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December 16, 2014 8:36 am

Just About Yiddish? The Real Story Behind This Week’s Yivo Banquet in New York

avatar by Dovid Katz

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Auschwitz Entrance. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

Auschwitz Entrance. Photo: Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum.

It is never pleasant to interrupt festivities, least of all in the festive season. But when these are themselves instruments of warped foreign policy, it behooves us to draw the issues to wider attention.

This Wednesday, December 17, veteran U.S. diplomat Anne E. Derse will receive an award in New York City at a “business attire only” banquet. Her many achievements as a successful career diplomat duly merit that she be honored. We wish her and her family only the very best in the years ahead.

The question is, why is she receiving the “Leadership Award” from the Yivo Institute of Jewish Research, a private Jewish institution dedicated to the Yiddish language? The Yivo Institute was founded some 90 years ago here in Vilna (then Polish Wilno, today Vilnius, the beautiful capital of Lithuania) to build an academic infrastructure to enable the flourishing of the stateless Yiddish language. Through the inspiring dedication of a modest number of extraordinary people, it was one of the few pre-war secular Yiddish institutions in Eastern Europe to reestablish itself in the United States.

First, Ambassador Derse’s record on the relevant issues during her tenure as the American ambassador in Vilnius (2009-2012). Shortly after her appointment in 2009, the U.S. embassy’s long-standing policy of speaking out with dignity for American values on a whole host of issues was inexplicably terminated. These issues include: state-enabled neo-Nazi marches in major cities on independence day; front-page outrages in major dailies, including senseless hate-grade humiliation of the local Chabad rabbi; efforts by prosecutors to criminalize Holocaust survivors who survived by joining the anti-Nazi resistance; state-sponsored efforts to glorify local Nazi collaborators, including actual war criminals, as “anti-Soviet heroes.” As for the freedom to speak out about all this without fear of retribution — a core American and European Union value — there was, on Ambassador Derse’s watch and with no public comment from her embassy, legislation and prosecutorial action to diminish free speech to speak out on just these issues.

Incidentally, none of this reflects on the delightful, hard-working, and welcoming people of Lithuania. It reflects on the ultra-nationalist far-right elements in positions of authority in government, academia, media, and the arts, and their continued mischief that cries out for a robust response. Indeed, the most powerful and moving voices of dignified protest have come from valiant Lithuanian citizens themselves. Maybe, one day, some of them will also win awards at business-attire banquets in New York City.

One of the first people outside Lithuania to notice that “We have a problem” was Dr. Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. In an April 2010 op-ed in the Guardian, he correctly found the new ambassador’s remarks following the outrage of yet another neo-Nazi march in the capital’s center to be “particularly shocking.” But there were bigger shocks still to come.

When, in 2012, the Lithuanian government repatriated, for reburial with full honors, the remains of its 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister, who signed papers ordering the Jews of Kovno (Kaunas) to a death camp and a ghetto, the U.S. embassy, instead of politely protesting, helped the far-right nationalist establishment cover it all up with a Holocaust symposium the very same week (and day). When the clamor for comment became irresistible amidst the mounting scandal, the U.S. ambassador issued a statement not in keeping with American values — and national patriotic memory — but in morally lame doublespeak that noted the Nazi collaborators’ support for a local (and sham) “declaration of independence.” To put it in local political terms, our embassy was supporting the far-right nationalists while offering no encouragement to moderates.

It is not possible here to cover all the incidents, which someone will one day research as a catalogue of how the Obama State Department has been enabling far-right East European establishments to rewrite Holocaust history in a way that provides for the rehabilitation and glorification of the perpetrators of the worst genocide in human history.

Perhaps the most unethical act of all on Ambassador Derse’s watch was the embassy’s 2011 offer of a generous grant to a Montreal based Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) program on condition that Dr. Efraim Zuroff be dropped from the roster of speakers (he was). The following year, a Jewish organization invited him to Vilnius, resulting in a friendly, open-hearted, tolerant and enlightening session with young people of all backgrounds speaking about the issues as befits a mature democracy.
A close-second (or first?) for most unethical act of the embassy during the Obama-Derse years entailed mobilizing young Fulbright scholars as attack dogs to undermine those who would dare question Lithuanian government Holocaust policy. It is something they will have to live with as they grow to maturity and independence of thought.

