When Lithuania Was 'Yiddishland'

Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren

Before the Holocaust, Lithuania had some 160,000 Jews, who constituted one of the most vibrant and colorful Jewish communities in history. Today, there are only 5,000 Jews in Lithuania some 90 percent of the Jewish population, which had swelled to nearly 250,000, with the arrival of refugees from Poland, were murdered during World War II, not only by the Nazis, but also with the enthusiastic participation of the Lithuanian people.

And yet, in the independent, post-Soviet Lithuania of today, there is a renewed interest in Jewish culture, and the government is making an effort to showcase it to the world. The 24th Jerusalem International Book Fair is one venue where this effort will be on full display, with five different events organized by the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv scheduled to take place (with a number of other Lithuanian cultural events, not necessarily of a Jewish nature, including dance performances, jazz concerts and movie screenings, planned for different locations around the country).

This cultural offensive, however, is not being welcomed wholeheartedly. Despite the fact that one of the sessions to be presented at the fair will deal directly with the subject of the Holocaust (Is It Still Difficult to Speak about the Holocaust in Lithuania? at 5 P.M. Tuesday?), the Lithuanian-sponsored campaign has been met with some derision by those who see it as a mere fig leaf to cover an official reluctance in the country to deal with its anti-Semitic past.

Calling Lithuania's participation in the book fair ?propaganda,? Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office, told Haaretz that Lithuania the country with the highest percentage of Jews killed during the Holocaust has been a 'total failure' at bringing Nazi collaborators to justice.

Lithuania's ambassador to Israel, Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, is convinced that her country's interest in its Jewish past is genuine and sincere. Jews have been in Lithuania for already six or seven centuries, they?re a part of our culture and it's part of our mentality, part of heritage and history, she said when asked about her country's presence at the book fair. The Jews who lived in Lithuania before World War II contributed a lot to our culture, philosophy and mentality, and also to research in a lot of scientific fields. The Baltic country wants to present those parts of our history to the Israeli public, she said.

The Vilnius Yiddish Institute opened at the University of Vilnius in 2001, there is a new Jewish tourism office in the capital city, and in 2007 a Jewish nursery school started teaching Yiddish to its children in an attempt to preserve the language as Ashkenazi Jews? mother tongue.

The city once called the Jerusalem of Lithuania will also be the subject of a book-fair session, Vilnius: a Place of Dialogue between Jewish and Lithuanian Cultures (Monday at 11 A.M.). The following day, a group of Russian speakers will discuss humor and drama in contemporary Lithuanian literature in a session called 'I Laugh through Tears and Work with Joy' (Wednesday, 11 A.M.), with a session at 5 P.M. on Yiddish in Lithuania. The final Lithuania-related event, on Thursday, will feature some of the country?s best-known Jewish and non-Jewish writers in a session called ?Language As an Existential Choice. There will also be poetry readings in Lithuanian and Hebrew.

Arad accused of war crimes

But the seminar that deals with Holocaust perception, which takes places Tuesday at 5 P.M., is expected to draw the most attention. Participants are to include three Lithuanian scholars and Israeli historian Yitzhak Arad, the former chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum. It is Arad's participation in the program that is especially significant, as Lithuanian authorities? 2006 accusation that Arad committed war crimes during his time in the Lithuanian Resistance enraged Jewish scholars who are somewhat wary of modern-day Lithuania.

Nazi-hunter Zuroff, for instance, who has had many frustrating experiences trying to win the assistance of law-enforcement authorities in Vilnius in bringing local Nazi collaborators to justice, says Lithuanian authorities have done ?everything possible to make sure that the perpetrators would never be punished.

Even worse, says Zuroff, is his sense that the Baltic state is spearheading an attempt to equate Nazi atrocities with Communist acts of resistance during World War II. He specifically referred to a recent neo-Nazi rally through Vilnius and the attempt to criminalize Jewish partisans from Lithuania, like Arad, who were accused of war crimes during the war. ?I am a little wary of people who like dead Jews more than they do live ones,? he said. ?The harassment of Jewish partisans that says to me more than these cultural festivals for dead Jews. Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz, the New York-born founder of the Yiddish Institute, is also critical of Lithuania?s approach to Jewry, accusing the country of having a ?powerful anti-Semitic establishment.

At the same time, Katz, who has lived in Vilnius for the last 10 years, says he has been treated exceptionally well by people everywhere in the city and that he feels ?proud to look, sound and feel very Jewish. He also wrote a new book about Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews), which was commissioned by the Lithuanian culture ministry especially for the book fair (Seven Kingdoms of the Litvaks).

Yet he reports on a ?dreadful and powerful anti-Semitic establishment that is based not among everyday people, but among the elites of government and some of its agencies and some quasi-academic institutions.

