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July 30, 2012 3:06 pm

Crying Over Dead Jews: Lithuania’s Jewless Jewish Institutions

avatar by Geoff Vasil

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"The Genocide Museum" in Lithuania. Photo: Defending History.

Lithuania’s Jewish community isn’t immune from the broader issues facing Jewish existence in Eastern Europe and the same problems of Jewish identity that crop up in Russia, Bulgaria, Poland and elsewhere are prevalent. And just as there are Christian Evangelicals and others who support the policies of the right-wing in the State of Israel and elsewhere in Europe, there are those same voices among Lithuanian politicians and public figures.

What is perhaps different in Lithuania than elsewhere in Eastern Europe is that this Gentile support for Zionist ideals doesn’t translate into support for the surviving local Jewish community or contribute to a profounder and more sympathetic understanding of the Holocaust.

Visitors to Vilnius will see any number of plaques dedicated to famous Jewish residents of Vilnius and several dedicated to the Holocaust. Those who look a little deeper under the surface might find there are a number of agencies, organizations and institutions operating in Vilnius which seemingly are aimed at promoting Jewish history, language and culture. In fact, both the plaques and monuments, and the majority of these “Jewish” organizations, serve as little more than window-dressing and display show-cases that the Lithuanian government rolls out as exhibits evidencing Lithuanian sincerity in addressing the incomparable atrocity of the Holocaust.

Exhibit A at the current time is the bill passed by the Lithuanian parliament to provide restitution for Jewish communal property seized and nationalized, in some cases four or five times, first by the Soviets, then the Lithuanian Nazi puppet regime, then the Nazis, then the Soviets again, and finally by the Lithuanian state that emerged in 1990-1991. One senses almost immediately that there are serious problems even with the modest restitution package, since the US embassy in Vilnius, which has been gently nudging Lithuania for the last 20 years to make some sort of restitution, calls the law “a good first step,” while the legislators who drafted and passed the law continue to call it the last and final offer, after which all claims will be null and void. Moreover the law takes in victims of Soviet crimes as a nod toward Double Genocide, and a clause to be used in the service of that nefarious cause further down the line.

It is rumored that many of the decorative “Jewish” organizations in Vilnius and Lithuania will be taking a share of the loot, modest though it be. Therefore, now might be a good time to survey some of these Jewless Jewish orgs.

First, and closest to the Vilnius train station (which was the first location in Vilnius to post a sign in 1941 declaring itself “Judenrein”), is the Jewish Cultural and Information Center. You might miss it if you blink, but this operation is located in what is supposedly a “restored fragment of the historical Vilna Jewish quarter,” mandated by the parliament almost twelve years ago now. It is a location with some history, right along Jatkowa ulica (Yiddish: Yátkever gas), now MÄ—sinių, or Butchers’, street, and many collections of pictures from pre-war Vilna include at least one view up this street which then featured an archway between opposing buildings set somewhat back from the main street, Deutschegasse (Yiddish: Dáytshishe gas), now Vokiečių or German, street.

If you don’t manage to find the sign with the official name of the organization, do not worry, for there are also inscriptions in English and Hebrew announcing that it is, in fact, the Shofar Gallery.

And it is a gallery.

You walk in and are treated to exhibits of artworks, one recent memorable exhibit being composed exclusively of Catholic churches in Vilnius painted on glass.

Off in a dark corner there is a counter, behind which some sort of Jewish books are allegedly for sale.

In a somewhat brighter location are the amber trinkets for sale to tourists, bearing the words Kaunas, Vilnius and other cities, in Lithuanian orthography with no reference to the beloved Jewish names known to Litvaks and their progeny around the world.

Next to the book counter there is a table with pamphlets and fliers, the most prominent being English and Lithuanian leaflets for the Museum of Genocide Victims, also in Vilnius. The Genocide Museum, as it is known for short, is one of the most antisemitic state museums on the planet, featuring 1950s “Forest Brother” antisemitic caricatures with no curatorial comment, and glorification of the LAF Holocaust perpetrators of 1941.

This is the “genocide” museum that refused to mention Jews for twenty years, but which finally capitulated to international and domestic pressure by opening a very small Holocaust room, which, strangely enough, features a stained-glass, Catholicized Star of David, and sings even more praises of the Lithuanian Activist Front which is credited in the room with restoring order (!) in the country in the time between the Soviets’ exit and the setting up of the Nazi administration in 1941.

The next Jewless “Jewish” organization is located between the fake Genocide Museum and the only real Holocaust museum in Lithuania, the Green House.

The Center for the Study of Eastern European Jews is located above a Maxima chain supermarket with no real signs for the guidance of passers-by.

The Center’s webpage lists four women, all with Lithuanian names, as the complete staff. The website also avoids using the ineffable word “Holocaust” with this circumlocution, implying some vague, indeterminate, unknown, across-the-board sense of all-around loss:

“the loss of the complicated last century.”

The logo from the website appears on an A4 printout near an upstairs office door that is locked. Appreciable build-up of dust seems to indicate the door has not been opened in the recent past. According to rumor on the “Vilna Street” this outfit is actually funded by the Russian-Jewish —now Israeli—tycoon Leonid Nievzlin. Hard times?

They appear to engage in historical studies involving Jews and to attend international conferences to deliver papers, while studiously avoiding anything connected with the Holocaust. Presumably the staff is composed of Lithuanian historians, which is the director’s background. Their website was last updated in November, 2011, to announce the completion of a project on Lithuanian museums.

Just a hop away is the Jewless Vilnius Jewish Public Library. Again, the signs seem more intended to keep people away than to bring them in. A small sign in Lithuanian is located among the names of various businesses inside an alleyway off Gedimino, Vilnius’s main street. If you happen to be able to read Lithuanian, you’re in luck, because you have to now find another sign in Lithuanian back in the courtyard fronted by multiple buildings telling you that the library is located on the second floor behind one locked door. You are instructed in Lithuanian to push a certain digit (9) on a keypad in order to be allowed in to the public library.

Upstairs you pass through an electronic library theft-prevention alarm gate to enter a room with shelves, a counter, but no librarian. Depending on the time of year, one of two overall Lithuanian staff will be found in an adjoining room. The books are all in English and are housed in the first room. The other room with the librarian and the computer has empty shelves. Behind that there is some sort of a conference room with a screen and lots of chairs.

I asked the librarian if they had a library catalog. She said they did, but you had to search from the webpage of their parent library, which doesn’t have an English page. What about the signs below, would they be hanging up English versions any time, since all of the books were in English and presumably the clientele would be English speakers? Yes, that must be done, she agreed. The problem, she explained, was too little funding. The Jewish Public Library is funded from the national budget through the Ministry of Culture, but isn’t a high priority, she said. Most of the books hadn’t been cataloged yet and were in storage, and she gave the impression it might be a long time before they were sorted.

So the Ministry of Culture isn’t intending to expand the collection, I asked, through book purchases? No, no, these are all donated books, donated from all over the world. What about other Lithuanian libraries, would there be trades or movement of books between the “Jewish” library and the others? No, Lithuania does not really have this tradition, she explained. I looked over the meager collection in the “stacks,” all four shelves, and saw a few things I’d read before, including Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, with a shiny dust cover, looking as if it had never been opened. Not only is the Vilnius Jewish Public Library Jewless, it’s patron-less as well, and only “public” in a very liberal interpretation of the meaning of that word.

There are more Jewless Jewish organizations in Vilnius. There is a Yiddish institute which does have a Jewish staff member but no Yiddish speakers or Jews among its academic staff during the academic year (in fact, 11 months a year outside the profitable summer course than finances many political excursions on behalf of the government the rest of the year).

There is an “international” Lithuanian commission to popularize the notion of Double Genocide. There is even a Kabbalah school of some sort run by non-Jewish people with non-Jewish students—but you begin to get the picture already.

