In 2015, Holocaust denier David Irving arranged a tour of Lithuania for his supporters. There are many places of pilgrimage in Lithuania for those of his ilk. From medieval times to the present, Jews have brought their skills, work ethic, and intellect to Lithuania; their histories have been related dishonestly by the very people who abused, murdered, and stole from Jewish victims. A brief historical overview is required to add context to the current situation.
Jews moved to Lithuania in 1323 when Grand Duke Gediminas invited Jews to settle in his territories. He sought merchants, doctors, and others to come to the Grand Duchy and practice their trade and faith without restriction, in the hope of developing Lithuania into a regional economic power. Jews were one of his tools, and Jews delivered. Their work ethic and education contributed enormously to the development of Lithuania as a superpower in Europe.
Vytautas the Great granted the duchy’s Jews a charter in 1388. It was a remarkable document of tolerance, but in 1495, Lithuanian Jews were expelled by Grand Duke Alexander Jagiellon. Jewish property was confiscated, their “gifts” used to enrich local coffers. By 1503, however, Lithuanians recognized their error and resulting impoverishment. Jews were invited to return to Lithuania in order to once again re-build the now damaged Jew free economy. Some property was returned. In recognizing the contributions of Jews to the Lithuanian state, the charter was re-confirmed in 1507, by which time more than 6,000 Jews were again residing in the Grand Duchy.
European Jews were intermittently forbidden from engaging in many professions except for money lending and some commercial activities, thus Jews developed expertise in finance that Lithuanian nobility accessed to grow their own fortunes. Jews continued to contribute to the development of an agrarian and economically active society.
Historical records of Jewish life in Lithuania are sparse until the year 1566, when King Žygimantas II passed a law requiring Jews to wear yellow hats and head coverings (foreshadowing the order that would be repeated in Lithuania during the Holocaust). King Žygimantas’ Jew-hate had died down, and over the centuries, Jews lived in relative peace and freedom, contributing substantially to the economic and social uplifting of all peoples in the region.
History records intermittent pogroms and expulsions, with later invitations of return. Repeatedly, Jewish assets were plundered for temporary local enrichment, never enduring in profligating hands.
In 1915, Russians ruled Lithuanian territory. Employing scapegoating and annihilationist racism, absurd accusations were formulated against Jews. Jews, who were defenseless and without rights, were rounded up and deported en masse from the general region. Although this was a devastating blow to the local Lithuanian economy, locals were again temporarily enriched through the looting and plunder of Jewish property. We do not know how many Jews died as a direct result of these deportations; estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.
Upon independence in 1918, new Lithuanian leaders understood the contributions Jews had made to the economic development of the state, and the economic void left in their absence. Economically active and educated Jews were encouraged to return (my relatives were not among that fortunate group), while other Jews were rejected on the most flimsy and dishonest of reasons. Jewish expertise and money, not actual living Jews, were needed in Lithuania.
Many Jews did return, and many subsequently left for countries such as Israel, USA, South Africa, Argentina, and Mexico, where they made, and continue to make, substantial contributions to academic, scientific, and economic development.
The interwar golden period for Jews did not last. A 1926 coup in Lithuania changed the situation for Jews, and anti-Semitism resurged. Press restrictions prevented reporting of the rise in anti-Semitism; however, much was reported internationally and it remains available to researchers in the online archives of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. This censorship period is being exploited by current Lithuanian leaders to falsely illustrate that anti-Semitism did not exist in Lithuania during this time. Obviously, truth and fact are not required in the misinformed and deliberately distorted public presentations.
The Soviet occupation of 1940 was devastating for the Jews. Jewish businesses and communal properties were yet again confiscated. Jews were deported to Siberia in disproportionate numbers. The deportations were nearly twice as likely to affect Jews as compared to ethnic Lithuanians. The Soviet deportations were not intended to be genocidal. While many deportees died, there was a vastly higher incidence of surviving life in Siberia than under Lithuanian Holocaust perpetrators.
The Nazi invasion of 1941 was preceded by a murder and robbery campaign by local Lithuanians. Nazi collaborators and mass genocidal murderers and their accomplices such as the Lithuanian Jonas Noreika formalized the process of robbing victims and distributing the wealth. For the first time since 1566, the yellow star was reintroduced, under the direction of Noreika. Noreika remains a legendary national hero of Lithuania despite his active participation in Lithuania’s genocide of her Jewish population.