In an e-mail interview with Haaretz, Katz complained, for example, about the so-called Red-Brown Commission, a government-sponsored study ?whose purpose is not Holocaust denial but what I call Holocaust obfuscation a plot to trivialize, minimize and talk away the Holocaust by claiming that Nazi and Soviet crimes are absolutely equal.

Like Zuroff, Katz is outraged that Lithuanian ?politicians, prosecutors and quasi-academics in the service of revisionist history started to accuse Jewish Holocaust survivors of ?war crimes? if they escaped certain death to join the anti-Nazi partisan resistance movement in the forests.? The first partisan to be accused was Arad, although all charges were dropped, in the wake of international pressure.

The low point in the history of modern Lithuania, said Katz, came on May 5, 2008, when prosecutors sent two armed plainclothes police to look for Rachel Margolis and Fania Brantsovsky, two incredibly courageous Holocaust survivors who are heroes of the free world for having joined the anti-Nazi resistance in the forests of Lithuania.? Later that month, prosecutors said the women couldn?t be found implying, according to Katz, that they were fugitives.

Articles and media have continued to call both murderers or suspects of war crimes, he said. We must not allow this shameful sham to continue unopposed, or for it to be covered up by even the most lavish and impressive cultural events.

Although Katz was invited to participate in the fair?s ?Yiddishland? seminar, he said he politely explained he would not be willing to come unless Margolis a dual Lithuanian-Israeli citizen was invited to join the Lithuanian delegation as a guest of honor for her achievement in rediscovering, deciphering and publishing the lost diary of the mass murder at Ponar, one of the most important documents of any witness to the Lithuanian Holocaust.

?They discreetly got back to me [saying] that nothing could be done,? Katz said, explaining his decision not to attend the fair. Yet other intellectuals and officials both Israelis and Lithuanians said Zuroff's and Katz's criticism of the Lithuanian presence at the fair is exaggerated and misplaced.

To speak about a plot is too strong, said Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, the Lithuanian ambassador. ?Rachel Margolis was never accused of anything. Never. She was a witness in a legal case about the burning of a village, where men, women and children were burned alive. She could know about how this could have happened, so she was invited to [be a] witness. That's it.

Besides the participation of Arad, the invitation to historian Saulius Suziedelis is another sign that the Lithuanians are serious about the topic, said Icchokas Meras, a well-known Jewish-Lithuanian writer who was scheduled to appear on Thursday?s panel about language as an existential choice but who won't be able attend because of his heart problems. ?Suziedelis is one of the best historians, he began to find out everything about how the Holocaust happened in Lithuania, said Meras, a Holocaust survivor who moved from Lithuania to Israel in 1972. "Here in Israel, Jews don't want to show anything positive about Lithuania. There are people who only see the bad side, the black side of what happened," he said. "Yes, it was bad. I went through it. But it?s necessary that Israel and Lithuania are in a good relationship, and I don?t see any propaganda here."

Motti Zalkin, who teaches the history of Lithuanian Jewry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and who will appear at Wednesday's event on Yiddish, also says the criticism is unjustified. "I spent a lot of time in Lithuania, I've been to almost every shtetl, and I walk around with a kippah on my head," he said. "I can't recall a single anti-Semitic incident."

Zalkin said the harassment of Arad and Margolis was initiated by the judiciary rather than the government, and that whatever anti-Semitism exists in Lithuania is based on a rampant hatred of Russians. Jews, said Zalkin, were over-proportionally involved with the KGB which is considered to have perpetrated a 'Lithuanian genocide' and it is in this light that anti-Jewish sentiments have to be evaluated. Zalkin pointed out that historian Tomas Venclova, the first Lithuanian writer to say that the Lithuanians are collectively guilty for their role in the Holocaust, will be on the panel. "We should welcome such efforts to promote this bilateral discourse via the cultural channel," said Zalkin. The organizers of the fair, meanwhile, are trying to stay away from the controversy.

"I am not a politician, I am just running a book fair," said Zev Birger, the chairman, who was born in Lithuania. "I don't know if it's propaganda or not, but we're offering a platform for discussions, and we invite people to come and ask questions and have a dialogue. The Lithuanians will have to reply, and by talking to each other, the truth will emerge."

Birger, who moved to Israel in 1946, after having been liberated from Dachau - and who returned to his native Lithuania for the first time only two years ago - said he personally doesn't believe the Lithuanians dealt correctly with their role in the Holocaust. He added, however, that he is happy about their eagerness to participate in this year?s fair. "We believe that the exchange of literature and culture brings people together,? said Birger. ?Because people know more about each other by reading the books of the other nation?s authors. And they?ll get closer to each other."