Let us hasten to add that the good Ambassador Derse cannot be blamed for the unethical shift in Holocaust policy when the Obama Administration took over in 2009. While she deserves no honors on the Jewish side of things, she deserves no special opprobrium for following orders.

Her actions are part of the Obama Administration’s grand strategy to minimize the Holocaust, for a complex of reasons that requires further study. One motivation is crystal clear: to bring rapid gratification to allied, anti-Russia nationalist East European politicians who are hard at work twisting the history to minimize their nations’ collaboration, to recast their countries as pure victims, to turn Holocaust criminals into national heroes, and to subtly pave the way for continuation of antisemitic tropes about all Jews being communists.

As a further example, there was the startling record of President Obama’s U.S. envoy on anti-Semitism who ended up doing more to cover it up in Eastern Europe than to stand up against it with a modicum of moral backbone.

2014 was the year the rot became evident back home in Washington DC, even if the media has been slow to pick up on it. Three of the most painful examples should suffice to illustrate the ethical deterioration. Last May, Baltic nationalist groups succeeded in getting through the U.S. Congress, under the radar and without any public scrutiny, support for the proposed mix-and-match jumbled day of remembrance for both Nazi and Soviet victims as demanded by the Prague Declaration.

Then, Michigan Congressman John Conyers’ amendment, that would have restricted U.S. military aid to Ukrainian units that openly profess neo-Nazism and wave swastikas, was mysteriously sunk. Last and perhaps most damaging, the United States was one of three countries that just last month voted against a UN resolution calling for “combating glorification of Nazism, neo-Nazism, and other practices that contribute to fuelling contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.” The other two countries, by the way, were Ukraine and Canada (with its large Ukrainian nationalist lobby).

The bridge between the Obama State Department and East European far-right Holocaust revisionism is in the end rather simple, and maybe best explained in State Department street talk: “The only people with the backbone to stand up to Putin are the nationalists in Eastern Europe, and if they want some changes in the history books about this or that Holocaust, who the hell cares.”

To cover for the new policy, East European nationalist governments and the Obama officials at State have invested heavily in “Useful Jewish Idiots” (UJIs colloquially) – Jewish folks who don’t know or care to know what’s actually flying, and are very pleased with honors, medals, and fun-trips to the East European playground. The amazing comment of a leader of the American Jewish Committee cited in a recent Jerusalem Post article can only be fathomed, sad to say, in light of the medals and awards he has received from right-wing nationalist Lithuanian politicians. Incidentally, he too is on the roster of speakers at next Wednesday’s banquet in the Big Apple.

And that takes us to a narrower component of Wednesday evening’s gala awards benefit banquet at Yivo in New York City. For decades, a series of leaders of Yivo has stood up with moral fortitude to the Lithuanian government’s efforts to hijack the prestigious Yivo brand as made-in-heaven cover for Holocaust revisionism. But when the current director, who doesn’t (yet) know Yiddish, took over, they lucked out bigtime. Starting with a misguided 2011 event honoring a foreign minister known for anti-Semitic outbursts, he went on to circulate memos turning the once-great (and hopefully again-to-be-great) institute into a PR office for the Lithuanian consulate in New York. He issued memos trashing Holocaust survivors who disagreed, he came to Vilnius for the State Department’s 2012 symposium to camouflage the reburial of the 1941 Nazi puppet prime minister, and this past September he placed a Holocaust remembrance wreath at Ponár (Paneriai), the mass murder site outside Vilnius, not with Holocaust survivors but with two fellow members of the state’s “red-brown commission” whom he publicly joined.

Yivo’s core values include absolute and unambiguous rejection of all efforts to excuse, rehabilitate, or glorify Nazism and its collaborators, no matter what those collaborators’ position was about the Soviet Union and Russia. Those core values include rejection of the racism and antisemitism that are part and parcel of right-wing nationalist movements. Those core values, by the way, include a permanent American historic pride in the grand coalition and huge American-British-Soviet sacrifice that brought down Nazi Germany and ended the Holocaust.

