Jewish community and intellectuals remain unheeded: Vilnius mayor dares not make a decision

Lithuanian Academy of Sciences
A.Didžgalvio nuotr.

In a few days, the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto will be marked. How should Lithuania act toward monuments to nazi collaborators, who fought for Lithuanian freedom? Lithuania has recently appeared in major international news media over such monuments. Should the urgings of prominent intellectuals and the Jewish community be heeded to take down memorial plaques and take down monuments? Should the president strip state awards from them?

This was the discussion topic of Delfi’s Dėmesio Centre together with Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, journalist and publicist Rimvydas Valatka and politician Arvydas Anušauskas. Also in the show – comments from world famous Lithuanian author and poet, professor Tomas Venclova and Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius.

F. Kukliansky has organised a protest at a memorial plaque to Jonas Noreika, reading out the names of Jews killed in the Šiauliai ghetto. She explains that the Jewish community could no longer see any other means to draw public attention to a commemorative plaque being placed that honours, to their understanding, a Nazi collaborator, which is proven by the content of a report from the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre.

The Jewish community leader explains that while the centre and its management may not take isolating the Jewish population in the ghetto as collaboration, but nonetheless, this is already sufficient for such an individual not to be commemorated in public spaces. She points out that the isolation was not to some concert halls, sanatoriums or spas, but that the assembled groups of Jews, they would be taken to the Stutthof concentration camp.

Jonas Noreika, also known as Generolas Vėtra (General Storm) did not participate in Jewish massacres in the Telšiai and Šiauliai districts, but was nonetheless drawn into dealing with affairs related to isolating Jews. R. Valatka is one of the proponents of removing the plaque, noting that he does not want any streets named or monuments built for collaborators. “Say, would anyone ever consider naming a street after the Šiauliai district communist party first secretary, who governed the district in May 22, 1948, during the great exiling of Lithuanians? It would probably be unthinkable to anyone,” he notes, pointing out that Noreika performed similar duties, just for a different occupier.

The journalist also points out that in Lithuania, the communist view of either hero or villain is still prominent, “Yes, we all want to have heroes. But sometimes we manufacture those heroes. Most often it was that one day a person would act like a hero and another – like a villain. And until we do not grasp this, we will have a problem and on every September 23, every decent Lithuania will be ashamed to walk down Noreika or Škirpa Street and so on. I am not urging to condemn those people – I am proposing to continue remembering them for when they were fighting our enemies, but equally to remember that they also did bad deeds. And summarise this memory like so: let us ensure that never again would there be moments in Lithuania, where individuals would have the opportunity to be villains.”

A. Anušauskas is ambivalent regarding the plaque, pointing out that history is not that simple. The politician points out that while Noreika may have established the ghetto, he simply repeated the directives of the commissar general and his representatives in the districts orders, rewriting them in Lithuanian.

In terms of J. Noreika nonetheless having cooperated with the Nazis, while others chose to refuse, A. Anušauskas notes, “Some didn’t, some refused to continue working in the occupation administration – there were all sorts. But you are raising a question about the plaque… For example, a book is also a sort of monument and Noreika’s companion in the resistance fighting Viktoras Ašmenskas, in his time, 21 years ago wrote one… I simply opened the book, I wondered, perhaps he remained silent about the Nazi occupation period. No, all the currently published documents are described in his book, even opposing opinions – everything is included in the book. It is also a monument. People see the story from various sides. In this case, let us also see history for what it was. It wasn’t simple.”

The politician also adds that the state is understood quite abstractly in Lithuania, but at this point, the matter of taking down the plaque becomes more complex, with involvement from the municipality, Academy of Science where the plaque is placed, as well as the Presidential Palace and other institutions.