Just as the Rosenberg Task Force was engaged in “Judenforschung ohne Juden” and the Prague Ghetto was slated to become a Jewless museum to Jewish culture in a Jewless Europe, so do a number of organizations today in Lithuania pursue the study of an extinct culture, usually at Lithuanian government expense.

The problem is, Litvaks aren’t extinct, not even in Lithuania.

What is the psychological mechanism that makes it possible for us to cry for the dead while denying the evidence of our own eyes that the dead live and walk before us?

Once upon a time a German writer decried the death of the last speaker of Old Prussian. Closer to our own time Americans have looked back with sorrow and nostalgia for the loss of Native American cultures, even as members of those cultures survived, mainly in poverty, but were of no real interest to those same Americans. This year, 2012, has seen a lot of discussion of the Maya calendar and has again brought to the fore the idea of declaring extinct people who still exist. Maya writing was only deciphered with the help of the living Maya languages, and yet people who ought to know better are still speaking publicly of the lost Maya civilization which allegedly died out in the 1200s. This insistence that the living are actually dead held back progress on the Maya script for a hundred years.

One is tempted to say that the mechanism by which the living are declared dead and mourned is in fact nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of the mourners, who inevitably belong to the same dominant ethnic group engaged in exterminating the said living.

“Judenforschung ohne Juden” in Lithuania represents more than just this mechanism because of the origins of the Lithuanian state in the Middle Ages. One of the mottos of the early nobles in Lithuania and Poland was “nothing about me, without me.” As the historian of Poland Norman Davies has pointed out, the nobility franchise was extended rather broadly in Poland, and of course the same held true in Lithuania as part of Poland, where, for example, Tatar refugees were officially recognized as nobles.

When the Nazi puppet organization calling itself the Lithuanian Activist Front sought power for itself in a Nazi rump state in 1941, one of the statements they issued was that the rights of settlement Vytautas the Great granted the Jews in perpetuity were null and void. This represented a real break both with the Republic, the model independent Lithuania chose for itself in 1918, and with the traditions of the Grand Duchy. Likewise, “Judenforschung ohne Juden” (Jewish studies sans Jews) represents a real break with the noble tradition of the right of reply, “nothing about me, without me.”

The Lithuanian Jewish Community, which will be one of the main parties in deciding how to divide each year the annually distributed restitution funds, will have to confront the problem of Jewless Jewish organizations seeking funding, and will have to walk a fine line between allocating money for sustaining the actual Jewish community and not alienating nominally Jewish but Jewless organizations who might or might not serve as dupes and lackeys of the government in its world-wide promotion of Double Genocide.

This article originally appeared on www.defendinghistory.com.

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  • kakadoo

    Defendinhistory is Russian sponsored blog. Strangely enough Algemeiner is falling into trap of the primitive and bias blog.

  • Peter

    Why should anyone be taken back by the attitude of the Lithuanians? The attitude of Lithuania changed drastically after being admitted in 2004 to NATO & the EU. No more trying to make amends towards Jews and have shifted towards being the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. Their Ambassador to the US has found a hand full of American Jews who he controls with promises of personal gain like cemetery worker Harley Felstein and author Ellen Cassedy in an effort to re-write Lithuanian’s participation in the Holocaust. There is a reason why there are few Litvaks in Lithuania today and that is because 95% of all Litvaks were murdered in cold blood throughout the country in the later half of 1941, not by the guns in the hands of the Germans but rather by guns fired at them by their long time Lithuanian neighbors.

    • Moshe Ben Rabin

      Lithuanians are smarter, more intelligent than Jews, maybe that’s why? I know many, many families, who were hiding Jewish families in their homes during WWII to save them from being killed by the Nazis. Most Lithuanians are very pro-Jewish very respectful towards Jews. Please stop putting dirt onto that country’s population.

