How did it come to this? Professor Vytautas Landsbergis, first Head of State of Lithuania after liberation from the Soviet Union, and founding father of the country’s Conservative party (Homeland Union), putting himself squarely at the forefront of defending the hero status of Holocaust perpetrators and Nazi collaborators in Lithuania?
Landsbergis has gone on record calling Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Simasius delusional for removing a plaque honoring the Holocaust perpetrator Jonas Noreika from the Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences – a step called for years ago by a broad coalition of public intellectuals that included Member of the European Parliament Leonidas Donskis, the Rector of Vilnius University Arturas Zukauskas and others (were they also all “delusional”?). Serving the Nazis as head of Siauliai district during World War II, Noreika signed orders forcing Jews into a ghetto and plundering their property (clearly they weren’t expected to come back).
Noreika’s granddaughter Silvia Foti, after discovering the truth, has courageously spoken out against the honoring of her grandfather. In what can only be described as an unstatesmanlike tirade, Landsbergis went so far as to publicly accuse her of “murdering him all over again” (Noreika was executed by the Soviets in 1947).
Landsbergis publicly condemned Vilnius City Council for removing the name of pro-Nazi leader of the Lithuanian Activist Front, the armed anti-Soviet resistance group behind the June 1941 Uprising, and nominal head of Lithuania’s provisional government under the Nazi Kazys Skirpa from a street in the middle of the capital. After the Vilnius Synagogue was temporarily closed due to escalating anti-Semitism and threats of violence in the wake of these decisions, instead of calling for calm, Landsbergis continued to escalate his rhetoric, accusing the head of Lithuania’s Jewish Community Faina Kukliansky of being “useful to the Kremlin”.
Now, whipped into a frenzy, key members of his political party like MPs Audronius Azubalis and Laurynas Kasciunas are baying for blood of anyone who dares criticize their “defective heroes” – “heroes” that presumably include not just Skirpa and Noreika, but Holocaust perpetrators like Antanas Baltusis, Juozas Barzda, Juozas Krikstaponis and Bronius Norkus, who still have schools, streets and monuments to their names around the country.
To those of us observing from abroad, it is nothing short of astonishing that the man who led the country to independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s and served as the first president of modern Lithuania, would squander a lifetime of international credibility by standing up for Nazi collaborators, distorting their role in the Holocaust and casually accusing those who disagree with him of treason and mental problems.
Even those on the inside are starting to wonder whether Lithuania is well-served by Prof. Landsbergis’ strange outbursts. Former dissident and European Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, whose own parents were victims of Stalin’s deportations to Siberia, puts it this way: “Putin revises history, but so does Landsbergis”.
And so, too, we should add, does the Lithuanian government, primarily its Genocide and Resistance Research Center, which provides a scholarly veneer to Holocaust distortion. The Center’s conclusions regularly minimize the responsibility of Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis using a combination of cherry-picking, creative interpretation and moral smoke-blowing (whereby no Lithuanians, apparently, are ever responsible for any decisions they make except when they are heroically resisting).
But even the Center has been forced to concede that the vile anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated by the leaders of the Lithuanian Activist Front (many of whom then became officials in the pro-Nazi provisional government) encouraged Lithuanians to participate in the Holocaust.
“It is extremely important to use this occasion also to rid ourselves of the Jews….the more of them use the occasion to leave Lithuania, the easier it will be to finally rid ourselves of the Jews,” wrote Skirpa on the eve of the 1941 Uprising.
“The Lithuanian nation will be cleansed of the alien race that for centuries has sucked the fruit of the work of sweaty and blistered Lithuanian hands and, as now, so, too, in past times of oppression has always betrayed Lithuania,” read a declaration Skirpa presented to the Nazis in 1940.
For Skirpa, Adolf Hitler was the “ingenious leader” who “has declared war on all sorts of injustice in Europe, and is determined to save its culture and civilization from that Jewish invention – communism.” Is it any wonder that, bombarded with propaganda equating Jews with communists, many Lithuanians took up arms against their own Jewish neighbors? Entire communities – men, women and children – were rounded up, brutally murdered and buried on the outskirts of major settlements, the killing sites and mass graves dotting the landscape.
