Purim in Lithuania? A Season for State-Approved Neo-Nazi City-Center Marches
Since the Holocaust, Purim and the Book of Esther cannot be taken only in the light-hearted spirit of the merriest of holidays.
Words presaging the scourges of (literally) a few thousand years of antisemitism and the idea of murder of all members of a minority are right there in the good book: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse those of every people […] If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed […]’ (Esther 3: 8-9). There is an added description covering the concept of genocide of the targeted minority: “to annihilate all Jews, both young and old, little children and women, in one day” (3: 13).
Here in Lithuania, as in the other countries on ground zero of the Holocaust, where just tiny remnant Jewish communities remain in a few cities, and hundreds upon hundreds of towns and villages are wholly without a single Jewish inhabitant, it is remarkable that the Holocaust itself has become the focus of a posh new brand of antisemitism.
You would think after all, wouldn’t you, that antisemites would avoid the topic of the Holocaust at all costs. It’s the empirical evidence of what their hatred wrought. But there is, alas, a new cunning genus of antisemitism that is flourishing in Eastern Europe, and being exported to the West in all sorts of ways, and not attracting much protest. The reasons for the silence are many, including frankly the geostrategic alliances by America, Israel, and other Western nations with those countries in Eastern Europe that have joined up with NATO and the European Union. In the case of Jewish leaders and dignitaries from various Western countries, there has been an Achashverosh-like practice of marching out honor-hungry organizational directors and professors for endless medals, awards, grants, junkets, conferences and other favors. In return for being paraded with horse-and-apparel through the streets of a latter-day Shushan, some Jewish leaders will turn a blind eye to the new state-sponsored effort to write the Holocaust out of history (without denying a single death) while getting the world to ignore the resurgence of neo-Nazism. The connection between the two: the glorification of the Holocaust’s local perpetrators and collaborators in these parts of Eastern Europe, particularly in the three Baltic states — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia.
Instead of denying the Holocaust (quite impossible in countries with hundreds of mass graves outside nearly every town, containing the remains of the erstwhile Jewish population), the “wise men and women” of governments, universities, media, the arts and other high culture sectors have come up with a new theory of twentieth century history. It is called “double genocide” and runs something like this: Stalin and his Jewish cronies committed the first genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe, and then came the opposite and equal reaction, Hitler’s genocide with the help of the East European peoples that had suffered at the hands of “Stalin and the Jews.” Dressed up in more sophisticated language, this double genocide nonsense is gaining ground despite the simplest evidence on the ground: These countries had their entire Jewish minorities murdered, but their majority populations, for all the abuses of communism and Soviet misrule (which of course had cronies and lackeys of every people in the region), had actually grown, and been ready for EU and NATO within a few short years after the fall of the Soviet Union. No genocide there.
Sometimes it is the corollary that becomes the main point, outshining the theorem it derives from. In the case of the three Baltic countries and some others (for example western Ukraine), there is a burning wish among nationalists and “patriots” to turn the local Nazi collaborators who did much or most of the actual killing for the Nazis (here in Lithuania starting in dozens of locations before the Germans even arrived) into “national heroes” (on the grounds that these killers of Jewish civilian neighbors were also “anti-Soviet”).
Let us never forget the Righteous Gentiles, tsadÃkey umoys ho-óylom in countries like Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where saving a Jew required inspirationally exceptional courage: the rescuers were perceived as betraying not some occupying army but their own pro-Nazi nationalist leaders of the time.
But you will look in vain for streets and squares named for the rescuers of Jews in Lithuania. By contrast, there are many named for Holocaust perpetrators and collaborators. In other words, the new antisemitism entails perversion of history and honoring of the killers, often covering it all up with lavish “Jewish” events for the benefit of Jewish visitors from the West and Israel and the international diplomatic community.
One of the results of all this is that today’s neo-Nazis here are not all skinhead types. Far from it. They include professors, parliamentarians, mainstream journalists and others who are finding that they can glorify the murderers of their country’s Jewish population while finding favor with honor and travel hungry foreigners.
Which brings us, finally, to Purim.
Each year in the season of Purim, twenty-first century Lithuania now has not one but two neo-Nazi marches: the first on the 16th of February in Kovno (now Kaunas), to mark the declaration of the state’s independence of 1918 which launched the interwar republic; and the second, on March 11th in Vilna (now Vilnius), to mark the declaration of independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 (which became fully real the following year with the fall of the USSR).