      • Roman Melnychuk

        I share the sympathy of the Lithuanian people as they have to listen to this garbage — hateful garbage by the Jews to make Lithuania a bad nation, and whet the Jews fail to understand is their own people helped the Nazis kill their own, maybe a few Lithuanians killed Jews, but not one second I believe Lithuania as a nation killed the Jews. This propaganda needs to stop if Jews want to live peacefully in the nations of Eastern Europe where they attack everyone. I am Ukrainian and I too see this Anti-Ukrainian attitude and blame of us for killing Jews.. Get over it already, move on.

  • Å arÅ«nas

    From now on I am going to do what I’m sure the rest of Lithuanians have been doing all along – ignore ‘news events’ like this one altogether. Written by somebody who is seemingly an almost un-google-able anarchist with a very distant connection to Lithuania and containing rather too many parenthesis and outright lies, this is just as useful, informative or worthy of discussion as much of the babble that must be coming from the most radical and marginal of Palestinian organizations.
    How this made my Google News escapes me.

    • mirisme

      Well, Sarunas, my parents met in the Kovno ghetto, and most of my family was murdered. I’m lucky to be alive and living in the USA.

      There ARE very few Jews left in Lithuania. A few of my surviving relatives left in the ’70’s.

      Yes, I am one angry Jewish lady. It was painful to grow up without grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, and then later in life, to find out what horrors my parents experienced. How would you feel if it happened to your family?

      Anyway, much of the information in this article sounds rather plausible to me. What are you objecting to, exactly?

      • Å arÅ«nas

        Dear mirisme, Peter,
        my situation is perhaps a mirror image of yours. Both of my grandparents have been interrogated by Russian-Jewish members of the KGB at the start of Lithuania’s occupation and then shipped to Siberia for over a decade, where they met. Upon returning to Lithuania they helped at least one Russian-Jewish family to emigrate to Israel, and they still exchange letters. This to me is one of the many examples of forgiveness, or rather absence of prejudice that the Algemeiner and perhaps yourselves are not too quick to grant to an average Lithuanian or the Lithuanian state. My family continues to support local Jewish organizations although we are not Jewish and have had no connection to the Holocaust. However, due to our ‘Lithuanian names’ Mr Vasil would find that very improper. Is Mr Vasil not racist?
        I do not think that the Jewish communities experience any problems in Lithuania apart those due to infighting. I thought I should address your questions and provide my corrections to Mr Vasil’s article. However, there are so few facts and so much interpretation that it is proving impossible. Mr Vasil avoids naming any ‘perpetrators’ of whatever he is accusing Lithuania of – so no lawsuits for defamation are forthcoming.
        I find Lithuania’s dealing with it’s Jewish history exemplary, even were we not to consider that Lithuania regained its independence just 22 years ago. Contrast this with warring Israel of the 1960s.
        I would encourage Mr Vasil, Peter and mirisme to take a look at imperial Russian policies designed to economically and politically segregate Litvaks and Lithuanians in the 19th century that culminated in Holocaust sparked by the Nazis. For me it was a civil war of sorts, a Russian antisemitism coming to the fore in Lithuania. Was it for you? Every time I meet a Litvak I feel like meeting a long-lost brother or sister. Where is your brotherly and sisterly love towards people who might have been your fellow Lithuanian citizens? Or is it my ‘Lithuanian name’ that gets in the way?

  • Mark

    Of course the Vilnius Jewish Public Library is “Jewless.” It isn’t funded by the Ministry of Culture, either… do you think Lithuania is going to throw money at something like that? It is funded mainly from Americans and American institutions, and people like Leonard Nimoy.

    The library is the project of gentile Wyman Brent, from the US. It hasn’t even been open for a whole year yet. Find it’s web site to find out more.

    Don’t be hard on Lithuania, or Lithuanians. The “Double Holocaust” is just a conspiracy foisted on Lithuania by misunderstanding and ignorance. In Soviet times everyone knew that Jewish people were rounded up and executed… but these people were called by their citizenship, not religion… they were ALL Lithuanians or Soviet citizens, first.