OPINION | VILNA GREAT SYNAGOGUE
by Dovid Katz
It has not been easy for our embattled team to keep Defending History going for over a dozen years now, based here in Vilnius. But as with other small but committed projects committed to speaking out for historic justice whomever it will please or displease, misconceptions can flourish. For example, this journal has indeed opposed the misuse of millions of Lithuanian citizens’ hard earned tax euros for campaigns to “equalize” for new generations (and today’s West) Nazi and Soviet crimes (the “Red-Brown” Commission); to target Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance by smearing them as “war criminals” (state prosecutors); to establish as European heroes brutal participants in the Holocaust (the Genocide Center and Museum); efforts by government bodies (foreign ministry under some governments) to insist on European Union cave-in to the revised Baltic far-right historiography (note the Prague Declaration and DH’s response: the Seventy Years Declaration received personally a decade ago by the president of the European Parliament).
UPDATE OF 7 JUNE 2022:
A senior employee of the official ‘Lithuanian Jewish Community’ has asserted to DH that the secret memorandum contains the line: ‘After World War II, the Jewish community in Vilnius and Lithuania declined significantly and is now dying out altogether’ (thereby sentencing, over the signature of the mayor, the official community head, and a major figure from the American Jewish Committee) our small but creative, dynamic, variegated and life-loving Vilna community to imminent and utter demise)…
We have argued that no international web journal is more pro-Lithuanian than we are, cherishing this wonderful country’s true heroes from the fourteenth century grand dukes to the avatars of courage who simply saved a neighbor during the Holocaust, right down to 2022 (note that this issue features a front-page 60th birthday tribute to our staff writer, the major Lithuanian ethicist Evaldas Balčiūnas). And, saving Lithuania from heading down the road of narrow ultranationalism by highlighting its proud multicultural history of tolerance and taking on, head on, attempts to falsify the Holocaust, while in the longer term fighting hard, and in the face of consequences, for the free speech that is the backbone of EU and Western democracy. Our roster of authors over the dozen years reflects the international and non-ethnic character of our moral fibre. In a wider sense, our Litvak Yiddish projects of preservation (courses, books, online mini-museums of Jewish Vilna and interwar Lithuania, dictionary, video archive of last Litvak survivors, online resource lists) are part of the same goal of contributing to the wider fabric and focus on the the inspirational peoples and cultures of the Lithuanian lands.
It is no surprise, frankly, there have been cases when the most honest and honorable of Lithuanian government agencies and bodies — and leaders — have been duped by corrupt non-representative, power-and-privilege hungry “Jewish entities.”
That happened just over seven years ago, when the undemocratic boss of the official Lithuanian Jewish Community, in partnership with a medal hungry American Jewish Committee operative assured authorities here that there would be no trouble at all in building a national convention center in the heart of the Old Vilna Jewish Cemetery. These two co-chairs rule over the tens of millions of euros in Lithuanian government “restitution” (itself a difficult act of benevolence) as co-chairs of the state-financed “Good Will Foundation” on a permanent (it seems) non-rotating basis (inspired by revised leadership rules of Xi Jinping?). They have both provided cover for the shameful dismantling of Jewish community democracy and accompanying disenfranchisement of the surviving Jewish citizens of Lithuania. On the cemetery issue, they rapidly convinced authorities that a group of notorious grave-trading “Satmar Aaronite” rabbis in London (the “CPJCE”) could fix everything (as we know from Wikileaks, not for free….). Last summer, the long, hard battle spearheaded by DefendingHistory.com from the first day to the last was decisively won. Lithuania’s new prime minister boldly cancelled the convention center project. We were proud to lead the calls of Bravo. Shame for all time, incidentally, on all the “Jewish Heritage” hacks who sold out along the way on every last principle of integrity and professionalism in order to be included in lavish conferences, grants, junkets, photo-ops, banquets and fun-and-games. Bravo to Lithuania for, in the end, doing the right thing.
Fast Forward to this past week, during the “Fake Litvak Congress” as it has rapidly become known to Lithuanian Jews. Before the week was out, the Vilnius Municipality announced that it had signed an agreement with the “Good Will Foundation” (Orwell would have loved that one), i.e. the same two non-rotating co-chairs who caused Lithuania millions in waste and squandered good will via their staunch advocacy for the convention-center-in-the-cemetery scheme, have now come up with two major projects to be completed on the site of the Great Vilna Synagogue and its famed Vílner Shúl-heyf (the Great Vilna Synagogue Courtyard). News of the Memorandum (its text is still secret) appeared on the official website of the Vilnius municipality on 26 May. This has been rapidly trumpeted, uncritically, in glowing reports and releases issued by Baltic News Service (BNS) and Jewish Heritage Europe, among others.
No doubt such “transparent” public entities as the Vilnius Municipality and the state-sponsored Good Will Foundation will rapidly release the full text of the Memorandum. What is there not to release?
