O P I N I O N
by Dovid Katz
Christmas-time congratulations are due to the four architects who have won the Vilnius state Jewish museum’s competition for plans to build a Holocaust museum at the mass murder site known as Ponár in Yiddish, Ponary before the war in Polish, and currently Lithuanian Paneriai. It is a short ride outside the capital city Vilnius. The victory of the foursome, Jautra Bernotaitė, Ronaldas Pučka (team leader), Andrius Ropolas and Paulius Vaitiekūnas, is announced on the museum’s website (and on Mr. Ropolas’s site). The competition was jointly run with the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania. The elaborate description of the project’s conception, by the Union of Architects, includes many sophisticated concepts, with multiple learned citations, from Freud to Foucault. Just one rather simpler word, a word (and exhibit) needed for any Holocaust museum, is missing from the text: collaboration.
There has naturally been chit-chat as to the reasons behind the rejection of other proposals, developed at the explicit invitation of the same museum and related government officials, in some cases proposals coming from world-class authorities on the Holocaust with extensive track records in building meaningful museums and memorials; needless to say, their participation would have brought prestige and worldliness to the project and to Vilnius. In some cases inspiring proposals came from world famous architects of Holocaust museums who prepared their proposals in partnership with local architects of long and deep Litvak heritage who are active in the Jewish community.
The inevitable questions arise about obfuscation: Whether the (so-called) “rearrangement” of the site, whatever that means, might now tilt toward clouding clarity about who were the vast majority of (volunteer) killers at Ponár, and who were the vast majority of (certainly non-volunteer) victims at Ponár, and what the numbers and circumstances were in the wider context of the Holocaust in Lithuania and western Belarus.
But it is unfair or unwise to harbor any untoward musings toward the winners on the basis of who the losers were. Committees work their works, and time and history ultimately shed light on the wisdom and probity of their decisions.
At the same time, it is only fair to Jautra Bernotaitė, Ronaldas Pučka, Andrius Ropolas and Paulius Vaitiekūnas to ensure that they are well aware of two issues on which the part of the world interested in such things is watching very closely, and for which cover cannot be provided by the word “Jewish” in the museum’s name or its director’s background.
First is Rachel Margolis, whose re-discovery of the long-lost diary by Christian Polish eyewitness Kazimierz Sakowicz, and her participation in the subsequent publications of the diary in Polish, German, and English played a major role in international understanding of the grim history of Ponár. To this day, Dr. Margolis, who recently turned 93, has received no public apology for the Lithuanian government’s disgraceful defamation of her record of heroism during and since the war. In the absence of a formal apology, even sophisticated history books, not to mention the internet, will forever defame these Jewish Holocaust survivors whose only crime was to survive. As a small and urgent start, the esteemed newly declared Architects of the Future of Ponár can write to Dr. Margolis, expressing regret for the damage caused by some of the same state apparatus that runs the museum that declared them winners of the competition, and acknowledging the importance of her work for the understanding of the history of Ponár.
The former prime minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, has stood up for the integrity of Dr. Rachel Margolis. We hope sincerely that Ponár architects Bernotaitė, Pučka, Ropolas and Vaitiekūnas will rapidly follow his noble example.
The second wider issue concerns Telling the Simple Truth in the Center of Town.
The beautiful center of beautiful Vilnius is blighted by a Holocaust-distorting, collaborator-glorifying and in places antisemitic museum called The Museum of Genocide Victims. There is an urgent need for even a modest exhibit right in the center — not up a hard-to-find driveway or Out At Ponár — that will make clear:
(a) the quantitative and cultural magnitude of the Jewish component of Vilna and all Lithuania before the Holocaust and
(b) what happened to those hundreds of thousands of Jewish Lithuanian citizens including the irksome but vital issue of the local nationalists’ vast collaboration and partnership with the Nazis’ project of total annihilation, with near-complete results.
The idea that the commemoration of the historic truth on both these counts in the center of Vilnius can be “talked away” by an elaborate edifice of diversion out in the forest, that no native or visitor walking through the center of town will ever find by chance, is both foolish and counterproductive. The idea that such an idea will uncontroversially attract naive millions from the European Union and other foreign donors is a big mistake.
The long, winding saga of the tiny plaque attached to an abstract sculpture in central Vilnius, with the result that it is hidden in a courtyard for which entry must be gained by asking one of the “real” places on the nearby street, needs to serve as a warning of what must not happen. That project’s noble champion, Shelly Rybak Pearson, has published her thoughts on these pages. And, back in 2010, we had the distinct non-pleasure of exposing the tale of “revolving posters at Ponár” that caused so much grief to Holocaust survivors and their families. All these “Holocaust games” will be duly noted by history.
Above all, the newly crowned architects need to ensure an appropriate and honest monument to Lithuanian Jewry and the history of its destruction, right in the very heart of the city those people knew as Vílne. But the same principle holds for every little shtetl just as much. This journal praised the fine project to write the simple truth in the center of Zháger up north (Žagarė), in 2012. And long before that, in 1998, we documented the dying wish of the last Jew of Amdur (Indura), near Grodna in Belarus: “We do not expect support from the Jews of America. But I hope you will them my one last wish: that they put up a little monument to the Jews of Amdur, right here in the town square.”
Let it serve as a good omen that just as the four local architects’ victory in the competition was announced, a young Austrian former volunteer at the same museum, Sebastian Hager, published his own reflections on his year here, including the need to deal fully and frankly with the history of local collaboration. His essay concludes with this thought:
“Not in the forest, at Ponár, or up a steep driveway. But right in the heart of the capital on its central thoroughfare.”