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May 21, 2012 1:36 pm

An Open Letter to Yale History Professor Timothy Snyder

avatar by Dovid Katz

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Historian and professor Timothy Snyder. Photo: wiki commons.

Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University, the author of the famous (and controversial) book “Bloodlands” was brought to Lithuania last week for a symposium on the Holocaust attended also by the director of YIVO in New York. In the course of the same week, the Lithuanian government repatriated, reburied with full honors and held a series of events honoring the 1941 Nazi-puppet prime minister who signed off on the German order for all Jews in Kaunas (Kovno) to be forced into a ghetto.

Dear Tim,

Greetings, and sorry we missed each other in Vilnius this time. I write in the context of our ongoing and respectful conversation, which started in the Guardian (thanks to Matt Seaton, and prominently including Efraim Zuroff) back in 2010 (I, II, III, IV); continuing through our meeting at Yale, the Aftermath Conference in Melbourne, Australia, in 2011 (thanks to Mark Baker, and with participation of Jan Gross and Patrick Desbois), and more recently, via my review of your book Bloodlands (along with Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between), in East European Jewish Affairs.

In that review, I dealt with a number of areas of disagreement that are on the table concerning the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and the efforts underway to use state funds to downgrade it in a number of countries, particularly the Baltics.

But these debates are inherently separate from the troubling issue on which I’m addressing you today: the ongoing instrumentalization and abuse of your important work by well-oiled government-financed ultra-nationalist and often antisemitic forces in Eastern Europe who have (wrongly) found in your work the ammunition for a discernible slide in the direction of the Double Genocide movement, which reached its zenith with the 2008 Prague Declaration (critiques here), and in the direction of positing the sort of “complexity” that is regularly invoked, particularly here in the Baltics, as euphemism for what is now called Holocaust Obfuscation.

There is, alas, in nationalist and antisemitic circles in some East European states a movement to sanitize or actually glorify local Holocaust collaborators and perpetrators (who were after all, usually quite reliably “anti-Soviet” and “anti-Russian”). In Lithuania alone, this effort has gone hand in hand with a tragic effort to concurrently blame the victims by trying to criminalize, in the absence of any evidence, Holocaust survivors who are alive because they joined the anti-Nazi resistance. Not one of these kangaroo cases has yet led to a public apology, not even to 90 year old Dr. Rachel Margolis in Rechovot, who still dreams of one last visit to her native Vilna.

As reported in DefendingHistory.com last September, a foreign-ministry hosted event in Vilnius in September 2011 included a speech by a leading local historian in which he claimed (wrongly) that your book offers support for the condemnation of Jewish partisans who fought against the Nazis. In May 2011, a historian speaking on Lithuanian radio boasted that “It’s not all hopeless” because of Bloodlands.

Even before that, in late 2010, a far-right film production cited you as an expert consultant in a project to glorify the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) perpetrators who unleashed murder and mutilation of Jewish civilians in dozens of Lithuanian towns before the Nazis even arrived (and who announced their intentions before the war even started). (I trust you withdrew from that project, and offer my belated congratulations for so doing).

But that episode somehow connects with this week. The same ultranationalist filmmakers recently announced their premiere on Sunday 20 May 2012 in Kaunas of a new “documentary” (promo clip here) adulating Juozas Ambrazevičius (later Brazaitis), the 1941 Nazi puppet “prime minister” in Kaunas who signed off on orders for the setting up of a concentration camp for Jews, and the requirement that “all the Jews of Kaunas” be moved within four weeks to a ghetto.

The new film premiered yesterday in Kaunas as the grand finale of four days of Lithuanian government financed events (May 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th) focused on the reburial with full honors and the elaborate honoring of the World War II Nazi puppet prime minister.

What do these events have to do with you, or with the director of Yivo from New York who joined you? Directly speaking – absolutely nothing. In fact, people in the Jewish community here in Vilnius feel certain that when you (and he) accepted the invitations for the May 2012 symposium and related events here in Lithuania that you had no idea your presence would coincide with the long-planned glorification of a major Holocaust collaborator.

But when such things happen, it becomes necessary to react, if not by postponing one’s trip then by speaking out unambiguously with moral clarity.

Events featuring a Yale historian and the head of Yivo, coming at the same time as the state-sponsored events to honor the collaborator, have been used, first:  to deflect foreign and diplomatic attention from the Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis outrage, which has drawn protests this past week from B’nai B’rith, the Wiesenthal Center, an international petition, and critically, the remnant Jewish Community of Lithuania; second: to use your appearance to legitimize those events. After all, if a Yale professor and the head of Yivo are happy to appear the same week about the Holocaust and not come out publicly and firmly against the concurrent glorification of the collaborator, well, then it can’t be such a big deal…

It was sad that neither of you publicly condemned the Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis events during your symposium on the Holocaust in Lithuania. However, it did come up in an interviewer’s question to yourself.