Like citizens of every background, those who are Jewish rejoice together with their countrymen. February 16th marks the start of a period of remarkable Jewish rights and autonomy in the early years of the interwar republic. March 11th marks the end of the Soviet era of religious and cultural repression, restricted migration, lack of basic freedoms and its replacement by a democratic state that is now part of NATO and the European Union and a close ally of the US and Israel.
All the more lamentable that the authorities have “given” the neo-Nazis the city centers of their two major cities, one for each of the two independence days. What a miserable, pathetic way to express pride in the nation.
One of the major reasons the state allows neo-Nazis to dominate both independence days has to do with the current battle of ideas over history. On the issue of considering Hitler’s local collaborators to be heroes, the ideas of the neo-Nazis are tragically congruous with the powerful nationalist establishment among the region’s elites, including those who go out of their way to show every kindness to visiting Jews from around the world.
And so it was last week in Kovno (Kaunas), renowned for its Jewish life of many centuries’ standing.
The lead banner of the parade had the image not of one of the great poets or artists of Lithuania, nor of one of the fabled medieval grand dukes who gave the country a deserved reputation of tolerance for centuries. That reputation included the famous charter of rights for the Jews of Grodno in 1389, issued by Grand Duke Witold (Vytautas), one of the most remarkable documents of its time. In fact, in Jewish folklore of the Lithuanian lands, he was called the Cyrus of Lithuania (der Kóyresh fun LÃte), after the great king of Persia who allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and follow their traditions and laws.
No, the choice was a different one. The front banner of the February 16th Independence Day march featured the picture of Juozas AmbrazeviÄius-Brazaitis, the Nazi puppet prime minister of 1941 who personally signed orders confirming German demands for thousands Jews of this very city, Kovno/Kaunas, to be taken to a “concentration camp” (it was actually the nearby Seventh Fort mass murder site). Within weeks, he signed another order for all the remaining Jews of the city to be incarcerated in a ghetto within four weeks. For local Holocaust survivors, the white armbands, worn by the local murderers in 1941 and this parade’s marshals in 2013, are a particularly pain-provoking gesture.
It was less than a year ago that an international scandal ensued when the Lithuanian state, despite the difficult financial circumstances of its good everyday people, spent tens of thousands of dollars to repatriate from Putnam, Connecticut, the remains of this very AmbrazeviÄius-Brazaitis and honor his memory with a series of lavish events (we responded with an open letter right here on Algemeiner.com). One of the “liberal” professors at the university in Kaunas then told the press that the reburial represents the “drama” of Lithuanian history for the world, and complained that people are afraid to honor the Nazis’ local prime minister “for fear of getting hit over the head with a club by the Jews.” (And that’s what they call a liberal professor here). That university, Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas, contains to boast a lecture hall and bas relief honoring the Nazi puppet prime minister, and an international petition is underway on that score.
There was little international reaction, as professors and Jewish leaders with an interest in Lithuania who got wined and dined by various Lithuanian consulates and embassies kept quiet.
As ever, there was one voice on the international scene that did not remain quiet, that of the legendary Nazi-hunter Dr. Efraim Zuroff, originally of Brooklyn, who has been on the case not only of individual Nazi war criminals, but of the attempts over the last quarter century of these countries to turn the local collaborators into heroes. He immediately responded last spring to the reburial with a powerful essay.
Last week, as preparations for the pre-Purim neo-Nazi march in Kovno began to go into high gear, a rumor started to spread like wildfire among the tiny Jewish community left here in Lithuania. The joy was palpable when word began to circulate in the small Jewish community: Efraim Zuroff kumt tsu forn afn marsh! (“Efraim Zuroff is coming for the [neo-Nazis’ Kaunas] march!”). Somebody on the planet Earth cares.
Dr. Zuroff has written his own memoir in a sister publication in Israel. In it, he mentions a number of Purimesque absurdities that result when you get close enough to the neo-Nazis to be monitoring their march (which local human rights advocates failed to do, running in the opposite direction on the day, and which the American embassy has still failed to condemn publicly).
The juxtaposition of the dead serious and the carnivalesque of Purim were never far away.
Nearly a week before the February 16th march, ArtÅ«ras RaÄas, the head of Lithuania’s major news agency, BNS (Baltic News Service), published on his private blog the following view of Efraim Zuroff: “That’s why I want to say this: among the greatest propagators of antisemitism in Lithuania, besides the little local Nazis, are, unfortunately, Jews, whose people or even relatives experienced the Shoah. To give sound foundation to this statement of mine, it’s sufficient to mention the name of E. Zuroff. This is a person whose purpose and life goal is to encourage antisemitism in Lithuania and throughout Eastern Europe. If Israel were really interested in reconciliation and good relations, then Zuroff long ago would be made to sit in a dark jail without windows together with Hezbollah terrorists. For life and without possibility of parole!”
