Lithuania Assaults Holocaust Memory

Prague Declaration screen shot


Recent developments suggest Holocaust remembrance has fallen by the wayside as a key element of Jewish Foreign Policy, at least as far as Lithuania is concerned.

Holocaust remembrance is a central plank of Jewish Foreign Policy (JFP), a term that encompasses how Israel and Diaspora organizations act on issues of common Jewish concern. The establishment of Yad Vashem in 1953 and the Eichmann trial in 1961 showed how central the memory of the Holocaust was to Israeli public and foreign policy.

However, leap forward 60 plus years and recent developments suggest Holocaust remembrance has fallen by the wayside as a key element of JFP, at least as far as Lithuania is concerned, which has become a focus of 21st century Holocaust debates.

This was manifest on August 30 when the Israel Police, acting on an Interpol request from Lithuania, interviewed 86-yearold Joseph Melamed, chairman of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel.

In 1999, Melamed sent the Lithuanian prosecutor a list of Lithuanians who allegedly murdered Jews in 1941 and should be investigated for war crimes. For over a decade the Lithuanian authorities ignored Melamed’s document, and instead are now accusing Melamed of defaming those the Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel has described as “national heroes.”

Since Melamed first wrote to officials in Vilnius, the Lithuanians have become more aggressive in downplaying their own vast role in the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry, while emphasizing brutal Lithuanian suffering under the Soviet Union. As part of this process, since 2006 Holocaust survivors who became partisans have been investigated by the Lithuanians for “war crimes,” including former chairman of Yad Vashem Yitzhak Arad and soon-to-be 90-year-old Rachel Margolis of Rehovot. The pursuit of Melamed is the latest saga in this sordid chapter.

While Lithuanian policy can be explained by their attempts to remove the bloody stain of their past by turning victims into perpetrators and perpetrators into victims, one would expect the Jewish state, established on the tragic foundations of the Holocaust, would be at the forefront of defending the memory of the Holocaust. Yet with few exceptions, the Israeli silence has been disconcertingly deafening.

In the European Union, where Lithuania is actively involved in trying to get the EU to adopt as policy the 2008 Prague Declaration’s notion of two “equal” genocides – the Soviet and the Nazi – Israel has been silent. The Foreign Ministry even invited the then-Lithuanian foreign minister to speak at the 2009 Global Forum to Combat Anti-Semitism, ignoring the lone protests of Simon Wisenthal Center’s Efraim Zuroff, who highlighted the irony of the conference being addressed by the representative of a government engaged in a concerted assault on the memory of the Holocaust.

While Israel remained silent on the Melamed affair it was left to the British Parliament to table a motion condemning the Lithuanian pursuit of Melamed. While Israel has kept mum in the face of Lithuanian investigations of Jews for “war crimes,” a range of European Embassies in Vilnius have taken the lead, speaking up to defend the Jewish partisans.

Why did the Israel Police jump to the aid of the Lithuanians, who are obfuscating the Holocaust? Why wasn’t the Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel summoned to the Foreign Ministry? It is understandable that Israel has not been forthright in its criticisms of Lithuanian policy.

While Lithuania has an offensive policy on the Holocaust, it is, like many in the “New Europe” states of the eastern EU, sympathetic to Israel’s broader diplomatic security concerns, offering Israel an ally in the EU and UN, where it does not have a lot of friends. However, the challenge for Israel is to find a way to advance its diplomatic interests without compromising its core values and responsibilities to the memory of the Holocaust.

The slippery slope of Israel’s neglect of events in Lithuania has caused Diaspora JFP actors to take misguided steps. Just days after police knocked on Melamed’s door, the New York YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, established to carry on the work of the famous pre-War Vilna YIVO, announced as guest of honor, to a ceremony marking the liquidation of the Vilna ghetto, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis.

This minister is not only a leader in a government pursuing the survivors who escaped the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, but is on record alleging that foreign Jews of Litvak origin, motivated by financial gain, were pushing a dual citizenship bill in parliament.

Even though the Lithuanian Jewish community is still waiting for an apology, YIVO still regarded him as someone to honor, alongside a concurrent error with longer-lasting consequences: a YIVO plan to abandon claims to ownership of its Holocaust-era plundered books that Lithuania has refused to return to its rightful owners.

Zionism changed the reality of global Jewish politics. Having a Jewish state provides JFP with a resource that can advance Jewish interests in a way other Jewish organizations cannot. Lithuania may be a friend to Israel but is an enemy to the survivors of the Lithuanian Holocaust and Holocaust history. Lithuania cannot have it both ways.

As a leader in JFP, Israel, with Diaspora stakeholders such as YIVO, has a responsibility to work with countries like Lithuania to grapple with a painful past and to establish a positive present, respectful of the memory of Holocaust, its victims and its survivors.

Of course there is realpolitik, but some things are beyond moral compromise. •

Danny Ben-Moshe is an Associate Professor at Victoria University, Australia, specializing in Israel-Diaspora relations, and a filmmaker working on a documentary about Lithuania and the Holocaust ( ).

  • Hartmut

    It is outrages that – after all the hundreds of books, documentaries etc. etc. who undeniably have shown the truth – there are still people and nations prepared to deny the facts that millions of Jewish people have been murdered.
    But then, hate and ignorance have never ever stood in the way of inconvenient truth and facts.