According to the interview published on 15min.lt on 18 May 2012 (and for the sake of the Almighty, please do tell us if they misquoted you), your answer to the question about the repatriation, honoring and reburial of the Nazi puppet prime minister underway during your visit was as follows:

“I am going to choose my words very carefully here. I think before you rebury anyone, you should think very very hard and probably wait a very very long time because once you rebury somebody once, you can’t rebury them again.”
Is that really all you have to say to Lithuanian society, during your visit here, regarding the latest in a litany of government sponsored events to honor collaborators and perpetrators of the Lithuanian Holocaust and not seldom to use your own name and book as artillery?

During this past week, very courageous Lithuanian citizens (who remain here and may even have to face this or that consequence in their careers) have raised their proud voices in dignified protest. They include the members of parliament Vytenis Povilas Andriukaitis and Algirdas Sysas; member of the European Parliament Leonidas Donskis; political scientist  Darius Udrys; former editor of the Jewish newspaper here, Milan Chersonski; dozens of Lithuanian citizens who have signed Krystyna Anna Steiger’s petition; and, not least, the small remnant Jewish community itself, which issued a bold statement in partnership with the Jewish museum.

As a famous professor soon returning to Yale, would it be too much respectfully to ask you to reconsider your public reaction to the week’s events. You can phrase this much more eloquently and elegantly. Here is just a first thought:

“There are certainly many historical complexities, but as a true friend of Lithuania, I have to tell you frankly that state financing of the honoring of a Nazi-puppet prime minister on whose watch the mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry got underway, one who actually signed orders separating out for persecution and worse those citizens who were Jewish, is the worst possible message your government could be sending. It is a tragic mistake, and if I had known it would coincide with my visit, I would have asked to come some other week out of respect for the victims of the Holocaust. As someone who passionately shares your cause of educating the West about Stalinist crimes, I have to tell you that this sort of thing undermines that noble effort through and through.”

Wishing you, as ever, the best of everything,


Dovid Katz was visiting professor in Judaic studies at Yale in 1989-1999. From 1999 to 2010 he was professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Vilnius University, Lithuania. He is based in Vilnius, where he edits wwwDefendingHistory.com. His personal website is www.dovidkatz.net.

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  • Angel

    According to the book hitler has killed 10 m civilian people. less than 5 m were Jews. If we add the Stalin numbers – the Jews are even less percentage. I do not understand – every one is responsible for Jews and holocaust, but what about the rest? I do not understand what is the point separating the victims of Hitler and Stalin in two distinctive groups – jwes and no-jews? For the first one we have holocaust and for the second one? this is misleading in understanding what really happened. Is not it?

    • Mark Burianyk

      You do not see the difference between the attempted destruction of a whole people, one that Hitler continued at the expense of materials for the army (trying to finish off the genocide even when it became clear that they had lost the war), and a system that was simply callous and uncaring of the immense suffering caused to maintain it?
      One could argue over which is more horrible, if one wished to be vulgar about it, but do you not see the difference? Do you not see, for the sake of future knowledge, that to understand what someone may, or may not, do, will depend on the particular motivations?
      I would say seperating action from motivation is the best way to be misleading as concerns ANY historical inquiry.

      • Martial

        They never will see the difference because they still want to see us dead. It pains me to say that, but there is so much Jew hatred in Eastern Europe & the former Soviet Union. Look at the Ukraine. Thank heavens Jews can leave & go to Israel these days. I doubt whether their petitions to come to America would be heard were Israel not present.

  • Peter Bernstein

    The only way that there will ever be a chance of any reconciliation between Jews and Lithuanians (and Latvians and Ukrainians for that matter) is if citizens of those nations fully and unreservedly admit their direct involvement and responsibility for the butchering of their Jewish citizens. The silence for the last 70 years from these quarters has been deafening and is a stain on their nations.

    • Bombadil/Sam Gamgee

      What are you talking about? Estonians, Ukrainians, Latvians and Lithuanians have nothing to apologize for.
      If you can’t just move on from the holocaust after all of the reparations that have been made, you are not worth talking to.
      Ukrainian casualties during the Holodomor were 3 to 12 million. They got no apology. Did anybody get an apology for the Red Holocaust? No.

      How can you ask for an apology from some of the biggest victims of World War 2? If you want a 7 million and first apology for the holocaust go ask the people who did it…. The Germans.