Lithuanian intellectuals have authored a letter addressed to a number of Lithuanian institutions. One of its signatories is world famous poet Tomas Venclova, who states, “I believe that monuments to people, who participated in state work… It is a little different with cultural figures, cultural figures can be forgiven a little more. But if a person participated in state activities, they should be blameless for memorial plaques to be set up for them and monuments built. If they are to blame for something and they do exist – denying would be unfair, we would have to remove the plaques and those dubious monuments. We will have enough heroes. Even without dubious ones.”

The poet believes that the presence of such plaques and monuments diminishes Lithuania in the eyes of the world and grants Russian propaganda opportunities to smear Lithuania’s fight for freedom. When such issues remain, it is far easier for Kremlin propagandists to claim that there are fascist moods in Lithuania. T. Venclova states that it would be best to calmly remove the controversial comments, without making any massive debates and noise regarding them because, according to him, their removal is not a significant matter. “The most sacred feelings and rights of the nation are exactly hurt by those, who demand to unconditionally maintain those monuments,” he says.

When asked, how he would respond to the Jewish community and numerous notable Lithuanian intellectuals calling on him to remove the plaque, if he were the mayor of Vilnius, A. Anušauskas points out that the plaque was put in place some two decades ago and what should have been done is that historical information and fact should have been thoroughly consulted. In this case, with Jonas Noreika also receiving one of the highest state awards in 1997, the politician pointed out that rewards can sometimes be stripped, there being precedent even for resistance participants in this respect.

While J. Noreika performed duties for the Nazi occupation forces, he also later was arrested by the Nazis and imprisoned, later to be shot to death by the Soviets in 1949. According to documents found by the Genocide and Resistance Research Centre, it was due to his efforts, however that a Lithuanian SS battalion was not established, unlike in Latvia. When asked, how he would deal with the situation, R. Valatka maintains that a noble circumstance does not deny a terrible one or anything else because it is all a historical fact. The journalist reiterates – no one in Lithuania would even consider naming a street after a KGB or communist party senior officer.

R. Valatka finds that the same principles should be applied to monuments as well. He also finds it distasteful that a school named after Salomėja Nėris and a monument to Petras Cvirka remain. “It is not the school of an author, it is a school in the name of a collaborator, same as a monument to a collaborator, not the author Cvirka. If he were solely an author, a monument would not have been built for him. Let us apply a mirror principle and then we will have a standard. Of course even then there will be various exceptions, but that is what the president is there for, they can form a commission, call upon historians.

The Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Linas Linkevičius has stated that the memorial plaque to Jonas Noreika should be quickly removed because it discredits all freedom fighters. Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius emphasises that rushing could lead to issues and action should only be taken, when the right decision is found, full analysis by state institutions is performed. “I am probably one of the few people, who read through the analysis and also an analysis performed by fellow citizen Mr. Gochin, who is of Litvak ancestry and lives in California. I truly see much emotion on both sides, much desire to see one side of the truth, but when historians dig in and cease talking, the truth is left miserably in a corner and that is not a good situation. I believe that we need to seriously deal with this matter, make a decision and implement it when it is clear that the decision is the only correct one.

The mayor stresses that the municipality is prepared to take action, but only if it leads to the truth, a final verdict presented by institutions, which review historical documents because for now there are various versions, talks about the same issues, but from differing perspectives.

F. Kukliansky called upon the city municipality to have the plaque to J. Noreika removed already in summer, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto and thousands of people. The chairwoman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community points out that it is likely that the plaque will remain in place because it would take civic courage to go beyond reading the genocide and resistance centre report. “Every person’s life is complicated and evaluating is very difficult, a great responsibility. I completely agree with Mr. Valatka that it is not all black and white, but nevertheless I am left wondering. If General Storm’s actions were only performing German commandments, where did 250 thousand Jews go? They were made to vanish by someone. First isolating, then transported, some weren’t even isolated. They isolated those, who were, so to say, fortunate to be isolated. The vast majority were murdered where they lived. Thus nonetheless, in the name of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, I would ask to make a decision and remove the plaque, which was put in place for a person with a controversial reputation,” Faina Kukliansky says.

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