I am a Jewish-looking, Jewish-sounding guy from Brooklyn who has been happily based for close to seventeen years in Vilnius, the beautiful Lithuanian capital, and am proud of many Lithuanian friends. It is not an antisemitic country. The overwhelmingly tolerant people of the capital sport a robust good humor and multicultural quilting. The problem is with what the foreign diplomats stationed here call The Elites: government, academia, media, the arts and more, where there is often to be found a national obsession, not with the (genuinely) grand history of Lithuania over a thousand years of European history, but with — glorifying Holocaust perpetrators.
How could that be?
It is verily hard to fathom this without having lived in the region (this is not just about Lithuania). The “nationalist classes” have decided as a point of national pride to glorify the 1941 butchers of their Jewish neighbors not directly because of that voluntary and often gleeful Holocaust participation (that helped result in 96.4% of Lithuanian Jewry being massacred, the largest percentage in Europe), but because of a national myth of a “great revolt” of June 1941 that supposedly drove out the Soviet army (that had occupied the country, and the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia, from the preceding summer onward). The state-sponsored “Museum of Genocide Victims” on the capital’s main boulevard devotes one of its main halls to glorifying that “revolt” without bothering to mention two things: first, that the main “actual accomplishment” of these “rebels” (known as the “white armbanders” for their quick-make “uniform”) was to set out on the murder, rape and pillage of civilian Jewish neighbors, even before the first German soldiers set foot in the country several days later; and second, that the Soviet army made its rapid flight eastward to Russia because of Hitler’s invasion (Operation Barbarossa), the largest invasion in human history, not because of the white-armbanded fascists associated with the LAF (Lithuanian Activist Front) who are the extolled heroes at the museum. Untold thousands of naive Western visitors (even New York Times reporters) are grotesquely misinformed each year.
Back on the gold-paved road to NATO and EU accession, the three Baltic states set up commissions to study both Nazi and Soviet crimes, to prove to the West (and their influential Jewish organizations) that they were taking the Holocaust seriously, while in reality they were pursuing a cunning far-right revisionist Double Genocide model of World War II history. Once European Union and NATO memberships were in the bag, by 2004, previous self-control on these issues crumbled, and in addition to museums that glorify Hitlerist collaborators and purvey a bogus history, new and unsavory (and wholly unpredicted) scenarios would play out.
From 2006, the Genocide Research Center (a lavish state-sponsored institution), state prosecutors and top editors of an antisemitic daily paper contrived a campaign to defame and prosecute Holocaust survivors who were alive only because they escaped the ghettos to join up with the anti-Nazi resistance in the forests of Lithuania. Needless to say, these folks are heroes of the very free world that joining the EU and NATO is all about. It was all part of a weird attempt to “equalize” the tens of thousands of Nazi collaborators on one side with the handful of survivors of genocide who were in effect saved by fighting with the Soviet-sponsored partisans, in a part of the world where the Soviet Union was the only force providing serious (and ultimately successful) resistance to the Nazis.
In 2008, neo-Nazi marches were added into the noxious cocktail. Most democracies have fringe groups at the political extremes, and peaceful demonstrations are in fact protected by laws of free speech. And so it was in Lithuania. But from 2008 onward, authorities started gifting the very center of its two main cities, on cherished independence days, to the neo-Nazis, offering a de-facto conveyance of legitimization that oversteps the bounds of typical state choices in the realm of free speech.
Lithuania has two independence days, both revered by residents of diverse background: February 16th, for the day in 1918 when Lithuanian independence was proudly proclaimed after World War I; and March 11th, for the day in 1990, when Lithuania’s leaders risked their lives to declare independence from the Soviet Union, an act that played its due role in the very unraveling of the USSR. In 2008, the capital city, Vilnius (Vilna), was offered up on the March 11th independence day for a neo-Nazi march that featured “Juden raus” as well as a rhyme telling children to “kill that little Jew on the ladder.” It wasn’t long before the second city, Kaunas (Kovno) started giving its own city center to the far-rightists on February 16th each year.
For many years, a small crew of around five to seven of us from our local Defending History team have been on hand to silently protest both marches by following them and talking about the victims and their culture. On numerous occasions, we have been joined by just one foreign Jewish personality, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal’s Israel office, while most Jewish organizations, local and international alike, fear being in the bad books of the Lithuanian government that hosts lavish Jewish events. Some years we were joined by local anti-fascist youth but after they were subject to police harassment in 2013, that has dwindled to a trickle (the same police treat us foreign-born protesters royally and provide us with exquisite protection and courtesy; violent incidents are not wanted). Not least in the context of current politics, where any who disagree with Holocaust revisionism and obfuscation are rapidly labelled as Putinist pawns. More on that another day.
Fast forward to 2016. We find ourselves now smack in between the February 16th and March 11th marches in the city centers of Kaunas and Vilnius, respectively.