Dovid Katz, a Vilnius-based native of Brooklyn, New York, was professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University from 1999 to 2011 and contributed for many years to the Yiddish Algemeiner Journal. He edits His book Yiddish and Power was published this month by Palgrave MacMillan. His personal website is

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  • Esther Mashkovskaya

    The news is that, sadly, Prof. D.Katz is on Putin’s payroll without a glimmer of remorse. A bit hypocritical, since Putin is well known for his anti-semitic views, combined with his utmost love for Iossif Stalin.

  • Juli Retz

    When a person accuses someone that he is “a bald-faced liar” it’s necessary to submit real evidence. In other case it looks like an insult. Isn’t it?

  • inside baseball

    I know the principals involved during the time in question, including Iossel and Derse. There is no wikileaks-like taped phone conversation, BUT Iossel did admit to Katz that US Embassy Vilnius under Derse did not want Zuroff and threatened to defund SLS somehow, or offered to fund if Zuroff was excluded. The question was really about travel and hotel for Zuroff to come, not so much the speaker’s fee or anything like that, as I recall it. Zuroff was essentially disinvited, after which time, Iossel started throwing around a lot of cash at random people, including his attempt to recruit me to speak on the Holocaust in Lithuania and anti-Semitism in Lithuania after he disinvited Zuroff. I did not do any such thing. Why would Russian-Canadian Jewish Iossel of Montreal bow to US Embassy Vilnius’s demands to exclude Israeli-American Zuroff from a literary program? Money seems to be the only reason I can think of. Derse made a big show of attending Jewish functions and holidays in Vilnius, but did just as Katz says: she supported the state-sponsored and -celebrated reinterment of Lithuanian WWII Nazi leader Brazaitis-Ambrazavicius. To my mind Brent of YIVO is least culpable in all this, or just arived too late to the table to make a real specatcle of himself, but the choice of Derse as award recipient is an interesting one which probably bears closer scrutiny for possible quid-pro-quo-type activities.

  • Look who’s calling the kettle black, Mikhail Iossel!
    Who is the “bald-faced liar,” Dovid or you?
    Knowing Dovid as I do since he was a teen growing up in
    Boro Park, Brooklyn, son of the great Yiddish poet, Menke
    Katz, I know the answer to my own question. If you truly
    consider what Dovid charges about you, as “libelous,” then
    why not pursue a court case? Or are you too afraid to put
    this case in the hands of judges who will proclaim to the
    world your own perfidy? Providing honors for those who
    aid and abet diminishing what happened in the Shoah is
    a shanda that needs to be shouted from the rooftops of
    Vilnius as well as the skyscrapers of New York.

  • Look who’s calling the kettle black, Mikhail Iossel!
    Who is the “bald-faced liar,” Dovid or you?
    Knowing Dovid as I do since he was a teen growing up in
    Boro Park Brooklyn, son of the great Yiddish poet, Menke
    Katz, I know the answer to my own question. If you truly
    consider what Dovid charges about you, as “libelous,” then
    why not pursue a court case? Or are you to afraid to put
    this case in the hands of judges who will proclaim to the
    world your own perfidy? Providing honors for those who
    aid and abet diminishing what happened in the Shoah is
    a shanda that needs to be shouted from the rooftops of
    Vilnius as well as the skyscrapers of New York.

