, besides reformulated elements of the older, premodern Christian antisemitism, it is known that in the late 1930s, Hitlerist propaganda emanating from Germany and Austria was having a poisonous effect on various elements in all the countries of Eastern Europe, laying a groundwork for a new and most vicious strain of the antisemitic virus. And then, in the wake of the Soviet occupation of 1940, Hitlerist elements were able to spread their poison to ever wider sections of the populations, notably the canard that all Jews are communists. What it was based on in real life was not the number of Jews among the local communist rulers (there were in Lithuania many more ethnic Lithuanians among them), nor the people deported (Jews, many of whom owned small shops, were deported to Siberia in greater proportions ― not numbers — than people from the majority ethnicity). So what does it all come from? Well, there is that old Christian concept of the ‘sin of the heart’. It is absolutely true that no matter how much the vast majority of Jews hated communism (which deprived Jewish people of religious, cultural, commercial and many other freedoms), there was a widespread feeling of relief from September 1939 onward that the country had not fallen to Hitler as had most of Poland, and this feeling of relief was resented.
But, my dear Mindaugas, we are speaking frankly today, and so I must answer your main question with an honest failure to understand what happened. The Lithuanian Holocaust got underway in the hours following the launch of Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union in the early hours of Sunday 22 June 1941. Barbaric attacks on innocent Jewish civilians who had nothing to do with communism, many of them young women and old rabbis, were carried out by Lithuanian ‘nationalists’, ‘patriots’, ‘rebels’, LAF forces, who became known for their white armbands, in dozens and dozens of locations before the Germans arrived or before they set up the their administration and power structures. The Germans quickly replaced sporadic and mid-town atrocities with organized shootings of the entire population, and as in Latvia, readily found thousands of enthusiastic volunteers to do most of the actual killing.
Now, even if you take the controversial maximum figure of Lithuanian Jew-shooters, the 23,000 figure estimated by the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, the last major organization of Litvaks anywhere in the world, it is way under one percent of the Lithuanian people, so never never must the Lithuanian people as a people be blamed, and never never must we forget the enormous inspirational courage of the hundreds and hundreds of Lithuanians who risked their and their families lives to save a neighbor, in an environment where the risk was greater than most places in Europe.
So this is not about, heaven forbid, any blaming of the Lithuanian people, it rather about the question today: When will the elites of Baltic society (government, academia, media etc, and this relates to all three Baltic states) come to terms with this sad episode of history honestly, as has been done by so many in Germany, Austria and elsewhere, instead of mis-investing time, money, and precious resources of the state in a massive campaign of obfuscation and distortion that has included setting up red-brown commissions in all three states, supporting resolutions in the European Parliament, and laws in local parliaments that would ‘equalize’ Nazi and Soviet crimes; and, capriciously redefining ‘genocide’ as part of the Obfuscation trickery.
Very simple: Soviet crimes were horrific and need to be exposed as a separate issue, not as part of a bogus red-equals-brown equation. Because of the enormity of the Lithuanian Holocaust (some 95% of Lithuanian Jews killed, virtually the highest percentage in Europe), the Litvaks today are a near extinct race. By contrast, the Lithuanian population grew under the awful Soviet rule. For all the horrible crimes committed by the Soviets against the Baltic states, genocide was not one of them, period. Cheers for the great Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis, whose 2009 essay exposing the ‘Inflation of Genocide’ has already become a classic and is a great credit to Lithuania’s contemporary intellectual contribution to the wider debate internationally.
3. In 1930s, for example, in Šiauliai (Shavli), around 60-70 percent of people living there were Jewish. Of course, this bloody Shoah destroyed this peaceful life. What do you think about present day Lithuania: if there were no Shoah and WWII, maybe the situation of dialogue between Jews and Lithuanians would not have changed but would have remained as in the 1930s?
Yes, yes, for us Litvaks in Yiddish it will forever be Shavl, as the Yiddish place names reflect the multiplicity of cultural space that was such a great strength for all peoples of the region, for all our cultures are so much more potent when they interact, in obvious and in subtle ways with the other coterritorial cultures, something absent from boring homogeneous societies (the ‘ethnically pure’ model beloved of racists, bigots and eternal provincials).
Of course if the Holocaust had not happened, the demographic and cultural panorama would be very different and there would be whole systems of dialogue and interaction. But it did happen, and of 239 or so prewar communities on the territory of the modern Lithuanian republic, nothing but a similar number of mass graves are left, scattered through every part of the country.
Well, as you mention Shavl, I would like to mention my dear dear friend Mr Shmuel Shrage of Kaunas, who was born in Shavl and remembers only the best things about Lithuanian-Jewish friendship before the war, and cannot understand what he saw a few hours after the war started: local ‘patriots’ cutting a young Jewish girl in half in the center of town and leaving the two halves in the middle of the street for people to come and admire. Then, later on, his entire family and all his friends and acquaintances were butchered, simply because they were born Jewish. Like the rest of us, he has no explanation for a happy normal life turning to such barbarity overnight in June of 1941. He blames only the murderers, not an entire city or an entire people, and his heart is full of friendship and warmth toward his kind neighbors today, when he is in his late 80s.
