On Monday, March 11, as many as several thousand Lithuanian neo-Nazis and ultra-nationalists will conduct a patriotic march in the capital of Vilnius (Vilna) to mark Lithuanian independence day.
At the moment, the exact venue of the event has still not been determined because the municipality has turned down the organizers’ request to stage the march on the city’s most prestigious boulevard, Gedimino, where it has been held every year since it was originally initiated in 2008. The court granted permission for the march to be held across the river in the Shnipeshok area, but the organizers have re-petitioned to hold it in the famous Old Town of Vilna to ensure maximum exposure and publicity in the wake of the refusal to approve the use of Gedimino Boulevard.
Either way, once again, each of the happiest days on the calendar in Lithuania will have been marked by a march of right-wing extremists, whose dream is an ethnically pure Lithuania, free of minorities, or in their words, “ Lietuva Lietuviams ,” or Lithuania for Lithuanians. (The country celebrates two independence days: on February 16 to mark the original establishment of modern Lithuania in 1918, and on March 11 to honor the renewal of sovereignty in the wake of the breakup of the Soviet Union. On the former, the extreme Right march in Kaunas (Kovno), on the latter they stage a parade in Vilnius.) The fact that for the past five years, extremist nationalist elements have virtually hijacked Lithuanian independence day reflects the deteriorating situation of the country’s miniscule (about 3,500) Jewish community and that of other minorities in the wake of Lithuania’s admission to the European Union and NATO. Having obtained their primary foreign policy objectives, the Conservative government lost all restraint and adopted extremist nationalistic policies, which featured the whitewashing of extensive Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes, failure to punish unprosecuted local Nazi war criminals, attempts to prosecute Jewish Soviet anti- Nazi partisans on trumped-up charges of war crimes and the promotion of the canard of historical equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes.
Add a total failure to apprehend, let alone punish, the perpetrators of a rising number of anti-Semitic vandalizations of Jewish institutions, cemeteries and Holocaust memorials, and the background to the marches, the number of whose participants has been steadily rising since their inception, becomes crystal-clear.
Another sign of the winds blowing in Vilnius during this period was the fact that among the participants in the marches, whose number increased with each passing year, were several members of the Lithuanian parliament (Seimas), including from the ruling Homeland Union Party, and that no government minister or high official ever denounced the marches and/or their racist messages.
On the contrary, the sole negative comments ever uttered by those in power were made half-heartedly only after harsh criticism was voiced abroad by Jewish organizations. And instead of unequivocally denouncing the marchers’ slogans and xenophobic chants, the message was that the march may not be worth it, but only because it tarnished Lithuania’s image abroad.
Throughout this period, moreover, the number of protestors against the march could barely be counted on two hands, with no local opposition even attempting to organize a meaningful protest. Only Prof. Dovid Katz, one of the world’s leading experts on Yid- dish, who was fired from his post at Vilnius University for his staunch defense of the besmirsched Jewish anti-Nazi partisans, and former community activist Milan Chersonskij consistently opposed the fascist spectacle year after year.
THIS YEAR, the annual Baltic fascist march season, which lasts exactly one calendar month, from February 16 in Kaunas until the march in Riga exactly a month later by Latvian SS veterans, began as usual, but with one highly significant difference. On February 12, four days before the planned right- wing parade in Kaunas, newly elected Social-Democratic Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevicius expressed criticism of the march in a radio interview.
Even more important, two days later, he issued a statement condemning the march and/or any action which increases ethnic tensions between Lithuanian residents.
This step did not take place in a vacuum, however, and apparently was linked to my decision, in consultation with Prof. Katz, to hold a joint press conference in Vilnius the day before the event to explain our opposition to such marches, and especially those held on Independence Day in the main boulevards of Lithuania’s largest cities, and to monitor the march itself in Kaunas the next day. At a jam-packed press conference on Friday in the capital, we presented our case that freedom of expression did not include the right to incite against minorities, nor would the extremist ideas espoused by the marchers do anything to help solve Lithuania’s serious economic and demographic problems.
In addition, I surveyed the deterioration in Lithuanian- Jewish relations in the wake of the country’s admission to the European Union and NATO and against the background of the country’s reluctance to honestly confront the extensive scope of local complicity in Holocaust crimes. Contrary to past press conferences over the past two decades on these painful subjects, Prof. Katz and I had the feeling that the participants actually were listening carefully and did not dismiss our arguments out of hand.
The Vilnius municipality’s efforts to move this coming Monday’s march from the center of the city to a suburb across the river are part of what appears to be an effort to reduce the visibility of the extremists’ march and remove them from the center stage they have expropriated for themselves. This would undoubtedly be a very positive step in the battle against Lithuanian xenophobia and anti-Semitism, but it will ultimately not be enough to win the far larger and more important battle against Holocaust distortion and the attempts to cover up Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes.
When I first came to Lithuania 22 years ago to try and help convince the local authorities to bring unpunished Lithuanian Nazi war criminals to trial, I tried to convince them that such proceedings were the best history lesson to help their society honestly deal with Lithuania’s bloody Holocaust past. Unfortunately, those efforts were only very partially successful, and now that fight for historical truth must continue without the advantages provided by the prosecution of local killers. The decisions regarding Monday’s march in Vilnius will be the first salvo in what will most probably be a protracted and very bitter struggle, but one which the defenders of Jewish history cannot afford to lose.
The writer is the chief Nazi- hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel Office. His most recent book, Operation Last Chance: One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan) deals extensively with his efforts to bring Baltic Nazi war criminals to justice all over the world.