Early on Tuesday the 16th of February, Evaldas Balčiūnas, a courageous truth-teller harassed by prosecutors for years for telling the truth about the Holocaust; Milan Chersonski, who was editor of the Jewish community’s newspaper from 1999 to 2011; Julius Norwilla, a former protestant pastor, and a few others prepare for our annual journey to ice-cold midwinter Kaunas. This year, there were fewer neo-Nazis at the event which starts at a central park and proceeds to the interwar presidential palace over several hours. There were some 250 to 300 “steadies” with up to 250 more who joined in at some part of the route. Two of the best-known personalities on hand were Julius Panka, chairman of the National Union of Lithuanian Nationalist Youth, and Ričardas Čekutis, a former “chief specialist” at the state sponsored Genocide Center. A number of annual aspects have become rituals: our letter to the mayor of Kaunas, his failure to stop, move or even condemn the march each year, and the hefty and highly professional police presence.
The February 16th Kaunas marchers, like their Vilnius counterparts, have long agreed with authorities to desist from organized bullhorned shouts by parade marshals that mention Jews, Poles, Russians, Roma, Gays, and other Others, and to “minimize” swastikas. Although the swastika was legalized in Lithuania in 2010, two years after Nazi and Soviet symbols were “equally” banned, the PR units at the highest levels of government have tried to keep them away from events observed by foreigners. The “grand solution” has been “designer swastikas,” most frequently the “Lithuanian swastika” (with its added little four lines at the tips) and ever new annual design innovations in curvature and directionality.
The two most frequent chants were “Lietuva Lietuviams” (Lithuania For Lithuanians!) and, in keeping up with current events, a slogan against immigrants and refugees.
From the international point of view, one might say that it is sad that an EU/NATO democracy started to gift the centers of its two main cities on its most cherished two days to these groups of far-right groups on its cherished independence days after securing EU/NATO membership. But many things in life are sad, and life goes on. Nevertheless there is something very special about this march and the others in the region like it.
The front banner of the march from start to finish bore words that translate “We Know Our Nation’s Heroes” and lo and behold, underneath are the faces of six Nazi collaborators, five of whom are implicated in Holocaust participation or collaboration. From left to right on the banner, they are: Adolfas Ramanauskas-Vanagas, Jonas Noreika, Povilas Plechavičius, Kazys Škirpa, Antanas Baltūsis-Žvejas, and Juozas Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis. Five of the six have been among the major Hitlerist personalities whose adulation by the Genocide Center and others has caused some international protest in recent years.
The de facto upshot is that by legally flaunting this banner through central Kaunas for the entirety of the march on independence day these marchers are in effect celebrating the ethnic purification of their city by the genocide of its 30,000 Jewish citizens. There was not a peep from the same state officials who give “Useful Jewish Idiots” (known here as UJIs) from around the world royal welcomes and perks at grand events dedicated to Jewish commemoration and culture.
While mentions of Jews and other specific groups have not appeared on sanctioned signs carried by the marchers themselves, as part of tacit arrangements with authorities, for some years now, they are never hard to find among the adulating onlookers from the sidelines. This year, a sign carried by two young ladies (one apparently a high school student), read, in translation: “‘We, (Jews) will turn Europe into a mixture of Asian people — Negroes, ruled by Jews…’ — R. Coudenhove-Kalergi, ‘father’ of the European Union. NO TO THE ISLAMIZATION OF LITHUANIA!”
The most inspiring scene of the day was the sight of three courageous young protesters, who told us they were not affiliated with any group. They carried a banner within sight of the march that read, in translation: “Lithuania — Not the Third Reich”.
Over the past year, Lithuania has invested a lot in Jewish and Israel-related projects, including trips by both the prime minister and the president to Israel in late 2015. Investment is particularly sought from wealthy South African Jews of Lithuanian descent who are understandably eager for EU passports these days, and who are occasionally mobilized to become apologists for the state’s Holocaust antics.
Now, on the eve of March 2016, the president and prime minister of Lithuania have before them in the coming days a splendid opportunity to arrange for the upcoming neo-Nazi march in central Vilnius on March 11th to be reassigned to another day and another place.
A particular responsibility falls this year on the dashing young new mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, who has taken the trouble during his first year in office to put up expensive trilingual Lithuanian-English-Yiddish plaques to mark public retaining walls made of Jewish gravestones, which are, as he puts it, “an example of the barbaric policy pursued by the Soviet authorities.” Last summer, the mayor received a delegation of top rabbis who begged him to move a new convention center project away from the old Jewish cemetery (still no answer on that one, despite a massive international outcry). We may now, no doubt, expect him to ban (or at least reassign to another time and place) this year’s second neo-Nazi spectacle, on the March 11th independence day, that glorifies the Nazi barbarism that brought genocide to his city and country, that is at present still slated for the center of his city, a city once known (and for tourism and PR purposes still branded), The Jerusalem of Lithuania.