Kazys Skirpa, who revoked Vytautas’ 1388 charter and called for the ethnic cleansing of Jews from Lithuania, is also concurrently revered as a prominent Lithuanian national hero. Multiple streets in Lithuania are named in his honor.
By the end of 1942, Lithuanian Jews had been largely annihilated, and surviving Jews were slaves (that had not yet been worked to death) in the Lithuanian and Nazi machinery of the Holocaust. Soviets reoccupied Lithuania in 1944, and Lithuania again became an impoverished, Eastern European, Soviet satellite.
In 1990 Lithuania regained independence, this time, a new nation virtually without Jews. Foreign aid replaced the economic activity that might have been generated by an industrially oriented community, and Lithuania struggled to re-build. But unlike the welcoming vision of Gediminas in 1323, there are no immigrant communities willing, available, or welcome to assist the new xenophobic and nationalistic country.
Tangible property that belonged to Jews prior to the war remained. In a brilliant legal strategy, Lithuania introduced a restitution law that required claimants of private property to be exclusively Lithuanian citizens, and then made a priority of denying citizenship to Jewish applicants. Thus, little was returned and Lithuania could honestly claim that they had generously opened a window for restitution. After closing this window, Lithuania liberalized its citizenship law for Jews, announcing that it is a welcoming society.
European Union aid continues to flow to Lithuania. In almost 30 years of independence, Lithuania has been unable to build a solid industrial base, resulting in extremely low wages in the countryside and a resulting mass emigration of its youth, to the point that emigration now threatens the survival of the country. Lithuania desperately needs to build new income sources, and tourism is potentially one of these sources. As a nation that has achieved an international reputation primarily for being “žydšaudys” (Jew shooters), Lithuania has little to offer to foreign tourists. Ever creative, Lithuania has returned to the gift that keeps on giving—Jews. By encouraging foreign Jews to excavate and re-build desecrated Jewish sites, Lithuania has created a need for laborers, and a resulting tourist trail with which to attract Jews to visit the sites where their relatives lived and were murdered. Jewish tourism to Lithuania has become a reliable source of national income.
Lithuania is littered with honors, monuments, and streets named for those Lithuanians who participated in the persecution and slaughter of Jews, hence allowing those who believe that a genocide of Jews was positive and joyous, to turn the monuments into religious shrines. Touring the monuments provides an additional source of tourism for the impoverished Lithuanian state.
Clearly unfathomable is the notion of an economic and technological powerhouse that Lithuania could be today, were it not for the murders and deportations of Lithuanian Jews in prior generations. Hypocritical leaders such as the former Minister of Justice and the current Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Simasius, believe that recruiting the talents of some Jews could increase local employment and business opportunities. He pays tribute to Jewish memory and heritage while simultaneously using every possible legal means to maintain the monuments. His feigned emotional regrets sound sincere to the unsuspecting.
When Lithuania’s Foreign Minister capitulated to foreign pressure to remove the monument for Noreika, Simasius intervened and refused. Noreika’s own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, identifies him as having ordered Lithuania’s Jews to wear the yellow star. He created ghettos in which to concentrate Jews, plundered Jewish property, and is ultimately responsible for the murder of over 14,000 Jewish Lithuanians. The Lithuanian government has declined to study Ms. Foti’s documentary evidence, dismissing it by calling her “unreliable” without having reviewed her material or communicated with her. Mayor Simasius insists Noreika is a hero worthy of respect in the national capital.
The Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been tasked with approaching Jews in Israel, USA, South Africa, Mexico, and in other countries to invest in Lithuania, ignoring the fact that 220,000 murdered Lithuanian Jews are no longer there to do it themselves. Furthermore, the government officials neglect to mention the many honors, monuments, and street names granted to perpetrators. Mayor Simasius fervently hopes people pay attention to his words, not his actions.
Displaying a convoluted Kafkaesque approach, the Lithuanian government recently published a meme mourning the loss of sixteen percent of their population, while simultaneously lauding those Lithuanians who fought for their freedom.
However, they neglected to state that the 16 percent loss of population includes the Jews murdered at the instigation of, and by, their own Lithuanian countrymen. Some of those murderers transformed themselves into the resistance “Freedom Fighters” and “Forest Brothers” that Lithuania venerates. How is this any different from the child who murders his parents and then throws himself at the mercy of the Court, claiming to be an orphan?
Currently unsuspecting foreign business leaders, feeling sympathy toward Lithuanians, are considering establishing commercial ties with Lithuania. The following adage applies: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” Until Lithuania can definitively show that next time will be different, exercising due diligence in determining our allies and business partners remains imperative.