OPINION | DONSKIS SECTION | MUSEUMS | COLLABORATORS GLORIFIED | KAUNAS: 2022 CAPITAL OF EUROPEAN CULTURE
Vytautas Magnus University, once considered a beacon of tolerance and liberalism, suffered extensive (utterly self-inflicted) reputational damage back in 2009 when it inaugurated a lecture hall and bas-relief glorifying Juozas Ambrezevicius Brazaitis, “prime minister” in Lithuania’s Nazi puppet “provisional government” in 1941. During his brief period as Hitler’s chief puppet in the country, he signed documents confirming transfer of numerous Jewish fellow citizens of his native Kaunas to the nearby Seventh Fort for torture and murder, and later signed the Nazi-ordered documents ordering all remaining Jews of Kaunas into a ghetto, to become the infamous Kovno Ghetto. During his later American career, as a CIA asset and academic, he never once expressed regret over what had happened to the 30,000 Jewish residents of Kaunas.
Then, in 2012, when an international scandal broke out over the Lithuanian government’s decision to fly over and rebury with full honors the Nazi puppet prime minister’s remains, it was, alas a top historian and academic official at Vytautas Magnus who described the reburial as a grand act of Lithuania’s historic drama, while denouncing the Leonidas Donskis led effort to pull the university out of national ceremonies honoring the Nazi collaborator, in these terms: “This wasn’t the academic community but a decision of the VMU administration which became frightened that they were going to get hit over the head with a club by the Jews.” For context, see events of May 2012.
The Defending History community remains forever proud that the late and lamented Prof. Donskis chose DH for his powerful essay condemning the 2012 festivities honoring the 1941 collaborator in the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry, as well as for his statement and open letter making clear that the planned Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis event would not take place at VMU. Browse DH’s May 2012 issues for more on the university’s role in the unfolding events.
Bigger Picture and Current Issues
But that may all in the larger scheme of things be just an illuminating example of the larger malady of a morally incompatible “two track policy” (satisfy the racist, antisemitic, homophobic Far Right as well as the foreign liberal world, thinking nobody will be the wiser). Those planning to participate in next month’s event are asked to remember what Prof. Donskis’s writings really said about Double Genocide; glorification of June 23, 1941, the “Uprising” and Provisional Government; laws criminalizing debate (cf. the 2010 law in Lithuania “offering” up to two years in prison for those who would disagree with the government’s Double Genocide history). It is also important to remember Donskis’s reaction when the Double Genocide movement hit upon the “strategy” of prosecuting (ultimately in the name of “symmetry”) Holocaust survivors who survived by escaping the ghetto to join up with the anti-Nazi partisans in the forests (supported by the USSR, during the Baltic Holocaust the only force putting up resistance to the Nazis in Eastern Europe).
Turning to the present, colleagues and students who participate in the 21 September 2021 Donskis-named conference event might also (Leonidas would have loved this!) engage in a simple thought experiment. What would Donskis say today, in the autumn of 2021, about the Seimas having named the year 2021 for an alleged (Kaunas) Holocaust perpetrator? About the Defense Ministry (!) continuing to glorify theoretician of ethnic cleansing of Lithuania’s Jews (penned while he was sojourning in Hitler’s Berlin)? The policy of Kaunas (and other cities, alas) to continue to sport street names and shrines for assorted Nazi perpetrators? (See now Lev Golinkin’s major survey of the phenomenon more widely.) But above all, what would Leonidas Donskis make of the hosting university continuing to proudly sport a lecture hall and bas relief honoring a despicable Nazi collaborator, whose formal role is analogous to that of General Petain in Hitler’s Vichy France? The lecture hall and bas-relief were, incidentally, dedicated in 2009, the year Prof. Donskis himself left for Brussels to take up his seat in the European Parliament.
Role of Museums in Public Space
As the symposium topic is “The Role of Museums and Public Space in Remembering the Past” it seems to some outside observers intellectually essential for the integrity of the event that at least one paper be devoted to the state’s major falsification-of-history museum on the main boulevard of the beautiful capital Vilnius (the place made Leonidas sick to even think about.) But there has been wonderful news this year out of Lithuania: The German Foreign Ministry arranged a prestigious award (from the president of Germany) for Rachel Kostanian, the inspirationally courageous long-time director, moral guardian and Holocaust truth-teller who led a tiny little wooden museum up on a hall up a steep driveway (unseeable from the street) known as the Green House. Surely, this symposium on museums and their role in public perceptions of history and memory presents a unique opportunity to honor the legacy of a born-and-bred Lithuanian museum director (and Holocaust survivor) who dared tell the truth about history and suffered a lot for it. All the more so as she is still with us (living, in her 90s, in retirement in Berlin, and able to record words of greetings to the participants in an array of languages).
On the regional Eastern Europe wide issue of abuse of museums dedicate to some cunning genres of Holocaust obfuscation, double genocide, glorification of collaborators and perpetrators, and ultranationalist and far-right inspired revisionist history, see a 2016 survey of some of the issues in play, as well as DH’s Museums section.
Most specifically, it is a fine time to honor the sacred memory of Leonidas Donskis, at this event sponsored and held by Vytautas Magnus University, that it remove the lecture hall name and bas-relief honoring the Nazi puppet prime minister before the end of 2021. Long overdue for anyone who truly loves Lithuania and not its far-right elite-empowered nincompoops. What about it?
There is a grand opportunity for the admirers of the real Leonidas Donskis to stand up and be counted, and (perhaps appropriately in the era of covid), to participate only in events outside, reserving entrance to premises of Vytautas Magnus University, in line with the practice of some folks of conscience for years now, for that happy moment when the university’s plaque, and the plague, of Nazi collaborator worship is thrown onto the dust heap where it belongs.