  • Mikhail Iossel

    PS: The only significant and irrefutable fact, with regards to the matter of SLS’s not bringing Dr. Zuroff, contained in the letter graciously cited by Dr. Dovid Katz: no one signed for the Jewish Lithuania class to be taught by Mr. Zuroff, as of mid-May, with less than two months before the program. Not a single person, even though SLS had tried to spread the word. SLS simply could not afford to bring him. Writers and non-writers alike, go to SLS programs, be it in Lithuania or elsewhere, to study literature and culture and history and be told the truth from the perspective that offers hope, not preaches hate with no glimmer of hope, which is exactly what Dr. Katz is doing, permanently living in Vilnius and preaching nothing but the said message of stark anger and discord. His is a barren, limited, backward-bound, destructive message, and as such, it turns people off and offers them no prospect of any positive . Dr. Katz, a brilliant Yiddishist, has become a sad spectacle and generally a laughingstock among the people who used to like and admire him: someone left behind by the progress of history, heeded by hardly anyone, hanging around Vilnius with no clear reason or purpose, and delivering the message whose sole conceivable beneficiary is the noxious Putin’s regime. What a sad existential trajectory, Dovid.

  • Mikhail Iossel

    Characteristically classy of Dovid Katz to site personal correspondence. The man is quite something. However, Jake (mentioned in the letter) later told me no such conversation ever took place, it was a misunderstanding on my part, and I never discussed it with anyone at the consulate. The consulate had no idea who would be brought to Lithuania by SLS. I am not sure what that letter proves other than that I had intended to bring Zuroff at first, but later — after a letter sent by Dr. Zuroff to me — decided it would derail the program and politicize it beyond repair. For the purpose of disclosure: Dr. Dovid Katz was a beneficiary of SLS, which paid him a considerable sum of money, and later was instrumental in bringing him to the US and Canada for a speaking tour.

  • Larry

    “Leadership Award” is a honor to be given for one who has contributed greatly to an organization or to the agenda of the organization. During her tour of duty Ambassador Anne Derse showed that she is nothing more than a lackey for right-wing pro-nazi Lithuanians. American Ambassadors are supposed to stand up and speak out for American values; however, Derse, not only didn’t look the other way as some American diplomats do, but actually encouraged events where the nazi flag was waved and the honoring of the leader of the German puppet 1941 government in Lithuania which set the motions for the extermination of 95% of all Lithuanian Jewry, not in Germany but on Lithuanian soil (there were few Lithuanian Jews who were murdered in the concentration-death camps).

    Dr. Jonathan Brent, the current leader of YIVO, had a mission during his many official visits to Lithuania – the preservation of the remains of the pre-war YIVO archives which the Lithuanian Government consistently refused to return to YIVO. As this is in process, one can say that Dr. Brent made progress. But given Ambassador Derse’s track record with not speaking out against pro-nazi marchers and the honoring of German collaborators, there must be a better person, one who is more deserving of YIVO’s 2014 Leadership Award? A Yiddish writer? A Holocaust Survivor? A supporter of YIVO?

  • דער ארטיקל איז א רײנער אמת

  • Mikhail Iossel

    I am director of the Summer Literary Seminars program, mentioned by Dovid Katz in this piece. I was the program’s director since its inception in 1998. It is not for the first time Dovid Katz is repeating this lie, with regard to: “…the embassy’s 2011 offer of a generous grant to a Montreal based Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) program on condition that Dr. Efraim Zuroff be dropped from the roster of speakers (he was).”
    This is a bold-faced lie. No such conversation ever took place, no such arrangement was ever made. The decision for not inviting Dr. Zuroff was entirely my own, made in consultation with no one, and the reason for it was that ours is a literary program, not a political one, and inviting Mr.Zuroff would inevitably change the whole cast and tenor of the program. SLS does have a large Jewish Lithuania component to its offerings, and Dovid Katz was the first one to teach in it, back in 2009. Let me put it another way: Dr. Dovid Katz is a bald-faced liar. What’s more, he knows it’s a lie, because I told him so before, and he has no sources of information to substantiate his libelous claim. If he had the capacity for being ashamed of himself, he ought to have been. But he does not seem to possess that capacity. However, this newspaper should not be offering its space so blithely to unsubstantiated, serious and libelous claims. It is irresponsible and unethical.

  • The Holocaust was a scam to garner sympathy for the Jews who lied about what really happened in the camps.
    do these stories seem logical to you?

    Jim Rizoli
    jjrizo on youtube

  • debra

    my first reaction to this article is it is shocking what is happening….
    my second reaction is, as a Jew… yes, shocking, but sadly ‘what else is new ? NU ?