VILNIUS — This month, on the seventieth anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s Nazi regime and the end of World War II — ipso facto the end of the Holocaust — Western leaders have been faced with a symbological conundrum. How might they square honest commemoration of this major anniversary with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s record of progressively more arrogant dictatorship at home and cynical mischief in his near abroad?
Once Moscow made clear that the May 9th parade in the Russian capital would feature his latest tanks and planes, it became certain that most Western leaders would not feel comfortable being there. They do not want to become props for Putin’s attempts to use (as it happens, accurate) World War II history as cover for his indefensible policies and ethos. But in statecraft as in life, there is always an alternative danger that lurks: Do they want to become props for Nazi-apologists’ far-right elements in today’s anti-Russia East European states’ attempts to use (as it happens, inaccurate) World War II history as cover for denial of massive, lethal wartime collaboration, denial of the Soviet peoples’ role in defeating Hitler, and, along the same road, extreme nationalism, racism and a frenzy against Russian-speakers everywhere. Then, add into the unstable mix the American neocon obsession with stoking trouble far and wide to project American power and weapon systems, even where that means violating core American and Western values.
The crushing of Hitler-dominated Europe by the Anglo-American-Soviet alliance is one of the high achievements of Western civilization. How easy today to “forget” that it had appeared a certainty to great and small minds alike, that the rapid collapse of so many great nations of Europe meant that a hundred, if not a thousand, year Reich of the Superior Race was to rule continental Europe (and beyond). It was the vastly greater-than-anyone-else’s sacrifice by the peoples of the then Soviet Union which made it possible for the Anglo-American alliance to even contemplate a D-Day invasion from the west in 1944 (when Hitler’s front was already crumbling in the east and his forces on the run). Turning to the Holocaust: that there were any survivors at all in the Baltics, Belarus, Ukraine and neighboring states invaded in June 1941 is due, one way or another, to the Soviet Union and the Soviet peoples. None of that is to excuse or downplay Stalin’s horrific crimes against humanity (of which Russians were the first victims). Those crimes need to be exposed to the last, as do all the evils and crimes of communist rule.
So what happened this past week? Many European leaders took the easy way out and snubbed Moscow’s May 9th in favor of Poland’s May 7th events at Gdansk (where Hitler’s aggression against Poland started on 1 Sept 1939 near the city, then known as Danzig). Not a bad idea, given Poland’s history of being Hitler’s first major state-player victim in September 1939, and, and that nation’s proud return as a major democracy in the new Europe. But it was Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel who came up with a more fitting solution: to find herself in Moscow on May 10th where she could lay a wreath, in Moscow, for the fallen of the Red Army in World War II, but not at the time or place of Putin’s neo-Soviet style militaristic extravaganza on the 9th.
Here in the capitals of the Baltic and neighboring countries, there was much speculation on what Lithuania’s president Dalia Grybauskaite would decide on. For years, she has garnered much more media attention than her fellow heads-of-state in the region, not least for her colorful and sometimes off-the-wall anti-Russian statements. Still, history may well likely look kindly on President Grybauskaite’s concrete steps to bolster her nation’s own defenses, including the (highly unpopular) introduction of conscription to the armed forces, defensive exercises near vulnerable borders, and, who can be a prophet, maybe even on the constant stream of alarmist pronouncements in the European Union of which many are privately quite tired. But that is another story.
For those who understand the unique nature of the genocide that is the Holocaust, there is another and very disturbing dimension to the story. Lithuanian politicians and academics — not the Lithuanian people! — have been at the heart of the Holocaust Obfuscation movement that would write the genocide of East European Jewry out of history without denying a single death. It evolved among a number of East European countries into the more sophisticated Double Genocide movement, which claims equality of Nazi and Soviet crimes, and is often a cover for local antisemitism (“Those Jews were all Communists, the Communists committed the first genocide, then there was the reaction, and now we are even, we must kiss and make up and together revive the Jewish heritage here for tourism”). A long array of state-sponsored tricks in the effort includes efforts to smear anti-Nazi partisan heroes (only Jewish ones, so far), erection of shrines and street names honoring Holocaust perpetrators and collaborators (“they were also anti-Soviet heroes”), inflation of the word “genocide” to include all and sundry, and an infinite array of “Jewish and Yiddish” activities as ever handy camouflage.
