Nobody could love or respect the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research more than I do. It was founded as the Yiddish Scientific Institute in Vilna, Poland (now Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1925. YIVO remains a symbol for all who cherish our Yiddish heritage and, now, its last prewar survivors.
Through the years I have spent many wondrous hours at YIVO, digging, discovering, and learning about my Litvak ancestors, their shtetlach, and their culture. Being there always felt like being home. The books and documents I handled seemed almost sacred. Memories of conversations with YIVO’s revered librarian Dina Abramowicz still make me smile. . . . But today I am saddened by what I perceive as an irony of events: one on February 14 at YIVO in New York, and another on February 16 in YIVO’s motherland.
Several years ago I learned that neo-Nazi marches are now held in the major city centers of Lithuania twice annually. Marches will soon occur in Kaunas (Kovno) on February 16 and in Vilnius (Vilna) on March 11. We all know that neo-Nazi parades still occur both in our country and in Europe, guaranteed under freedom of expression laws in democracies. But Lithuania’s fascist events transmit an extra sting: the selected dates commemorate the most sacred days of the Lithuanian calendar. February 16, 1918, marked the Day of Restoration of Lithuania’s Independence. March 11, 1990, was the nation’s second Restoration of Independence. Why would a member state of the European Union celebrate its patriotic holidays – its Days of Independence – by flaunting swastikas and other fascist symbols in the centers of its major cities?
Is there a subliminal connection between “patriotism” and Nazism in Lithuania?
The organizers of the 2014 neo-Nazi marches have already obtained their permits from the municipal authorities. This has become an automatic rubber stamp sanctioned by the government of Lithuania. For the seventh consecutive year, the marches will take place during prime time along the major boulevards of Kaunas and Vilnius. Last year the mayor of Vilnius suggested the groups should parade in an alternative location, one that is not in the city center. The organizers scoffed at the insult and announced they would march along the same prominent route that has always been theirs. The police did not intervene in the illegal march, and the mayor subsequently commented he would place no restrictions on permits in the future.
It seems ironic that right here in the United States, just days before the Kaunas neo-Nazi march, a gathering of high-level personalities will participate in a serious-sounding roundtable discussion: “Unresolved History: Jews and Lithuanians after the Holocaust,” hosted by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. Linas Linkevičius, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania, and Anne E. Derse, former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, will present the introductory remarks. The program is supported by the Lithuanian Consulate General in New York and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania.
It is an elegantly civilized and blissful concept: an eminent group of Jews and Lithuanians assembled to discuss critical issues facing the Jewish community in Lithuania today. Who can criticize such a noble effort?
Lithuania is the land where more than 95 percent of its prewar Jewish population of 225,000 was murdered during the Holocaust – annihilated mainly by volunteering Lithuanian collaborators. Will the academics and intellectuals address the importance of the true historical memory of the Holocaust so that the generations that follow will inherit the truth? The Lithuanian government invests heavily in a campaign of seminars and conferences that bring together educators and statesmen who explore the legacy of the Holocaust in Lithuania. They are forever analyzing the unresolved Lithuanian-Jewish issues. The words are cheap, but the issues never get fixed. Perhaps at the next conference…
These events make the current ruling elite of Lithuania look good in the West.
But for the 3,000 or so Jews in Lithuania, life goes on as before. They have become almost deaf to the chants of neo-Nazis, almost blind to the buildings and streets named in honor of Nazi collaborators, almost desensitized to the feel of rising anti-Semitism in a country where Jews approach statistical zero.
It was less than two years ago that the Lithuanian government, to the silence of the U.S. State Department and many Jewish organizations, repatriated from Putnam, Connecticut, and reburied with full honors, the remains of the 1941 Nazi puppet “prime minister” who personally signed papers confirming shipment of the Jewish citizens to death camps and ghettos. At the time, it was reported here in The Algemeiner. A leading professor at Yale, along with the director of YIVO, were, incredibly, brought to Lithuania to camouflage what was happening with yet another saccharine historical symposium sponsored by the Lithuanian government.
Since 2006, Lithuania has been the only country on the planet to defame Holocaust survivors who survived by joining the anti-Nazi resistance as “war criminals.” None of them has yet received a public apology.
The greatest threat to what may be the hidden agenda of the YIVO roundtable revolves around a body known unofficially as the “Red-Brown Commission” and officially as The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania. The Commission has sought to advance the Double Genocide theory, which seeks to equate the World War II Nazi and Soviet crimes, claiming that the suffering of the Jews under the Nazi occupiers was equal to that of the Lithuanians during the two Soviet occupations of the country. Of course the serious crimes of Stalinism need to be investigated, exposed, and made part of the historical record. That is vitally important. But it is a separate issue, and is completely disrespectful to Holocaust survivors.
The Double Genocide movement has made threatening inroads via its primary document, the Prague Declaration of 2008. In 2012, a robust response came from 70 parliamentarians in the European Union who signed the Seventy Years Declaration, including eight Social Democrats from Lithuania. Sadly, not a single one of them appears on YIVO’s upcoming panel. Can we hope that the participants will rise to the occasion and confront the unresolved issues once and for all?