[UPDATED 29 MAY]
by Dovid Katz
VILNIUS—The French bookstore located in the building housing the Institut français / French Cultural Center, all part of the French Embassy compound here in Lithuania’s capital, has for many years been featuring smack in the middle of its prominent show window at Didžioji St. No. 1 in Vilnius Old Town, in the row of books closest to the viewer outside, books in English or Lithuanian (nothing to do with France or French) that are dedicated to glorifying Holocaust collaborators who supported and enabled the genocide of 96.4% of Lithuanian Jewry.
Whenever, over the years, this issue has been brought up to French Embassy diplomats, French Institute leadership, the answer has been the same, along the lines of “It is not our bookshop, it is a private French-themed bookshop that simply rents the space from us. We are not responsible. The French Embassy is not responsible, the French Institute is not responsible, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs is not responsible.” Nevertheless, we would like to pay tribute to French diplomats who did make an effort over the years. On 7 May 2020, for example, the then ambassador, HE Claire Lignières-Counathe took action. She reported back: “The French book shop on Didžioji gatvė is not part of the French Institute. But we pointed out to the owner that to present this book in the shop window could hurt people. He agreed and removed the book from the shop window.”
One week later, the book was back. And that goes to the heart of how a far-right, Holocaust-revisionist, Hitler collaborator glorifying (hence ipso facto antisemitic) enterprise has been, as one midlevel French diplomat put it to us off the record, “making a monkey out of our embassy in the third decade of the twenty-first century.”
In the city’s everyday life, and all the more so for thousands of tourists from around the world, the details of ownership are unknown and of little interest. It is the universal public perception that comes into play when a French themed bookshop is housed in the building of the French Embassy compound in Vilnius, just to the right of the French Institute’s handsome blue sign.
The book now featured in the window is Augustine Idzelis’s Insurrectrion: Lithuanian Activist Front in Kaunas. June 1940 — June 1941. The book doesn’t tell you that the Hitlerist Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF), also known as the “White Armbanders” murdered thousands of defenseless Jewish civilian before the German invaders even took full control in the last week of June 1941 (see some of their pre-invasion leaflets explaining their intentions).
The LAF launched the Lithuanian Holocaust. There was no anti-Soviet “insurrection” or “uprising” or “revolt”. Insurrections, uprisings, and revolts occur when folks rise up against the government in power. While the Soviets were in power, these pro-Hitler cowards did not shoot a rabbit. The Soviet Army fled not the local Jew-killers but Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa, the largest invasion of human history. That this pro-Nazi, Holocaust-revisionist historical trash is featured a few steps up the street in the Genocide Center’s bookstore window is no surprise. That this fake ultranationalist revision of history is featured in the Genocide Museum is also no surprise.
But it is a dishonor to France that it is featured in a bookstore that is thusly advertised on Facebook in a nice photo capturing the well-known entrance to the French government’s cultural-center embassy-compound premises. Note the bookshop’s Facebook name is Librairie française not readily evident from the street, where few notice the non-salient lettering used for Prancūziškas knygynas. In all scenarios, situation smack in the middle of the blue sign, the entrance, three awe-inspiring historical plaques (two on the wall, one on a street stand), and status as the only street-facing display of the entire French Embassy complex makes people believe this is all part of legitimate representation of French culture, French ethos, French policy, in the Lithuanian capital.
Three years ago, the book featured in the window was all about Kazys Škirpa, the major Lithuanian Hitlerist theoretician of ethnic cleansing of Lithuania’s Jews. After years of campaigning by Defending History and others, Vilnius’s Škirpa Street was finally renamed. But his glory lived on at the French bookshop in the French Institute building at the French Embassy Compound in Vilnius.
One cannot speak of Škirpa without providing a copy of the photo that made him so famous during his sojourn in Berlin as “ambassador” to Germany in 1941.
The Defending History community, like all people of good will here in Lithuania’s beautiful and inspirational capital, now celebrating its 700th birthday, calls up on the French Institute, Cultural Center, Embassy and Foreign Ministry to find a new solution, perhaps its own bookstore or a branchlet of one in Paris that will bring the peoples of Lithuania and France a sense of harmony, pride, decency and historic truth. One that will not abuse the inspirational prestige of France, and French language, literature and culture, as a cover for sneaking into the center of the show window (or even, for that matter, under the counter) English and Lithuanian books that seek to turn Holocaust collaborators into heroes for the unsuspecting visitor to this part of the world (and that have zero to do with anything French, other than that some French Jews were deported to Kaunas for murder by the “selfsame specialists” whom the local LAF and other fascists had trained so well in the slaughter of civilians).
The question: Does the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs really feel comfortable with thousands of visitors to Vilnius thinking that this bookshop, its staff, its prominent Old Town show window often featuring books glorifying Holocaust collaborators, represent the values, legacy and role of France in Europe and far beyond?
Postscript: Last Sunday, 21 May 2023, while serving as scholar-on-board for a group of around thirty American visitors on the annual heritage tour of the Workmens Circle (N.Y.) and Taube Center for Jewish Life and Learning (Warsaw), I pointed out this window at the French bookshop. The bookstore manager came out to listen. When I passed by alone yesterday, he was again standing outside in the fine weather (and somehow recognized me…), and very politely explained to me that he had heard my words to 0ur group last Sunday, and disagreed. I asked if he disagreed that the LAF was indeed responsible for thousands of civilian Jewish deaths before German forces even arrived or set up their rule. Not at all. He disagreed that it was without good reason: “It was entirely because the Jews were the ones who signed all the papers for all the Soviet deportations of Lithuanians to Siberia.” He also explained, with pride, that the independent bookstore’s proprietor is a Lithuanian nationalist, not the French Embassy as everybody thinks. He went on to tell me that as a gesture of conciliation, he had placed the French paperback entitled Lévinas (Jean-François Rey’s Lévinas: Le Passeur de justice) right next to the LAF book after our group’s Sunday appearance, and pointed it out to me to show “he has nothing against the Jews.” Today, when I passed by again on my daily walk about town, the Lévinas book (wholly irrelevant to the issue at hand) was gone. The English book glorifying the Hitlerist Lithuanian Activist Front murderers was centered in the window with even greater precision.
From our own history: Defending History will never forget the Vilnius years (2008-2011) of France’s
HE Ambassador François Laumonier
a beacon of courage, uncompromising integrity and justice, and the truth of history, bringing to his post the highest values of France and of Europe. He was the first to withdraw from a Seimas meeting honoring an alleged Holocaust perpetrator, the first to offer premises for an international meeting to protest the kangaroo prosecutions of Dr. Rachel Margolis and Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, both heroes of the free world who escaped the Vilna Ghetto to fight Nazism in the forests of Lithuania. While the embassies of Ireland, UK, USA. Austria, Norway and others took the lead honoring and protecting Fania here in Vilnius, Ambassador Laumonier took the initiative in showing support to Rachel Margolis (1921-2015) who was in Rehovot, Israel unable to return to her beloved Vilna for one final visit. When he discovered she studied French before the war, he struck up a correspondence that brought dear Rachel joy and camaraderie all the days of her life. Her last words to us, at her 90th birthday, were: “When I am gone, please give Ambassador Laumonier a big hug from me.”