Glorifying a Nazi collaborator in Lithuania
To the chagrin of Jewish groups, Lithuania commemorates the head of it's 1941 puppet regime.
In a controversial move causing anguish among Holocaust survivors, Lithuania's Jewish community and the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, the "prime minister" of Lithuania's 1941 Nazi puppet government will be glorified, reinterred with full honors and subject of a commemorative conference at Vytautas Magnus University this week.
The remains of Juozas Brazaitis (Ambrazevicius ), who died in the United States in 1974, will be re-interred from Putnam, Connecticut, to the Church of the Resurrection in Kaunas. En route, he will be honored in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, in a ceremony slated for May 17.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center's chief Nazi-hunter, Holocaust historian Dr. Efraim Zuroff, described the move as "an absolute outrage."
Adv. Joseph A. Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, told Haaretz: "One should resist this action. The government of Ambrazevicius was in charge of the murder of the Jews of Lithuania."
The Lithuanian embassy in Israel, however, said Ambrazevicius "was indeed controversial," but "it's hard to judge the period in which he was active."
Ambrazevicius, born in 1903, was a Lithuanian literary historian and politician with nationalistic views. Best known for being prime minister of the Nazi-puppet "provisional government" from the day it was formed on June 23, 1941 to its dismantling by Nazi overlords on August 5 that year.
His government was formed by the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF ), "whose members and allies unleashed murder, mutilation, rape and pillage against dozens of Jewish communities in Lithuania in the days before the Germans arrived and set up their new administration," according to Dovid Katz, a Vilnius-based Yiddish studies scholar and human rights activist currently living in Lithuania and the editor of DefendingHistory.com, which is dedicated to publications on public affairs, anti-Semitism and Holocaust issues.
"The government openly called upon the local population to attack Lithuanian Jews. This incitement to murder was a significant factor in the violence unleashed by Lithuanians against Jews in more than 40 places, even before the arrival of the German troops, and in the horrific wave of mass murder unleashed with massive local help after the country was occupied," added Zuroff.
The mayor of Kaunas, Andrius Kupcinskas, who headed the committee that approved the move, was quoted in the local media: "Every state leader must be given certain state honors. The provisional government of Lithuania was trying to return statehood to Lithuania. Historians may assess this variously, but his attempts were noble."
However, historical documents proved a deep connection between the government and the Nazi regime. The name of the Ambrazevicius appears atop the June 30, 1941 order for setting up a concentration camp for Jews, and the July 7, 1941 order to establish the Kovno (Kaunas ) ghetto for incarceration of the city's Jewish residents - as revealed by the website defendinghistory.com, which provides the original documents.
Moreover, the government ministers signed a telegram of greeting to Hitler in the summer of 1941, which is also quoted on the website: "After the liberating hurricane, which has overtaken Lithuania, the representatives of the free Lithuanian community are sending You, the Fuehrer of the German people, most profound and sincere gratitude for the liberation from the all-destroying and murderous occupation of the Jews and communists, and for saving the Lithuanian people from outrage, extermination, wanton mass torments and murders, and express their hope that Your Genius will give the Lithuanians the chance to take part in the campaign that aims at the annihilation of Judaism, Bolshevism and plutocracy, protection of the human being, freedom, protection of the culture of western Europe and the establishment of a new order in Europe."
When the government learned about the unusually cruel public torture of Jewish civilians in Kaunas, they adopted a recommendation concerning the venue for mass executions: "Though it is necessary to implement all means against the Jews because of their communist activities and their inflicting harm upon the German army, it is recommended that the Partisans and individual citizens should avoid the public executions of Jews."
The program of the festivities (on May 17, 18, 19 and 20 ) in Lithuania will include a May 19 memorial conference at Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas. "We sincerely hope that professors, students and local and international friends and admirers of Vytautas Magnus University, one of the finest in the Baltics, will make their voices heard respectfully asking for the cancellation of this misconceived event," wrote Katz in his journal.
Milan Chersonski, the long-time editor of Jerusalem of Lithuania, a quadrilingual (English-Lithuanian-Russian-Yiddish ) newspaper of the Jewish community of Lithuania, and previously director of the Yiddish Folk Theater of Lithuania, wrote in an essay published in defendinghistory.com that "Lithuania is the only country in Europe where street names in major cities honor Nazi collaborators. There is a street in Kaunas and a lecture hall in the city's Vytautas Magnus University named after Ambrazevicius."
Around 95 percent of Lithuanian Jewry perished in the Holocaust - the highest percentage in Europe - due to the massive participation and collaboration of locals.
Last month Lithuania received a failing grade from the Simon Wiesenthal Center for its activity against Nazi criminals. "It didn't bother to reply to the survey we distributed on the subject all over the world. Since 2006 not a single Nazi criminal has been tried there," said Zuroff.
Referring to the present affair, he added: "This is an absolute outrage which exposes the hypocrisy of the current Lithuanian government, which repeatedly claims that it takes the subject of Holocaust commemoration seriously ... To honor Ambrazevicius is to besmirch the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania and make a mockery of Lithuania's programs of Holocaust commemoration and education."
On the other hand, Violeta Popova, the deputy Lithuanian ambassador to Israel, claimed that "It is hard to judge that period from today's perspective," adding that Ambrazevicius was persecuted both by the Nazis and by the Soviets, because of his struggle for independence. "More than once he tried to convince Germany to stop persecuting Lithuanian Jews," she said. "After the German occupation he joined the anti-Nazi movement, was persecuted by the Gestapo, changed his name and was exiled to the United States."
A document she presented shows that in 1975 the U.S. Immigration Service exonerated him of involvement in pro-Nazi and anti-Jewish activity. But according to Zuroff, "At the time the Americans didn't have the data that clearly point to his connection to the Nazis and to anti-Jewish violence."
The Lithuanian embassy presented another side of the picture. "There isn't a single government in Europe that is doing what we do for the Jews," says Popova. "It's very important to us to preserve our Lithuanian Jewish heritage and to remember those who were killed in the Holocaust."
In that context, she says, there have been dozens of projects for studying the Holocaust, a law was passed to compensate its victims, and money was allocated to restore Jewish sites in the country.