And if you mention Shavl or any other Lithuanian town or city, I have the same advice: Study its Jewish culture and history, and seek out the tiny and dwindling number of survivors to learn from them and to cheer them up.
4. Lots of intelligent people nowadays see that there is too much hatred and too many criminal elements in Lithuania. Why? Is it national character, the demon of alcohol or other things that drive people so insane? After almost every internet article we can see hate letters and commentaries. How can we stop that?
No, I don’t agree. ‘There are lies, more lies, and then there are statistics.’ There are no better peoples, no worse peoples, no good peoples and no evil peoples. The national character, as you put it, of those 600 years of tolerance toward neighbors and minorities is the model to be pursued and reconstituted if the country is to become great again, as it surely can and I hope it surely will. To say there is something ‘wrong’ with the Lithuanian people is just as abhorrent and frankly stupid as saying there is something ‘wrong’ with the Jewish or any other people. How sad that our bold new twenty-first century is still mired in racist nonsense that is in some parts of the planet getting worse and not better.
But, my dear Mindaugas, I did not come to speak to you today in a hope of any easy way out to the tough questions that we must together address. Your question about hate in the media and internet postings deserves an answer. I will give you my answer, as a foreigner who has been treated splendidly by the wonderful people of Vilnius for eleven years, and whose only experience of antisemitism of any seriousness was at the hands of elites: of government agencies who were upset that I had a second opinion about the ‘red-brown commission’ that seeks to equate Soviet and Nazi crimes or about the analogous European Parliament resolutions. I am also sorry, very sorry, to have to express sincere disappointment in senior academic colleagues at Vilnius University, where my contract was recently terminated after eleven happy years. Senior academic colleagues did not have the honor and decency to say: ‘I may not agree with my colleague Dovydas’s opinions on these Jewish issues, but I will certainly fight for his right to hold these opinions.’ Instead, the wishes of government agencies were carried out to the letter, with intrigues to persuade American donors that they could now have a ‘bargain basement Yiddish Institute’ that is both Yiddish-rein and Juden-rein for most of the year, and no longer, frankly speaking, something for Lithuania to be proud of, because it is a tool of the government’s view of Jewish issues. Before it was an island of tolerance where the Jewish views of Jewish issues could be freely expressed within the splendidly diverse symphony of views.
Moreover, I have been proud to have been completely dedicated to my wonderful Lithuanian students and to take pride in their great achievements, whether in Lithuania or internationally. In fact, it is now almost twenty years since I negotiated, during my years at Oxford, an agreement with Vilnius University to bring Lithuanian students to Oxford to become immersed in Judaic Studies. It was reported by the New York Times in April of 1991: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/04/06/arts/lithuania-and-oxford-are-linked-by-yiddish.html.
But let me now move on from my own experiences, and my naturally subjective view of them, to your general question, but not from a distant academic perspective, but from the viewpoint of a stranger who has lived in your midst for most of the past eleven years. I repeat and will repeat all my life: I have been treated magnificently by the open, tolerant, good-humored and life-loving people of central Vilnius, one of the best places I have ever been privileged to live. At the same time, I have been shocked, astounded and dumbfounded by the overall stance of some segments of the Elites, most prominently the government and its agencies who frankly serve the Lithuanian people very poorly. By investing in red-brown commissions that seek to confuse and obfuscate the Holocaust; a state-sponsored Genocide Museum that does not even mention the word ‘Holocaust’; and, just as importantly by failing to crack down on neo-Nazi marches protected by police, on hateful press worthy of 1930s fascist countries, the government does a grave disservice to the fine Lithuanian people.
The most unbelievable negative event during my years in Lithuania occurred on May 5th2008 when police came looking for two Holocaust Survivors, women in their eighties (both are now, in the summer of 2010, 88 years old), as part of the prosecutors’ sick campaign against Holocaust Survivors. One of the women, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, is librarian of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. The other, Dr. Rachel Margolis, is hated by the ‘Double Genocide’ establishment because she discovered and published the diary of a Polish Christian who was witness to the murders at Ponár (Paneriai) and revealed that most were enthusiastic locals.
If heaven forbid, something should happen to one of these women, and they are sent to eternity neither charged nor cleared, but under a kangaroo ‘war crimes investigation’ intended to distort history by obfuscating the Holocaust and blaming the victims, in effect, it would be a permanent stain on the history of modern Lithuania. Sure, politicians explain that they cannot interfere with prosecutors’ work, but in a democracy, the president and prime minister can publicly announce that they are deeply ashamed of their prosecutors’ actions, they can condemn these actions, and they can give awards to these women at the presidential palace in a gesture of reconciliation that would be in the spirit of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Dr Margolis lives in Rechovot, Israel, and has just one more dream in life at 88: to see her beloved Vílne one more time. You know, Mindaugas, when I decided in May 2008, on that day that changed my life, that I could not remain silent, I knew very well that it might cost my job, but I decided that it is my historic responsibility to speak up.
