A year has gone by since President Obama’s special envoy and head of the Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism was taken to task by the Simon Wiesenthal Center vis-à-vis Lithuania, in an opinion piece in the Guardian. Some months before that, in May 2010, The Tablet reported: “Rosenthal Lays Off Lithuania. Anti-Semitism envoy accused of obfuscating Holocaust obfuscation.”
At a one-day international conference held in mid November 2011 in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, it seemed that the amicable, well-meaning envoy who has spoken up with clarity on issues in many parts of the world, had again been snake-charmed into acquiescence by a sophisticated Lithuanian government PR machine, disappointing members of the struggling Jewish community who expected the American envoy on anti-Semitism to utter at least a few syllables on ― anti-Semitism. Most especially, the kind for which the state is responsible. In 2010 and 2011 cases in point included the legalization of public swastikas, the granting of permits for neo-Nazi marches on the capital’s main boulevard, failure to discipline military personnel who participate in neo-Nazi activities, and perhaps most disturbing, a series of state-sponsored events in 2011 to honor as heroes the local Holocaust murderers of 1941 who unleashed barbarity against their Jewish neighbors in June 1941 even before the Germans arrived, and whose published leaflets before the war made clear plans to do away with the country’s Jewish citizens.
The conference’s most dramatic moment came when a boyish-looking maverick Lithuanian politician, Algirdas Paleckis (AL-gir-das Pa-LETS-kis), currently on trial under the country’s laws restricting free speech (on matters of history, of all things), slipped into the hall virtually unnoticed and asked the first question after the session that included Rosenthal. In precisely three minutes, he brought up all the above-cited issues, to the chagrin of much of the nationalist audience present, and to the delight of the tiny Jewish contingent sitting in the rear that burst out in loud applause. One didn’t have to be an acoustics scientist to hear that it was all coming from one corner.
Rosenthal’s session was called “Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, discrimination. Totalitarian temptations and new trials of tolerance.” The session was chaired by Ronaldas Račinskas, known for giving divergent accounts of the Holocaust to Lithuanian and to Jewish audiences. He is executive director of a discredited state-sponsored commission that works to convince the European Parliament to declare Nazi and Soviet crimes equal.
Among those who have to date resigned on principle from the Commission and its associate committees are Sir Martin Gilbert (London), Professor Gershon Greenberg (Washington DC), Professor Konrad Kwiet (Sydney), and Dr. Yitzhak Arad (Tel Aviv). The session also included the charismatic and controversial right-wing ruling-party politician Emanuelis Zingeris, who was the only Jew in Europe to sign the 2008 Prague Declaration.
Rosenthal spent much of her own talk praising the record of the Lithuanian government in promoting tolerance, not mentioning a single problem, least of all the ongoing state prosecutors’ campaign against Holocaust survivors who are alive because they joined the anti-Nazi resistance or because they have worked for truth-telling about the Holocaust in Lithuania, where the rate of murder of the Jewish population, around 95% , was the highest in Europe. Less than three months ago, Lithuanian officials arranged for Interpol liaison officers to question 86 year old Joseph Melamed, a Kovno Ghetto survivor, anti-Nazi partisan hero, and hero of the Israeli War of Independence. Melamed, head of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, was wanted for questioning because of a 1999 book he wrote listing alleged murderers he wanted Lithuanian authorities to investigate. Dr. Rachel Margolis, who turned 90 last month in Rechovot, is another target of Lithuanian prosecutors. She feels she cannot fulfill her wish to see her native Vilna one list time for fear of harassment from prosecutors and other officials.
There was another inspiring moment of hope at a later session that included the dynamic young administrator of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, 30 year old Simon Gurevich. He asked the assembled to try to imagine what it must be like for a loyal citizen who loves his country, and wants to spend his life in his native land, to see a swastika painted on his car, and to know that he could not wear a yarmulke in the street for long without being taunted. It was especially poignant to hear Mr. Gurevich suggest that Lithuania name some streets after the incredibly brave Lithuanians who risked everything to save a Jew during the Holocaust; this required much more courage than in many places because such rescuers were defying their own nation’s “patriots” rather than just the German invaders. For locals, Mr. Gurevich was making a subtle reference to the cutting pain caused by streets being named for Holocaust perpetrators, who are regarded as “national heroes” because they were “anti-Soviet.”
But perhaps by the end of the day Ms. Rosenthal was nevertheless at least a little inspired by the courage of the eccentric Lithuanian politician and the young Jewish community leader.
All the more so bearing in mind that they were among those who would not be on the next plane out after the conference.