Even passively monitoring a neo-Nazi march is hardly my idea of oneg Shabbat (rejoicing on Sabbath), but that is how I spent last Saturday afternoon in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas, known to many of us as Kovno, once one of the most important centers of Jewish life and learning in Eastern Europe. February 16 is the anniversary of the declaration of Lithuanian independence in 1918, when the Baltic republic was initially created in the aftermath of World War I and the breakup of the Czarist empire. A second independence day is celebrated on March 11, when independence was reestablished in 1991 after three occupations – two by the Soviets in 1940-1941 and 1944-1991, and a uniquely horrific one by the Nazis from June 1941 until summer 1944. Unfortunately, however, starting in 2008, both independence days have been “hijacked” by local ultranationalists who stage public marches in the center of the country’s two most important cities – Kaunas in February and in the capital of Vilnius in March – to mark the occasion.
Although I have been actively involved in fighting anti-Semitism for decades, this was actually the first time that I was in the vicinity of a neo-Nazi march, and it was not a pretty sight. To complicate matters, together with my friend and colleague Prof. Dovid Katz, who lives part of the year in Lithuania, I had been protesting from afar against such events in Vilnius and Kovno from the very beginning. This, after years of trying, with only partial success, to convince the Lithuanian authorities to bring to justice unprosecuted local Nazi collaborators. In the process, I had become something of a local villain, with a reputation for badmouthing the Baltics. To top it off, the day before the march, Dovid and I held a jam-packed press conference in Vilnius, in which we advocated a total ban on such marches and tried to convince the local journalists that freedom of expression did not include the right to incite against minorities, which had hereto been the major theme of these events, and that believe it or not, these parades by local neo-Nazis and ultranationalists were actually against Lithuania’s best interests. And while the press conference was undoubtedly important, it was not the journalists who march in such parades, nor are they the ones with the authority to ban such parades.
And thus it was with no small sense of apprehension that I showed up at the starting point of the march to meet up with Dovid, who came with two like-minded friends from Vilnius. I also came with supporters, in this case seven Israeli medical and dentistry students studying in Kaunas. They had attended a lecture I gave the previous evening on the current state of Lithuanian-Jewish relations and the country’s failure to honestly confront its bloody Holocaust past, which included extensive local complicity in the mass murder of Jews. The tension in the air was palpable, although a very heavy police presence was reassuring. It was clear that the authorities were not taking any chances. In fact, at one point a plainclothes officer even offered to personally accompany me back to where I was staying after the march, when the police would disperse and everyone was on his own.
From my perspective, the key questions were the number of those marching; the age of the participants; the slogans, banners, and symbols used; and the attitude of the public to the marchers.
On each one of these questions, I am sorry to say that the news from Kaunas is not encouraging. There were at least some 300 people marching from the starting point of the demonstration, but by the time the march ended some two hours later at the old municipality building, after it proceeded down the main avenue of the city, many more people had joined, bringing the total to more than 500. And anyone who was hoping that those participating would be a bunch of old men, that was certainly not the case. Lithuanians of all ages, male and female, were active and enthusiastic participants, among them a majority of young adults.
As far as the content of the slogans used, the dominant shout was “Lietuva Lietuviams,” or “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” an exclusionary slogan aimed at their country’s minorities, whose residence in Lithuania is a source of concern for the ultranationalists. In past marches, even worse slogans were shouted against Jews (“Juden raus”) and Russians, but in the wake of harsh criticism, primarily from abroad, apparently the sponsors made sure not to use them, although the intent of “Lietuva Lietuviams” shouted while many gave a two-armed Sieg Heil salute certainly sends the same message. In that respect, it was the banners and symbols that were the clearest indications that the marchers were the ideological heirs of the Lithuanian Nazi war criminals and collaborators from the Holocaust.
Thus one of the “heroes” of the marchers whose portrait appeared on a large banner was Juozas Ambrazevicius, the Prime Minister of the Provisional Lithuanian government of June 1941, which fully supported the Third Reich and actively promoted the persecution and murder of Lithuania’s Jewish citizens. In May 2012, his remains were brought back to Lithuania and buried in Kaunas with full national honors, despite his despicable role in Holocaust crimes. Another indication of sympathy with Lithuania’s murderers of Jews were the white armbands with swastikas in the shape of flames worn by some of the marchers, which were reminiscent of the infamous Lithuanian vigilantes who wore white armbands and during the initial days following the Soviet retreat from Lithuania, even before the first Nazis arrived, began physically attacking and murdering Jews in 46 different locations throughout the country.
And finally, perhaps the most discouraging aspect of the experience, was the miniscule number of locals who protested against the march, each of whom deserves a medal. In all, I counted eight men and women from the local anti-fascist movement who boldly protested, signs held aloft, and who preserved some semblance of Lithuanian honor. Perhaps that is not so surprising in a country in which the murderers so badly outnumbered the rescuers during the Holocaust, a fact which helps explain why Lithuania had the highest rate of Jewish victims (96.4%), with the exception of Estonia, where only a thousand Jews were caught under the Nazi occupation.
On a personal level, I have to say that if looks could kill, Dovid and I would have been goners many times over. The participants were strongly united in their disdain for our efforts not only to stop the marches, but, far more importantly, to expose Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and thwart Lithuanian efforts to promote the canard of historical equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes. In that respect, the police did a very good job, for which we both are very thankful. Nonetheless, their performance was not entirely perfect, as they failed to prevent one elderly lady from trying to spit at Dovid, whom she derisively referred to as “Mr. Zuroff,” a timely reminder that those who hate usually have all their facts mixed up.