Lithuania holds a special significance for me. It was where I survived
the Holocaust. In the capital of Vilna, now Vilnius, my parents left
me with my Polish Catholic nanny, who baptized me and raised me as her
son, saving me from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. And the
Nazis weren’t the only concern.
From 1941 to 1944, Lithuanian militias participated with
the Nazis in killing around 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population,
the largest percentage in any country during the Holocaust. Today,
Lithuania is again distinguishing itself from the rest of Europe in
a less murderous but still terrible way — through its tolerance for
In no other European country has the front page of a national newspaper featured
a cartoon with a hook-nosed Jew and a homosexual holding a globe between
them with the caption, “Who Controls the World?” None of Lithuania’s
leaders condemned it.
European newspapers do not print such blatant anti-Semitism as an op-ed, entitled
“The Rabbis are Wreaking Havoc in Lithuania,” whose first
sentence reads “I don’t like Jews and nothing can be done
Unfortunately, these examples are
not isolated cases of anti-Semitism in Lithuanian media.
Some of the most hateful articles over the past year have
been written by former and present members of Lithuania’s
parliament, newspaper editors, and other opinion elites.
In no other country have World War
II Jewish partisans — like the heroes of the movie Defiance
— been named as “persons of interest” by state prosecutors.
In May 2008, Lithuanian prosecutors announced that they were
seeking two elderly Holocaust survivors, Fania Brantsovsky
and Rachel Margolis. Brantsovsky, a former partisan, is a
librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania.
Margolis, a historian of the partisans who discovered and
published a long-lost diary by a witness of the murder of
the Jews of Vilnius, lives in Israel, but each summer would
give tours of the Vilna Ghetto. No longer. Today she fears
interrogation and possible arrest if she were to visit her
In no other country where it is illegal
to incite ethnic hatred have the police escorted a neo-Nazi
parade through the capital, as the marchers chanted the Nazi
slogan “Juden raus!” (“Jews out!”) and sang “You take that
little stick and kill that little Jew.” Lithuanian police
did so last March. It took an entire week and complaints
by Jewish organizations before Lithuanian President Adamkus
criticized the march and the police inaction.
Only in Lithuania is the local Mardi
Gras festival celebrated by dressing in costume “as Jews,”
as the Lithuanians say, often with horns or long noses. This
year a major television channel showed two revelers dressed
as chasidic Jews, who sang about the global economic crisis
to the tune of Hava Nagila.
Lithuania and Poland are also the
only countries in Europe to prevent Jews from claiming Holocaust-era
confiscated private property. Lithuanian law, unlike the
laws of any other member state of the European Union, requires
citizenship prior to December 2001 as a condition for restitution.
Since Lithuanian law prohibited dual citizenship until July
2008, survivors or their descendants living outside of Lithuania
— virtually all the claimants — were denied restitution.
The first step for Lithuania in addressing
these problems is to recognize them. When the capital’s Jewish
community center was spray-painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic
slogans, President Adamkus did condemn the attack, saying
that it should be considered “a destructive and sordid act
against Lithuania as a whole, not only Lithuania’s Jewish
community.” But it took a blatant and high-profile anti-Semitic
incident and the world watching to produce such a statement,
an exception to what should be the rule.
If the Lithuanian government wants
to shed its dubious distinction, it knows the steps it must
take. Condemn anti-Semitism. Prosecute those who incite violence
against or intimidate the Lithuanian Jewish community. Clear
the names of the Jewish partisans. Provide reasonable legal
processes for property restitution.