In the meantime, alarm bells are going off, much as they were seven years ago, over the Old Vilna Cemetery. This time there are two components according to the published reports. One is that there will be a “Memorial Square” on the site of the Great Synagogue Courtyard, which is fine, as long as the sacredness of the site is respected as it would be in any European capital. For over half a millennium, the Great Synagogue Courtyard and the Old Vilna Cemetery were the two most sacred religious “twin addresses” of Jewish Vilna. That means, in practical terms, that there must be equal places at the table for the moral stakeholders: (1) The legitimate Vilnius Jewish Community, which represents via democratic elections the vast majority of today’s Lithuania’s Jews. (2) The genuine carriers of Litvak religious culture around the world — the great yeshivas, rabbis, communities in the Litvish tradition that flourish in the United States, Israel and further afield, often proudly carrying the names of their Lithuanian cities of origin. (They have in recent years taken a deep interest here and this year arranged holiday celebrations in Vilnius.) (3) The dedicated NGOs that have worked on this issue for decades, producing fine scholarly and educational work (publications, seminars, books), in this case Litvak World (formerly Jerusalem of the North).
But, strange as it may sound, this may all pale in comparison with the scandal already brewing over the second proposal: to replace the current Pylimo Street 4 headquarters of the official restitution-fueled “Lithuanian Jewish Community” with a newly built official headquarters for that de-democratized entity right on top of the sacred remains of the Great Synagogue and/or the dozens of small prayerhouses and studyhouses (kloyzn) that flourished for centuries in the sacred Shúl-heyf (Synagogue Courtyard). An ersatz de-democratized, de-Judaized, restitution-fueled Jewish community center where the remaining Jews of Lithuania feel just as locked out, socially and physically, as they were from the “Litvak Congress” last week? A heavily guarded personal palace for the monarch at the top and the merry crew of sycophants? This on top of the Great Synagogue Courtyard to give a sham aura of elementary legitimacy, never mind spurious sanctity, to a new royal palace for a purported community chairperson who is also (non-rotating) co-chair of the same “Good Will Foundation”? There is almost as much conflict-of-interest and institutional-incest potential in this as a hypothetical lawyer who would push for legislation for personal restitution that would inter alia benefit his or her private practice. But surely that couldn’t happen in the EU. So, the proposed situation of a high-security personal palace for a grand ruler on top of one of the most sacred sites of Litvak Jewry has overnight become headache numero uno at a time that should be one of tranquility, unity, mutual respect, and profound humble reflection after a scathing pandemic, and, during a nearby sickening war on a peaceful civilian population launched by this century’s barbaric, murderous despot to the east.
A new supposedly sacred address for the place where the last Litvaks in Lithuania are humiliated and excluded? where they are called “Russians who say they are Jews (JTA report)? All underpinned by an American Jewish Committee leader who actually (on top of being non-rotating Good Will co-chair since its inception) went and joined the state’s Holocaust-revisionist red-brown commission (yes, sure, he got his medals and crosses). Some years ago, Vilnius’s Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, to his enduring credit, courageously published a detailed report of some typical “Good Will Foundation” practices (none of them illegal, many deeply unethical). For its part, the democratically elected board of the Vilnius Jewish Community has issued its own heartfelt appeals for years, begging for simple justice, inter alia in 2017, in 2018 (followed by a street rally unique in post-Soviet space), and in 2020 (see the charming response from the same AJC pointman). Meanwhile, in the United States, AJC donors need to launch a rapid independent investigation of what their gift dollars are doing to cause continuing pain and humiliation to a weak and remnant community in post-Holocaust post-Soviet space. (In dozens of visits, the AJC’s man has yet to find ten minutes for a simple conversation with a simple local Lithuanian Jewish person.)
Dear Mr. Mayor, dear Lithuanian government agencies and parliament, please don’t put yourselves, Lithuania and its good name through another multi-year ordeal-cum-fiasco for nothing and less than nothing. Užtenka! Never mind the triumphalist AJC–LJC–GWF incest-conflict-interest photo-op for the barons who enjoy being the non-rotating masters of tens of millions of euros for life. Publish the Memorandum immediately. If it does not include the (at least) equal partnership at the table of the elected Vilnius Jewish Community, the NGOs that have toiled on the Great Synagogue project for decades, and perhaps, in a deep historical and religious sense, above all, the great religious Lithuanian authorities of the world who keep alive the annihilated religious parts of Litvak civilization (and have in recent years frequently come here on a variety of Litvak-centered missions), throw it right into the garbage can.
The old Yiddish expression says: “Better to tear up a bad engagement agreement than a bad marriage contract” (given the diverse writing material used for each, the actual translation is “Better tear up the paper than the parchment”). If it all includes a purpose-made, on-sacred-ground glory tower for a Good Will Foundation enabled monarch (whose official realm now includes “the Community plus the Foundation at once” and both, it seems non-rotating, in addition to continuing as top private lawyer specializing in citizenship and restitution), ditch it, man. Just say no. Jau šiandien.
Honest rehabilitation of the Great Vilna Synagogue ruins and the Courtyard via discourse of the legitimate stakeholders will lead to a grand success for Lithuania, its people, and all its historic and diasporic peoples. A welcome advance of which all will feel justly proud, and around which happily united, as together we prepare to celebrate in harmony and mutual respect our beloved city’s seven hundredth birthday next year.
Possibly of interest: Virtual Mini-Museum of Old Jewish Vilna. Seven Kingdoms of the Litvaks.
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