And this brings me to an even more sensitive point, but as we are speaking frankly, let there be no topics that cannot be spoken about. That sensitive topic is, in a word, democracy. The law the Seimas passed that was signed on 29 June this year, that would criminalize denial of Nazi and Soviet genocide, in effect making it illegal to claim (as I do) that only the Nazis committed genocide in Lithuania, is a shameful episode in modern Lithuanian history. A law that criminalizes debate! Sure, the law’s two year prison sentence maximum has inspired a lot of ‘in-crowd’ humor. For example, I believe that Soviet crimes were horrendous, should be exposed and criminals brought to justice, but are not equal to Nazi crimes and do not rise to genocide (What could be more ridiculous that claiming that the people who liberated Auschwitz are the same as the people who committed the genocide of Auschwitz)? So, what should I do in Lithuania, turn myself in to the prosecutor in handcuffs, and ask for a compromise prison sentence of only nine months? Shall I also ask for vegetarian food in Lukiškės?
Of course it is possible that nobody will ever be arrested or charged under this shameful new law, but I can tell you from personal knowledge that even discussion of the law, back in 2009, had the effect of silencing dissent, of making local people, particularly young people with dreams of great future careers, afraid to speak up with alternative points of view. And so, the red-brown commission has been left as an all-powerful Soviet-style (yes!) commission of Unquestionable National Truth. This is a reference of course to the Zingeris-Račinskas led, state-sponsored “International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania” (a name right out of Orwell!). It is located in the prime minister’s office, removing any semblance of separation of state control and free thinking. Thanks to the new law, this Commission is verily a Soviet-style commission of ideological orthodoxy, leaving people who hold the Western view about the Holocaust in Lithuania (that it was the one genocide in Lithuania, not one of two equal genocides), with the feeling that they are no longer welcome in the country. Some of the most talented young people I know in the country have fled in the last year as a result of the new anti-democratic atmosphere, leaving more and more mediocre political hacks in control of academic, cultural, artistic and media establishments. The problem is coming entirely from on top. The terrific Lithuanian people deserve better leadership.
5. In the Bible it is said that Jewish people are the messianic nation, the chosen one. What do you think, maybe it’s one of the reasons why other people hate Jews – because they are a really exceptionally intelligent nation? Envy?
The Old Testament refers to the ancient Hebrews as God’s chosen people, not as a messianic nation (the word ‘messiah’ does not even occur in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word moshiakh simply means ‘anointed’ — for example as king, with a ceremony involving fine oil being poured on the elect’s head). But to come to your main question: No, there are no exceptionally talented or exceptionally stupid peoples, just as there are no virtuous and evil races.
It is true, however, that historic circumstances can on occasion help shape what a people concentrates on. Being a small and weak and highly dispersed minority, subject to severe religious and sometimes racial prejudice for millennia, it is true that the Jews in some places (again this does not refer to any specific individual or group) concentrated on intellectual, religious, and cultural pursuits that all revolved around learning and education, making learning and education the most socially prized achievements in the society (rather than wealth or power or physical strength and feats), and this certainly had a cumulative effect on the overall concentrations of Jewish energy through time and space.
6. Are there any dialogue centers that make people closer, especially talking about Jews and Lithuanians?
There were several de-facto addresses in Vilnius, but they have been wrecked by direct or indirect government intervention. Linas Vildžiūnas’s splendid House of Memory is a mere shadow of what it was, because of government intrigues to divert funding to government-sponsored ‘competitors’ run by the red-brown commission and other bodies. The Yiddish Institute, which for years was the locus of harmonious and friendly and open discussion is now a government mouthpiece. Of course these sad developments can be reversed, and new institutions can come into being to fill the gap. For some time now, I have been working closely with Professor Mikhail Iossel of Concordia University in Montreal, who brought his stunningly successful Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) program to Vilnius in 2009, to create the new Litvak Studies Institute which is now a registered NGO in Lithuania. In partnership with the small but inspiring Jewish Community of Lithuania at Pylimo 4, we have run four seminars which in the summer of 2010 (see the LSI website or its Facebook page) where Lithuanians and Jews come together to discuss in friendship all the issues that arise.
I naturally hope that the new Litvak Studies Institute will survive and thrive, but I cannot claim the gift of prophecy. Whether Vilnius and Lithuania are able to reverse the current downward spiral in the atmosphere of freedom of debate and creativity depends entirely on the folks in power. They have the power to make a diversity of opinions and people welcome or unwelcome in their country.