  • norman ravitch

    There us a reason for the antisemitism of eastern European peoples only recently emerging from a lack of ethnic identity, like the Lithuanians, Latvians, and Slovaks. The rise of nationalism among them from the late 19th century made the existence of other peoples among them a perceived threat. No matter which side Jews took, pro-peasant nationalism or pro-imperial state they fell afoul of all. In Lwow, then Austrian Poland, then Polish, then Ukrainian, the Jews were mistrusted by both Poles and Ukrainians as they strove for domination. In the Baltics Jews fell between pro-Russians and pro-peasant ethnicities and were mistrusted by both. The same in Slovakia where the Jews were correctly perceived as Magyarizers by the Slovak peasants. The rise of Bolshevism and the Soviet occupation of the regions east of the Oder only made matters worse as Jews could be seen as agents of the Cheka. In these situations there is no way of reconciliation except for the healing processes of time itself. One day Jews and Lithuanians, for example, will forget about WWII. They once before the 20th century got along reasonably well and may one day do so again.

    Anyone trying to make sense of all this with fairness to all, like Tim Snyder, is bound to offend somebody or anybody.

    • Valera

      “One day Jews and Lithuanians, for example, will forget about WWII. They once before the 20th century got along reasonably well and may one day do so again.”
      And why would we forget ? Nothing will ever be forgotten. Attempted extermination of whole people for the sins of the few SHOULD NEVER BE FORGOTTEN.

  • Stephen Pierson

    I wholly agree with gdagis–the focus on Jewish suffering is counterproductive to healing old wounds. It was indeed a complex situation and it was indeed a double genocide. 13,000 Lithuanian gentiles of the upper echelon of society were sent to Siberia in just one week after the Soviets took control of the country. Any claim that one group suffered more is false and will not help people forgot all injustices wrought int that part of the world at that time. Claiming such will help get your book published and the author interviewed on CNN, but it will be false, as anyone steeped in the history of the period knows.

    • Stephan

      The Jews do not want anyone to forget “their” holocaust, otherwise there would be no reason to continue to pay them the blood money they demand.

  • Hello,

    I honour the memory of Juozas Ambrazevičius whether you like it or not. Since you defame his memory it must obviously mean the man was great.

    I am definitively encouraging others to honour the memory of Juozas Ambrazevičius.

    FRANZ H.

  • gjdagis

    I am very happy that an author has finally put things into perspective. Jewish people always call for a “dialog” on the events in Europe at that time but only on their OWN terms. All lives were equally important and there will never be understanding as long as only the Jewish perspective is allowed to be focused on. Taking into account the slaughter of OTHER peoples’ in Europe at that time in no way minimizes what the Jews suffered during the same period. There is absolutely NO need to compare these things. There was more than enough horror and tragedy to go around.

  • Å arÅ«nas

    What is up with all these strange comments. One is uninterested in Lithuanian-Jewish friendship. Another puts humanity of Snyder in parentheses. Why are so many so infused with hatred here?

  • When T.Snyder came to the Lithuanian Jewish Community, I said to him personaly: “Your Bloodlands will be th third on the table of anti-Semit. The first iz Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the second – Yolocaust Industry, anf the third – your book”.

  • Richard L Rubenstein

    Several years ago, I started getting admiring e-mails for my articles in the New English Review from a Jewish doctor married to a Lithuanian woman and living in Lithuania. Finally, he wrote to me expressing the thought that it would be a wonderful thing if I entered into Lithuanian-Jewish dialogue. I wrote back that although my people on both sides came from Lithuania, getting out in the 1880s, I had absolutely no interest in Lithuanian-Jewish dialogue. I was 17 years old when the Germans occupied Lithuania and had my people not had the good sense to get out, if the Germans didn’t kill me, their Lithuania accomplices surely would have. I never heard from him again which is just as well. For some reason, I have never had a problem with dialogue with Germans. I began that in Düsseldorf and Bonn in the summer of 1960 and have lectured at a number of German universities including Münster, Bonn, Heidelberg, Rostock, and Speyer. At least, the German government didn’t completely try to whitewash the Nazi period. I get the feeling with both Lithuania and Latvia that they still see the Germans as the allies who liberated them from both the communists and the Jews. That was certainly the feeling I got in Moscow from a Latvian academic during the final days of the USSR.

  • Fredric M. London

    Timothy Snyder has no conscience. Neither does any other Holocaust denier or apologist for Jew hating. The slide towards Jew hating in Eastern Europe was inevitable. It is unfortunate that an official government has already decided to revise history in favor of the Nazis. It may be the first time, but it will not be the last. Snyder shows his true colors by not condemning this. ‘People’ such as Snyder have no conscience, no ethics, and no sense of morality. I would expect no better.

  • I hope this stirs Timothy Snyder’s conscience to do the right thing. But I’m not hopeful. Given that he had the opportunity and only had to say what he did say evokes thoughts of how the Judenrat came into being, with Jews thinking they could save some while actually be puppets for the Nazi juggernaut. Still you are right to try, Dovid Katz,
    though you may be a Jewish Don Quijote tilting at windmills in this and similar instances.

    • Georges FENIGER

      I don’t think, you read his book