With only a day to go before the event, uncertainty surrounds the planned appearance of Lithuania’s foreign minister at a concert in New York City celebrating the music of the Vilna Ghetto. It is an appearance that has come to be seen as a flashpoint for a complex stew of issues roiling relations between Lithuania and world Jewry.
A number of Lithuanian Holocaust survivors and their advocates have protested the invitation of the foreign minister, Audronius Ažubalis, as “guest of honor” to the concert of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, in New York. They say that Ažubalis, who arrived in New York on September 19 to attend the United Nations General Assembly, made an anti-Semitic comment during a closed-door meeting last year and represents a government that is, at best, lukewarm to the plight of survivors.
Following the initial outcry after the invitation was announced a few weeks ago, the “guest of honor” title was stripped from the minister. But Ažubalis was still due to make opening remarks before the concert of Yiddish music, which was composed in a ghetto where almost 40,000 Jews were held before being murdered. Now, the Lithuanian consul general, Valdemaras Sarapinas, says that Ažubalis must attend a meeting of European Union ministers with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and a Transatlantic Dinner on the day of the concert, and therefore he may be unable to attend the event at YIVO.
“I would… like to assure you that we will do everything that we can so that the minister could arrive toward the middle, or, at least, toward the end of the event,” Sarapinas wrote in a September 19 e-mail to the Forward.
he air of uncertainty hanging over the foreign minister’s attendance comes only days after Lithuania’s culture minister and the Lithuanian ambassador to Israel were struck from the guest list for a September 19 ceremony at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial museum in Israel.
The two officials were disinvited from Yad Vashem’s commemoration of the Holocaust in Lithuania after Joseph Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, refused to appear alongside the pair. Instead, the minister was invited for a private tour of the museum one day after the ceremony, followed by a working meeting with Avner Shalev, chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate, to discuss access to Lithuanian archives.
“It should be noted that we are aware that Lithuania has announced steps this year to confront its Holocaust-era past, including in opening archives and educational and commemoration activities,” Yad Vashem spokeswoman Susan Weisberg said.
Melamed, 87, threatened to pull out of the ceremony after Lithuanian state prosecutors launched an investigation into allegations that he defamed nine leaders of the anti-Soviet Lithuanian resistance. Melamed included the nine in an online list of thousands of Lithuanians whom he claims murdered Jews during the Holocaust. He sent the list to Lithuanian authorities in 1999, he said, but after receiving no response, he published the names on the Web.
In a September 16 telephone interview from his home in Tel Aviv, Melamed said he refused to “play games” with the Lithuanians by appearing to make nice with them. And he urged YIVO executive director and CEO Jonathan Brent to revoke the invitation to the Lithuanian foreign minister for YIVO’s September 22 concert.
YIVO has strong links to Lithuania. It was founded in Vilna, then a part of Poland, in 1925. The center has been negotiating on and off for two decades with the Lithuanian government over custody of a small part of its own archive, which is still kept in Lithuania. Recently, Brent suggested that YIVO might allow Lithuania to maintain custody of the archive as long as it was made accessible in a special room at the National Library of Lithuania. But Melamed and others see this as a capitulation, a perception that has been compounded by the invitation to the foreign minister.
“This is killing the reputation of YIVO,” Melamed said.
The Holocaust is a complex period for Lithuanian Jews. Many Lithuanians greeted the Nazis as liberators when they invaded in 1941, one year after the Soviet Union had occupied the country. Lithuanian paramilitary units murdered a large portion of about 200,000 Jews killed during the Holocaust in Lithuania under Nazi rule. Some Jews who escaped the ghettos and mass killing sites went on to fight as anti-Nazi partisans, pitting them against some of their Lithuanian neighbors. After the Red Army reoccupied Lithuania in 1944, the issue was buried under almost five decades of Communist rule that only stoked further anti-Russian sentiment.
In recent years, Lithuania claims it has done much to address the Holocaust. The Lithuanian Parliament made 2011 the Year of Remembrance for Holocaust Victims. In July it agreed to pay €38 million ($53 million) in restitution for Jewish communal properties seized during the war. Events commemorating the Holocaust were planned for September in Vilna, including a procession on September 23 past the former gates of the Vilna Ghetto, followed by a ceremony at Paneriai Memorial Museum, a site where between 50,000 and 100,000 people, mainly Jews, were murdered. The Israeli minister of industry, trade and labor, Shalom Simhon, was scheduled to be among the speakers.
But Lithuanian Jews and some observers remain skeptical. They point to the fact that the Lithuanian Parliament also made 2011 the Year of Commemoration of the Defense of Freedom and Great Losses, honoring anti-Soviet fighters. Simon Gurevicius, executive director of the Lithuanian Jewish community, said some of those heroes are the same people who committed atrocities against Jews.
Many historians say that anti-Soviet paramilitary units played a role in such killings.
Dovid Katz, a former professor of Yiddish language, literature and culture at Vilnius University and a vehement critic of the Lithuanian government, spearheaded the protests. Katz was backed by, among others, Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jerusalem office, and Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.
Their opposition was outlined in an open letter to YIVO, written by Milan Chersonski, former editor of a Lithuanian Jewish newspaper, Jerusalem of Lithuania, and published in the Forverts, the Forward’s Yiddish-language sister publication, on September 16. Chersonski wrote that Ažubalis had not properly explained his alleged anti-Semitic remark, in which he reportedly claimed that Jews of Lithuanian origin were behind a proposed new citizenship law that would enable more of them to make Holocaust-era property claims. Chersonski also detailed widespread anti-Semitic sentiments and incidents in Lithuania.
Brent said he hoped to see the Lithuanian foreign minister at the YIVO concert. He said that opposition to Ažubalis had been instigated by “a group of highly disciplined and well-oiled fanatics” and then “whipped up into a froth by very irresponsible journalists.”
If Ažubalis cannot attend the opening of the event, Sarapinas said he would read “a greeting letter,” which the minister will draft. Asked about the charges of anti-Semitism against Ažubalis and about claims that anti-Semitism remains widespread in Lithuania, Sarapinas referred the Forward to a statement issued by the foreign ministry last year.
“Since the beginning of his political career,” read the statement, “[Ažubalis] has always spoken for historical justice with respect to the Lithuanian nation that had suffered the occupation and to all the other nations, which had suffered atrocities under the Communist and Nazi totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, including the Jewish nation.”
Contact Paul Berger at email@example.com