Seven years ago, this journal’s opinion section cheered the decision to finally, for the first time, honor one of the real Lithuanian heroes of the Holocaust era, the Rescuers, also known as Righteous of the Nations, in Vilnius. While praising the decision to so honor the inspirational Ona Šimaitė (1894–1970), Defending History lamented the decision to do so out in a suburb just north of the city. The name of our editorial in 2013 was “Vilnius Street Name Proposed for Rescuer Out in Boondocks; But Please Remove Nazi Collaborators from City Center!”
As ever, the Defending History community was pleased to play the role of catalyst while much more powerful and wealthy forces eventually came around to taking up the cause. In the end a streetlet was named for Šimaitė at the technical “edge” of the city center, not very traversed, but progress nonetheless.
Naturally, Defending History was there to report on the street name’s unveiling in 2015.
In the meantime, another Defending History effort, one that got underway a decade ago, exposed to the English speaking world, and beyond, the public-space state-sponsored honors (monuments, plaques, street names, university lecture halls and more) for Hitlerists, including a number of brutal Holocaust collaborators. Some of the more widely known — and bruising — battles, concerning Juozas Ambrazevičius (Brazaitis), Jonas Noreika, and Kazys Škirpa, have verily demonstrated how a modest web journal and Vilnius-based international community, comprising Jews, Lithuanians and others working in harmony, can make a dent in history by unleashing much greater forces in support of ideas it brings forward, ideas typically derided as radical and extreme, which, however, upon reflection and with some little bit of time, are rightly perceived as simple common sense. For example the idea that honoring Nazi collaborators is a free pass for past and future genocides alike and one in servile service of truly extreme ultranationalist far right forces. Or, the very simple idea that country with a magnificent thousand year history like Lithuania does not need to honor Hitler’s henchmen who set a Europe wide example for bloodlust targeting fellow citizens of a certain background. History will surely show who were the bona fide friends of Lithuania in all this. They will be seen to not always have been from among the ranks of the powerful and mighty in academia, media, ministries and security services.
But for all the progress, there is still a Noreika marble stone on Vilnius’s central boulevard, Gedimino Prospect. And, a brand new “better” plaque on the National Library of Sciences facade, very near Cathedral Square, and a few minutes’ walk from the foot of the central boulevard. The central thoroughfare of central Vilnius boasts the de facto European museum of Holocaust denial and obfuscation that glorifies the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) butchers of 1941— they did not wait for the first German Nazi forces to arrive — to begin their plunder, humiliation, injury and murder of their Jewish neighbors in forty locations as “freedom fighters and rebels.”
Fast forward to 2020. A long overdue and outstanding decision has been made to erect a monument in honor of Lithuania’s Holocaust-era Rescuers, and a serious competition launched by the Ministry of Culture. This is a decision of major importance for which Lithuania’s authorities are to be congratulated.
What a shame for this monument to be in fact “relatively hidden” on the very edge of town, where very few will see it, near the current Ona Šimaitė St. and the huge Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters, in other words — one of the “typecast touristy Jewish corners” well outside the uban-reality, social, cultural, psychological (perceived) and factual city center.
In the urban symbology of Eastern Europe (and beyond) there is a deep consensus on the distinction of import and sincerity obtaining between the City Center and the edge of some ravine at its very end that is a splendid short-cut ring-road for cars avoiding speed limits.
Do something great for Lithuania (not for “the Jews”). Move this monument project to Gedimino Prospect.