O P I N I O N
A dedicated Facebook page provides facts and photos on today’s dignified and courageous demonstration by a small group of young Lithuanian human rights advocates against Vilnius University’s proceeding with an exhibition of an envelope designer whose work features flagrant antisemitic, homophobic and racist material (larger selection here).
Fiokla Kiure’s images of the event are available here; a small selection follows this article.
Earlier report (21 Sept)
Delfi.lt report by Eglė Samoškaitė (25 Sept) [English here]
Our colleague in the Vilnius human rights community, Anna Shepherd of the Lithuanian Gay League, a participant in the protest, reports that at 2 PM today nine people gathered at the steps of the university, near the famous door to its main library which houses the exhibit, to protest the exhibition dedicated to the “envelope art” of Antanas Šakalys. This was the time at which the opening of the exhibition was supposed to take place, had it not been cancelled after news of the project reached the media. Because the official opening was cancelled, the protesters decided to hold a theatrical mock opening, holding up print-outs of some of the offensive, antisemitic and homophobic “envelopes” created by the artist. Event organizer Lina Žigelytė said a few words, and several passers-by stopped to watch. After the “opening” the protesters proceeded inside the building, where they were met and asked to hand over their protest materials before proceeding further, and told that the police would be called in case there was any trouble. They then went to the exhibition hall of the library, followed throughout by university staff.
Ms. Shepherd commented to DefendingHistory: “An interesting question to me, however, is this one: Where were all the students? Where they not affected by the homophobic and antisemitic material being exhibited in their own university?”
Vilnius University put up this sign, assuring the public, in effect, that the antisemitic and homophobic images had never been part of this exhibition:
But the question of whether images were swapped when the scandal broke is now rather moot. DefendingHistory is quite happy to accept the assurance of the chief librarian, reported in the excellent Delfi.com report by Eglė Samoškaitė earlier this week, that there have been no changes (in contrast to other reports).
What is shocking is that Vilnius University would feature an exhibit by a hate-filled bigot, even if the offending items are not included in this particular exhibit. The exhibiting in a prestigious state-funded university of the work of a purveyor of such hate amounts to a lamentable gesture to legitimize antisemitism and homophobia at the highest levels of society.
In fact, the antisemitic and homophobic envelopes by the same artist had long been on sale at the central post office, a short walk away. One of these features a photo of Rabbi Sholom Ber Krinsky, a Boston native who has lived in Vilnius many years. The photo and the antisemitic narrative were taken from a front page hate article that appeared in December 2011.
Some of the items sold for years feature high praise for the supposed glorious patriotism of notorious Holocaust perpetrators, blaming the KGB and the Jews for tarnishing the legacy of such persons. The message being sent in the context of the social reality of Lithuania is that their acts during the Holocaust were the right thing to do and do not detract from their state status as heroes. One example is the envelope featuring Alekdandras Lileikis.
The gay-bashing series features envelopes such as this:
More shocking is that the university’s explanatory sign claims the artist’s donated collection “cherishes humanistic and democratic traditions.” The absence of these and many other antisemitic and homophobic envelopes from this specific exhibition does not negate their existence in the corpus of the same artist’s work, their past public display in the city’s main post office, or their present easy availability on the internet. It is almost too elementary to be debating about. Imagine a racist in the UK or US who had produced and sold many racist works then having an exhibition of his other stuff at any university library in the land. Imagine that university library putting then putting up this pathetic sign testifying that the works actually donated by this person are part of a collection that “cherishes humanistic and democratic traditions.”
More shocking still is the ongoing silence of the university’s Yiddish institute a moment away. The VYI (Vilnius Yiddish Institute) was founded in 2001 to preserve the remnants of the language and culture of Lithuanian Jews destroyed in the Holocaust. In 2010 it was purged of Jewish academic staff who disagreed with the state’s policies on Holocaust issues and antisemitism.
There is a plaque on its wall honoring the chairman of its board of American backers, Richard Maullin of Santa Monica, California. Dr. Maullin had “purchased the shares” of the Yiddish institute in 2005, for US $25,000, from one of its co-founders, Mendy Cahan of Tel Aviv. Dr. Maullin, a founder-partner of Fairbank Maslin (FM3) lists his Yiddish institute leadership on the FM3 website. He was recently re-appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Independent System Operator Board of Governors. Meanwhile, the Yiddish institute’s American board still has three other members: Dr. Daniel Berg of Bloomington, Indiana; Tina Lunson of the Washington D.C. area; and Dan Opatoshu of Sherman Oaks, California. The rest of the original board resigned on principle in 2009-2010 after Dr. Maullin acquiesced in the right-wing Lithuanian government’s campaign to quash dissent on prosecution attempts by the state against Holocaust survivors who joined the anti-Nazi resistance. Dr. Maullin and his partner Natasha Yatskevich, a leading official at a state museum in Minsk, Belarus, are regularly honored by VIP level attention during visits to Vilnius University.
The current, non-Yiddish-speaking director of the Yiddish institute is also the dean of the school of international affairs and diplomacy at the country’s second university, Vytautas Magnus, in Kaunas. The naming of a lecture hall there honoring the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister is currently the headline item of an international Change.org petition protesting the adulation of Nazi collaborators by state institutions. Dr. Maullin’s Vilnius University “Yiddish director” is frequently sent by the Lithuanian government to pursue the nationalist agenda far and wide (e.g. Astana, Jerusalem and London).
Then there is the silence of Indiana University’s Borns Jewish studies program, which props up the illusion of year-round Yiddish studies at Vilnius University by way of a lucrative one-month summer course. Ironically, the Borns program, in Bloomington, Indiana, is home to the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. Silence. Why? Critics speculate that speaking out could endanger the continuation of junkets, honors, and pleasure-filled stays in Vilnius’s charming old town.
Hopefully these Americans of great accomplishment, all living in the United States, where disagreement with Lithuanian state policies will not endanger their careers or incomes, will in their own way find the courage to follow the inspiring example set by today’s nine young demonstrators here in Vilnius who have put at risk their own career prospects by providing nine gallant, if lonely, voices of dignity in a sea of silence.