If reports emanating from the small town of Molėtai (Yiddish name Malát) in Lithuania are correct, it appears that a hardcore group of Nazi sympathizers are determined to honor local priest Jonas Žvinys, the alleged driving force behind the extermination of the town’s Jewish population in late-summer 1941, despite plans to name a street after the priest having been scrapped last year following an international furor.
As a direct result of a campaign led by Israeli Tzvi Hirsh Kritzer who organized a new memorial dedicated on August 29, 2016 to the murdered Jews of the town — on the 75th anniversary of the killings – the local council (led to this day by a direct relative of Žvinys), backed down on plans to honor the disgraced priest. The Lithuanian president himself was one of more than 3,000 people who joined the protest and overwhelmed Molėtai, a place like so many others in Lithuania where the mass murder of Jews took place in 1941 in which very few locals reportedly raised a finger to help their long-time neighbors.
Earlier this week, however, renowned Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz’s Defending History website reported that Molėtai ‘s local church and its current priest, Father Kęstutis Kazlauskas, “has publicly announced that the church is organizing the production of a bas-relief to be … erected within the sacred premises, to honor alleged Holocaust perpetrator Jonas Žvinys.”
The original campaign against the Molėtai local council’s plan drew support from renowned Nazi hunter Dr Efraim Zuroff and his Lithuanian colleague and writer Ruta Vanagaitė, as well as from many Lithuanians from outside of the town dismayed at Žvinys’ role in the mass murders and the plan to honor him.
“This is terrible,” Efraim Zuroff told me, on hearing news of the reported new plan to honor the priest. “Why does he deserve to be commemorated? Because he helped kill Jews? This is absurd. Not surprising, but absurd.
“The cancellation [of the street naming plan] was the first indication that apparently our efforts, and those of Tzvi Kritzer and Molėtai-born Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivaškevičius, had a very positive impact on public opinion. Most of the Lithuanians on the march last August, however, were not from Molotai.”
Rut Liberman, from Pardess Hanna, was one of the Israeli relatives of murdered Molotai Jews who marched last year.
“I never believed the townspeople themselves were in the least bit sorry,” said Liberman. “This was a town that willingly took part in these murders. My pregnant aunt was one of those murdered. The grandfathers and grandmothers of today’s generation of Molotai were involved and never spoke a word of it.”
“I went to the Molotai local museum which displayed no references to Jewish life in the town. I asked them how the Jews disappeared in 1941. I asked where the documents were. I asked about the murder of my grandfather, my aunt, the children of my family etc. Of course, there was nothing.”
If reports of the new plan to honor Jonas Žvinys with a work of art in the local church are confirmed, it is understood that a demonstration opposing such a move may well be staged outside the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv.