O P I N I O N
The most recent of journalist Paul Berger’s four meticulously balanced reports in the Forward on Yivo-Lithuania issues (I, II, III, IV) appeared on the paper’s website today. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and often considered the leading contemporary human rights champion in the struggle against antisemitism and other forms of prejudice, was among those asked by the reporter to comment upon the text of the Lithuanian foreign minister’s address, read out by a local consulate official, to the 22 September audience at a Lithuanian government sponsored concert at Yivo in New York to mark the ‘Vilna Ghetto Experience’. This journal’s editor was also among those asked to comment for the record, and we were asked by the Forward not to publish the text on DefendingHistory.com, a request naturally honored.
It now seems likely that the multiplicity of texts, some just for Jewish audiences, and some for the larger world out there, has come into play again. The conciliatory and even humble text read out at the concert has a much more Jewish-friendly tone than the text that the Lithuanian foreign ministry put on BNS (Baltic News Service) early on 23 September, the version put on the foreign ministry’s own website, and that on Isria (now available there for payment). Those texts, published or released for publication by the ministry, exhibit a tone of trumpeting ‘Jewish successes’ from a political point of view.
The versions released for publication by the foreign ministry report a Yivo Room in Vilnius to open ‘shortly’ implying that (1) Yivo’s surrender of its Jewish Holocaust-era books and papers and (2) acquiescence to the use of the word Yivo for a Lithuanian government endeavor, are by implication both ‘done deals’.
This is a sharp contrast to the humble tone of the sentence read out to the Yivo audience on the 22nd: ‘I have a hope that the Yivo Studies Room will be established soon in the National M. Mažvydas library. This event would mark the return of the YIVO institute to its roots in Vilnius.’
But in the longer run, the last sentence cited in the ‘Jewish version’ may actually be more ominous. Since the 1990s, a small group of nationalists in right-wing parties have claimed that the ‘real Yivo’ is indeed in Lithuania, and a previous director of Yivo had to use the threat of international legal action to prevent that usurpation being proclaimed by the Lithuanian government of the day. Nowadays the point would be to capitalize on Yivo’s reported diminution of interest in Yiddish Studies per se, and to claim that these studies are thriving in Vilnius at what would rapidly come to be a challenge of legitimacy about more-real and less-real Yivos. Indeed, once certain government officials determined to rid the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, and Lithuania, of its one Yiddish professor (and its last Jewish professor, now this journal’s editor), the director of Yivo was one of the first foreign visitors welcomed by the directors of the VYI for talks on the happy future. Perhaps the flaunted photo of the event might be recaptioned: Who will teach whom Yiddish?
After waiting long enough, this particular group of state officials lucked out with the advent of a director of Yivo willing to become Lithuania’s leading Jewish PR man, issuing memos that trash the views of critics and Holocaust survivors, and accept as gospel government talking points, while telling the press that critics are ‘well-oiled fanatics’. Among the most troubling of his assurances are those concerning the legalization of swastikas and the legacy of an antisemitic ‘analysis’ by the foreign minister in 2010. These and other whitewashes of the problems concerning antisemitism in Lithuania are judged to have done Yivo grave damage. DefendingHistory.com hopes that its publication of the proposed text of the ‘whitewash memo’ had something to do with the director abandoning plans to issue it as a public Yivo statement, which would have made the damage exponentially greater.
In fact, the Lithuanian foreign ministry’s lament about ‘several people’s opinion’ in its 21 September press release, is vastly more diplomatic than the Yivo director’s diatribes, and he might benefit from some coaching from his new mentors on that front. The grave issues with the foreign ministry’s ‘Jewish policies’ are however substantive rather than stylistic.
What is missing from any of the recent foreign ministry versions of statements is an interest in tackling the actual problems whose solution would rapidly transform Lithuanian-Jewish relations. This journal’s proposals to that constructive end are here. But sometimes in human — and political — relations, a bold gesture can break the ice. Here is a line for the foreign minister’s consideration for his (or his representative’s) next appearance at Yivo:
‘I am deeply sorry that our cherished Litvak Holocaust survivors Dr. Yitzhak Arad, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, Dr. Rachel Margolis and Joseph Melamed, all heroes of the anti-Nazi resistance, have been so shamefully defamed and disturbed by some misguided prosecutors who do not represent our country. In our democracy I cannot interfere with what a prosecutor does, but I can certainly offer my views! It is my pleasure to take this opportunity to say to one and all: It will be my high honor to invite our dearest and most heroic Jewish survivors to a reception in their honor at our ministry. But as Rachel Margolis will turn 90 next month, I am planning a very special surprise in her honor. She is not only a survivor of the Vilna Ghetto and a hero of the anti-Nazi partisan resistance in our country. She gave half a century of her life’s work to the field of biology at Vilnius University. She is also a cofounder of the Green House (Holocaust museum) of which we are all so proud in our nation’s capital city, Vilnius. Her achievements in Holocaust history include rediscovery and publication of a remarkable diary on the fate of Vilna Jewry from which we have all learned so much.’
When a Lithuanian foreign minister will honor Rachel Margolis and the other Vilna and Kovno Ghetto resistance heroes who have been the targets of far-right witch hunts, the director of Yivo might perhaps come to decide that it’s a good idea for Yivo to do so as well.
The more so at an event held to mark ‘The Vilna Ghetto Experience’ on the anniversary of the ghetto’s liquidation.