As horrific as it was, today’s arguments about Skirpa and Noreika are not just about history. Vilnius University Historian Bernardas Gailius puts it bluntly: “Skirpa and Noreika were fascists” and that is the reason for their contemporary appeal. Even before the war, they were busy plotting coups and drawing up enemies lists.
“This is not a fight about Jewish memory. This is a fight about our contemporary view of Lithuania and its future….a conflict between fascists and anti-fascists,” Gailius writes. “We can hope that, as in the interwar period, the fascists remain a fringe movement in Lithuanian politics. But they are here and we cannot ignore that.”
Current arguments about Skirpa and Noreika may, indeed, be more about what Lithuania stands for today than about Jewish memory, but the two questions are hardly separable. For Lithuania, Jewish memory and Holocaust history are a critical test – a test of how sincerely it is devoted to democracy and respect for human rights and human dignity. Alas, the morally ambiguous way key institutions and now even leaders like Professor Landsbergis treat wartime collaboration (his own father was a minister in the provisional government) along with the still widespread notion that “those disloyal Jews had it coming” are the reasons Lithuania has a massive blind spot when it comes to recognizing threats from the right.
And the right certainly knows how to exploit this. Any criticism of people like Skirpa and Noreika are labelled attacks on Lithuania’s freedom and independence itself, and kneeling before their memory is declared a prerequisite of public and military service – a loyalty test. All it took for the liberal Mayor of Vilnius to be labelled an enemy of Lithuania and a Russian agent was for him to announce that the memory of Nazi and Soviet collaborators will be treated equally and take action to ensure that there will not be monuments in the capital city to those who committed crimes against humanity. All it took for the director of Go Vilnius, Darius Udrys to be fired from his job was to question the wartime killing of civilians. Meanwhile, Gailius is being assailed for daring to call Skirpa and Noreika “fascists”, as if “fascists” were nothing more than mythical beasts invented by Kremlin propagandists to malign Lithuania and there is no way fascism could ever exist or be a real danger to anyone in Lithuania.
Ignorance, simplistic interpretations of events past and present, of friends and enemies, guilt and inferiority complexes are all what fascist movements prey. They insinuate themselves into key institutions under the guise of patriotism with their doctrine of unquestioning devotion and pride coupled with glorification of violence in the name of “The Nation”.
As Lithuania grapples with these tendencies and searches for its path to a civilized future, it is vital for all people of good will who care about the country to stand up for truth and human dignity. It is vital to point out that the real enemies of Lithuania are not those who want to build society on a foundation of truth, human dignity and reconciliation, but those who want to impose unquestioning loyalty that disregards individual human dignity and puts The Nation, as its leaders define it, “uber alles”.
That is why Holocaust education is not just education about history. It is about what it means to be human and humane even under terrible conditions. It is still common to hear Lithuanians lament that wartime and multiple occupations were such a complex situation and “who are we to judge?” Noreika and Skirpa. But moral judgment is the essence of being human and humane. Yes, many were facing extraordinarily complex circumstances. But there were those who had the moral clarity to do the right thing. Most did not murder. Most did not join in. Most did not sign up to serve. But there were those who failed, like Skirpa and Noreika. For that reason, whatever their merits, they should not be held up as moral examples – unless we are asking for history to one day repeat itself.
The Lithuanian Parliament has designated 2020 as the “Year of the Vilna Gaon and the History of the Jews of Lithuania”. Let us use this occasion to remember the lessons that the history of the Jews of Lithuania teaches Lithuania and humanity. They are moral lessons that require moral judgement and not excuses for crimes against humanity and heroization of perpetrators. Not ambiguous statements about how “complicated” it all was, how no one was perfect and how those who dare to reflect critically on the prevailing, distorted narrative of their heroics are enemies of state. We must remember accurately, and we must be open to critical reflection so that we could remind ourselves and teach the next generation about what should be our moral touchstones, as “complicated” as circumstances may get.
Jews regularly speak the words “Zachor”, “Remember”, “Never Forget”. Powerful words. But what is being remembered? Names, dates, locations? If we are to remember, we must remember accurately. Accepting or ignoring distortions is not preserving the authentic memory of the Holocaust, nor its lessons for the future. “Never Forget” in the context of Jewish history and our future place in the world means that we must vigilantly expose falsification. It means we cannot acquiesce to distortion. “Never Forget” requires correcting distorted history and speaking truth to power – even to heroes like Professor Vytautas Landsbergis. And so we shall.