Efraim, making his plans to be with the small group of protesters who would stand up to the neo-Nazis’ march, had, the same day as it happened, asked me where the best place in Vilnius would be for a press conference the day before the march. I told him frankly, that the only plausible place was the headquarters of the same BNS (Baltic News Service) in central Vilnius, where the media would actually turn up. Efraim, speaking from his office in Jerusalem in his (and my) native Brooklyn English responded: “What?! You want me to pay this BNS for their premises after the director said I should be put in jail for life?”
And so it came to pass that we held our joint press conference the day before the march. One journalist, a supposed specialist on Jewish affairs, had us mixed up right and proper, asking in a question for the opinions of “Efraim Katz and Dovid Zuroff.” Another wanted to know what’s wrong with a “patriotic march.” Dr. Zuroff, the world’s last great Nazi hunter, explained that “patriotism” based on antisemitism and glorification of Holocaust killers is no patriotism, and that true friends of Lithuania and the Baltics will be the first to stand up against such perversions in a modern democratic and tolerant society. He pointed out the connection of the acceptability of the neo-Nazi march with the street names honoring killers and Nazi collaborators when there were none honoring the local rescuers.
Then a question came my way. A young journalist wanted to know how I could possibly be against the neo-Nazis’ march if I believe in democracy, free speech, free expression, and all the rest of it. I told him that there was once a saying among Vilna Jews of old about something that belongs in some backwater shtetl and not in the center of the big city: In BalbÃreshok! In other words, sure, in some little shtetl on some day or other, but not on independence day in the heart of the great city. There is a time and place for everything, and allowing the Nazis the center of the city on independence day in a member state of NATO and the European Union is frankly a sick statement of state support.
BalbÃreshok is the Yiddish name for the Lithuanian town now called BalbieriÅ¡kis in the Lithuanian language. Within minutes, one of the neo-Nazi leaders was tweeting and posting: In all his years here, Katz has only learned one word of Lithuanian, which he mispronounces BalbÃreshok (so much for the intercultural respect for Jewish and minority place-names).
Trying to lighten the atmosphere at the press conference, Dr. Zuroff “complained” that the neo-Nazis had the added chutzpah to stage their march on Shabbos, limiting what observant Jews could do in protesting the situation. (But nobody in the room, it seemed, got that one.)
At the march itself on the following day, Dr. Zuroff and I found ourselves well protected by police, though the few local Lithuanian anti-fascists who turned up, very brave young Lithuanians, were harassed and asked to give their names and addresses.
The lead banner of the march had a picture of the above-noted Nazi puppet prime minister, who was thereby made into the hero of the independence day march. There were sieg heils, shouts of “Lietuva Lietuviams” (“Lithuania for Lithuanians,” a bit strange in a city with no noticeable ethnic minorities), and a wide variety of fascist symbols used to adhere to a quiet agreement with authorities not to brandish actual swastikas this year (they were on hand last year and were made legal in Lithuania by a court decision in 2010).
The Lithuanian media has been full of attacks on Efraim Zuroff, the one Mordechai on the planet this year who came specially to freezing, icy, neo-Nazi honoring Kaunas/Kovno to show solidary with the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and to protest the present government’s policies of honoring the perpetrators both directly and via neo-Nazi marches. It is a reminder to the governments of Eastern Europe that not all foreign Jewish leaders are interested in their medals and junkets, and it is a reminder that the spirit of Simon Wiesenthal lives on, more as a guardian against a fascist-orientated rewriting of history, even as the last Nazi criminals go the way of the world.
One elderly man came up to me on the street a day later. He said:
“Hey, you, sir, I don’t know if you are Zuroff or Katz, but I want to tell you that you were both right, I saw that press conference on television. It is disgraceful that they are honoring the fascists. But I do have one criticism of something you said. I was born in BalbieriÅ¡kis. It’s not an unworldly little hick town at all, please choose another example next time.”
“Next time” is the second neo-Nazi parade, scheduled for the second independence day, March 11th , in the center of the capital city, Vilnius, just a few weeks from now (there is an international petition underway on that one, too).
So sure, if we have to, we’ll find the name of another shtetl to which it could be moved if the government finds the political will to make the independence day celebration in the capital something to be proud of for people of all backgrounds.
In the meantime, do us a favor, and do something for the morale and cheer of the last Holocaust survivors in Eastern Europe. Please contact your elected officials, asking them to ask the Lithuanian government to ban the neo-Nazi march from the capital city on independence day.
The author is the editor of www.defendinghistory.com. Please click here for more information.