The founding document of Double Genocide is the Prague Declaration of 2008, whose progress in the European Parliament was duly checked by the Seventy Years Declaration of 2012. But behind the battle of the declarations is a phenomenon that is hard to understand if one doesn’t live for some time in this part of the world. In a word, it is Holocaust Envy. Why should those Jews be able to keep talking about their Holocaust, when ours, inflicted by the Soviet Union, was much worse? Here is an example that was posted for years on the website of the state-sponsored “Genocide Center” in central Vilnius: “One may cut off all four of a person’s limbs and he or she will still be alive, but it is enough to cut off the one and only head to send him or her to another dimension. The Jewish example clearly indicates that this is also true about genocide. Although an impressive percentage of the Jews were killed by the Nazis, their ethnic group survived, established its own extremely national state and continuously grew stronger (…).”
In fact, for many years, the Museum of Genocide Victims in downtown Vilnius didn’t mention the Holocaust. It is focused on the “genocide” that never happened (Soviet crimes against the Lithuanian people that were horrendous and duly merit a museum with a straight name like the “KGB Crimes Museum”). Only after years of protest was a basement cubicle exhibit on the Holocaust added in 2011, and a series of antisemitic exhibits removed, in 2015.
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So, against this backdrop, what did the Russian-eating “iron lady” president of Lithuania decide to do as the free world was one way or another commemorating the victory over Hitler? She thrilled naive acolytes and seasoned far-rightists alike by hitting on a PR-masterminded scenario. She would visit Lithuania’s largest Holocaust mass grave, Ponár (Polish Ponary, now Lithuanian Paneriai), pay silent tribute (no speeches) at selected monuments there, show sympathy for Holocaust victims among many others, and avoid all mention that it was the Red Army that liberated Lithuania from the Nazis. Lost completely is the simple truth, that had the Nazis won, they would have long ago implemented their plan to destroy Lithuania (among other regional states) and turn it into a Lebensraum playground for Germany. There would have been no Lithuania to become independent in 1991.
But witnessing the day from start to finish made for even more exotic politics of history in the making. At the monument-hop at Ponár, where 100,000 people were murdered by the Nazis — most of the shooting done by enthusiastic Lithuanian nationalist volunteers — there were visits and elaborate wreath-layings at four monuments, by the president, and by various other officials, including, disturbingly, a high official of the “Genocide Center” who has publicly supported memorials for pro-Nazi forces in Lithuania. The group of usually jovial Western ambassadors awkwardly followed the entourage, looking concerned that they might have been roped into something a little devious. Some noticeably avoided the cameras.
The elite procession made four stops. First at the old Soviet monument for all 100,000 victims of fascism killed at Ponár. Second, at the Jewish monument for the 70,000 Jews. Then, much more controversially, at a monument for some dozens of Lithuanians who had volunteered for pro-Hitler police duty and were shot after allegedly deserting when told they would be sent to the front. Third, at the Polish monument for the many thousands of Poles killed at Ponár. After the Jews, Soviet prisoners of war and the Poles were the prime murder victims of the Nazis and their local nationalist collaborators. And there is, a few yards away, a small plaque embedded in a stone remembering 7,514 Red Army prisoners (of a variety of nationalities, including of course, Lithuanians) who were starved and murdered on the site. But the exalted entourage ignored it. Not a hint of a flower on that one, though this was the day to remember the fallen and veterans of that very army, the only one among the Allies active in this part of the world. And not a mention of thanks to the dwindling band of perky surviving war veterans of various nationalities, who helped rid Lithuania of Nazism, the whole purpose of the end-of-war holiday. The actual “thing” recalled by the day (be it May 8th Western style or May 9th Eastern style), the celebration of victory over Nazism by the Allies, was a total unmentionable.
