OPINION | EVENTS | CHRISTIAN-JEWISH RELATIONS | HOLOCAUST MEMORIALS | VILNIUS JEWISH LIFE
VILNIUS—The two major “September 23rd” events today in Vilnius were the annual commemoration ceremony at the mass murder site Ponár in the forest outside the city, and, later in the afternoon, Pope Francis’s visit to the small monument, its 1990s Yiddish letters faded beyond legibility, commemorating the Vilna Ghetto in an Old Town square opposite the city’s beloved Jewish Cultural and Information Center (JCIC). [See also Andrius Kulikauskas’s appeal to the Pope on the eve of his visit in connection with his visit to Lukiškės Square in central Vilnius.]
At Ponár (Paneriai), Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius’s speech went “much further than ever before” (even if rather obliquely and with difficulty) in his gradually deepening understanding of mass local participation in the Holocaust, and the feelings of the survivor community. It was much appreciated by the handful of local Jewish people present for its very honesty (sandwiched between many recitations of the usual PR platitudes), and admired by many, given an earlier history of anger at those who recounted the difficult history.
Jewish attendance was the lowest ever in the event’s history spanning over two decades. Many contacted explained their decision to stay away from PR events concocted for power and publicity with the official, heavily Lithuanianized state-sponsored Jewish community: “We no longer feel comfortable or welcome at these events which are for the pleasure of government officials, the two or three court Jews competing for their accolades, a dozen or two well-paid Jewish sycophants, and the fancy visiting foreigners who like having photographs with important people.” In recent years, the most robust public analysis of the annual expenditure choices for the forty-million dollar Jewish restitution fund (the “Good Will Foundation”), provided by the government under US pressure to compensate for prewar religious property, has come from Vilnius’s rabbi of a quarter century’s standing (index).
The state-sponsored community’s chairperson who is also co-chair of the Good Will Foundation is the eminent attorney Ms. Faina Kukliansky, often considered the country’s major authority on citizenship law. Clinging to control of the official Lithuanian Jewish Community chairpersonship despite her 2017 “let’s change the rules election” being voided by the courts, she gave a speech at Ponár, as in previous years. Apparently responding to mounting international pressures and a changed media environment she resolutely — and admirably — cited by name major local Holocaust collaborators who are widely honored by street names and plaques. But the official English translator’s voice abruptly faded away after the start of the list. Still, the name “Noreika” was clearly heard, referring to the war criminal exposed to the US media by his remarkably courageous granddaughter Silvia Foti last summer, covered in the New York Times, resulting in an abrupt change of heart by the Lithuanian foreign minister (on this one case, leaving others unmentioned). But in fact the English speaking world was made aware of the Noreika case by Evaldas Balčiūnas’s 2012 DH essay, “Why is Jonas Noreika Considered a National Hero?” (See Balčiūnas section in DH. Scroll down to May 2014 to follow reports on the campaign by prosecutors and police to harass and discredit him).
Far from the “official Jewish events” Pope Francis, addressing the entire nation, spoke with passion about the imperative to commemorate the Lithuanian Holocaust and the dangers of antisemitism, alluding also to revisionism. Report in The New York Times.
Simon Gurevich (Simonas Gurevičius), the democratically elected chairperson of the Vilnius Jewish Community, representing the vast majority of the country’s Jewish citizens, was conspicuously not allowed to deliver his own prepared remarks at Ponár. By contrast, various Israeli PR “photo-op Litvak travel groups” were prominently indulged (their platitudes sounding more vacuous alongside the usual standardized banner for these trips, reading “We will not forget, we will not forgive”). Disrespect for the living Jews of today’s communities (expressed, not least, by attempted delegitimization of their democratically chosen representatives) is sometimes considered to be a specific phenomenon of Eastern European antisemitism that disparages the living local communities while glorifying dignitaries and visitors from abroad plus a handful of local “career PR court Jews”.
ASSOCIATED PRESS (AP) REPORT ON PAPAL VISIT QUOTES SIMON GUREVICH, ELECTED HEAD OF VILNIUS JEWISH COMMUNITY; IN THE NEW YORK TIMES. HIS REMARKS ON THE OLD VILNA JEWISH CEMETERY IN AN EARLIER NYT REPORT.
MP Emanuelis Zingeris, founder of the capital’s state Jewish museum (finally) boldly referred with disdain to the heroization of Holocaust collaborators (though never yet in writing); still, he was, as ever, painfully compromised by being wheeled out as the “show Jew” (and this year the sole representative) of the state’s “red-brown commission” which Holocaust survivors have considered from its day one to be at the heart of the entire problem of Double Genocide and the resultant attempts to glorify perpetrators and smear survivors (more on its history). A litmus test of elementary ethics came for many in 2012 with the state reburial with full honors of the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister. Lithuanian truth tellers (who don’t get invited to speak at solemn ceremonies) have been pursuing honest history for many years and have on occasion paid with their careers.
Israeli ambassador Amir Maimon, who has, in some opinions, crossed some painful Holocaust red lines in recent years, again disappointed progressive voices and the Litvak and survivor communities, and indeed, many Israelis who disagree with the policy of trading “Holocaust history for votes”. He could still not quite bring himself to publicly utter the words “Yitzhak Arad“, “Rachel Margolis” or “Joseph Melamed“, the three inspiring Israeli citizens defamed for posterity by local prosecutors. All three (two of whom fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence) have left prolific major works on the Lithuanian Holocaust that are profoundly appreciated by scholars, students and Litvak groups internationally. Margolis and Melamed passed away in very recent years (during the ambassador’s tenure). Yitzhak Arad, active in Tel Aviv, has authored a major analysis of Lithuanian government policies on the Holocaust. He and Rachel Margolis both published extraordinary works on the Vilna Ghetto per se. Margolis rediscovered the lost Kazimierz Sakowicz diary and brought it to the world, thereby revealing for history what actually happened at Ponár (the eventual English edition was enabled by Yitzhak Arad and Yale University Press). Where will their life’s work, critical to the most essential meaning of “that time and place” be acknowledged if not at Ponár on Sept. 23rd? Or will the ultranationalist, history-revising and antisemitic far right elite continue to have an effective veto over discourse at Ponár? To the point where the survivors, heroes and scholars who enabled the world to know the truth are unmentionable by the ambassador of the State of Israel of which they were proud and loyal citizens.
After the ceremony, the phalanx of dignitaries rushed to Vilnius’s Old Town for the visit of Pope Francis to the small monument, situated opposite the widely beloved Jewish Cultural and Information Center that has remained, some feel, the last bastion of open and free dialogue on Jewish issues at which a multiplicity of views are exchanged in a spirit of dignity and mutual respect.
No fault of Pope Francis, but his Vilna Ghetto memorial event was irreparably marred by authorities’ petty refusal to allow elected Vilnius Jewish Community chair Simon Gurevich to even cross the security perimeter around the papal event. Authorities cling to their own “state-sponsored Jewish figures” (giving preference to the bogus-election government-supported “chairperson” over allowing Pope Francis to speak to Fania Brantosvsky, the 97 year old Vilna Ghetto survivor, who was standing right nearby). That’s what happens when PR photo-ops are the highest ethical order of the day.
See also JTA report on Defending History’s appeal to Pope Francis on sparing the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery; in The Times of Israel