Afterwards, when a small group from our Jewish community headed on by bus to the Jewish cemetery to pay tribute to Jewish war veterans and anti-Nazi partisans, there was not even the lowliest government official in tow. The Holocaust mass murder site Ponár had been usurped for anti-Putin PR (the papers were supposed to headline the president heading for Ponár instead of Moscow, after all). The identity of the killers there was obfuscated, and the history confounded, discombobulated, murkily recombobulated.
As ever, there was plenty of Jewish Cover. The same week, high Jewish representatives of the AJC and Yivo who revel in government honors and grants that cover for Holocaust revisionism and antisemitism were on hand, this time for a new commission to preserve Jewish heritage in Lithuania. Indeed, a most laudable goal. Commissioners privately reported after the maiden meeting that there was sincerity in making progress on the state of old Jewish cemeteries and mass grave sites.
But here too, there was a cover-up and hush-up of the urgent issues of material heritage relevant to Jewish history and sensibilities. At the urging of one of the commissioners, we posted, a week before the event, a list of twelve material Jewish heritage issues that include the need to remove monuments and street names to Holocaust perpetrators; the need to remove antisemitic material from public places; the need to remove Jewish gravestones that church worshippers have to trample in order to get to a church in central Vilnius. On the eve of the new commission’s meeting last week, Julius Norvila, a remarkably courageous Vilnius pastor from that church’s denomination (though not that particular house of worship), published an inspiring protest against the ongoing public abuse of looted Jewish gravestones. But from the government’s new commission — not a fraction of a word.
As it happens, however, the most urgent Jewish heritage item from the point of view of imminent danger of total disappearance is deeply relevant to the week’s bigger issue: the honest history of the Holocaust. The last material vestige of heroic Jewish resistance to the Nazis and their local collaborators is a sinking forest fort where 99 of the 101 fighters were at one time Holocaust survivors from the Vilna ghetto who escaped to join the partisan effort. These Jewish partisans, who lost their entire families to the slaughter, and lived to help drive the Nazis from their country are heroes of European history. The forest fort has been visited and documented, along with its last Jewish survivor, by American diplomats, the BBC’s World Service, the Forward’s 2011 top ten list of overlooked Jewish historical sites, and on Sam Gruber’s outstanding Jewish Art & Monuments website.
Putting this puzzle together is a thorny task, when masterful PR produces the desired ambiguity and obfuscation. But there are core points that cannot be wished away by the erector-set constructs. The defeat of Hitler has been deleted from the celebration. The last vestige of Jewish resistance is allowed to sink before our eyes (and a new international commission on Jewish heritage is easily persuaded to not even mention it). Instead of mourning the victims of fascism, an “honor them all” tour of monuments at Ponár includes a group of pro-fascist forces also buried there (shades of Bitburg, however inexact), but excludes the nearby monument to Red Army soldiers killed at the site. Never mind that the whole day (be it the 8th or the 9th) is supposed to be about remembering the fallen soldiers and honoring the veterans who liberated Europe from the Hitlerists. When a group of Jews moves on to a ceremony honoring Jewish veterans, they are suddenly on their own. The press trumpets the president’s latest defeat of Putinist propaganda.
Make no mistake, Putin’s misdeeds need to be countered forcefully and the freedom of all NATO members defended in perpetuity as a sacred oath of our alliance. But not by falsifying the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, Holocaust Envy is rapidly moving to the next stage. This past week, Lithuania’s largest Holocaust killing site was commandeered for a set of unholy revisions of history, as the genocide of European Jewry is itself usurped for East European nationalists’ designs. But even presidents cannot steal history. Someone, somewhere, will take notice.