Prof. Dovid Katz: I live in Lithuania because I love it

Prof Dovid Katz @Arūnas Baltėnas
Prof Dovid Katz @Arūnas Baltėnas

The recent court case in which Lithuanian citizen, California resident, Grant Arthur Gochin, sued the state sponsored “Genocide Center” in Vilnius,  Lithuania for the removal of the plaque to General Jonas Noreika, has facilitated many honest and thought provoking discussions regarding the General’s shared written thoughts, his orders and actions during the second world war. Professor Dovid Katz shared poignant, and introspective thoughts in regards to the international cultural ramifications of continuing these honors.

Professor Dovid Katz, who has been based in Vilnius the last twenty years and calls it “one of the best places on the planet to live,” was born in Brooklyn New York where he grew up in a home steeped in Yiddish and Litvak culture. His father was the late Yiddish and English poet Menke Katz whose 18 books brim with poems to his native Lithuania in both languages.

Dovid Katz founded Yiddish Studies at Oxford University, where he taught for 18 years. After a one-year stint as visiting professor at Yale University, he turned down a ten-year offer at Yale to take up the first post-Holocaust professorship in Yiddish studies in Eastern Europe at Vilnius University in 1999, where he founded the Center for Stateless Cultures, and two years later, the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. Dovid Katz has published numerous books in the field, including Words on Fire: The Unfinished Story of Yiddish (2007) and the massive folio volume Lithuanian Jewish Culture (2nd edition 2010). A much shorter summary of Litvak culture is his Seven Kingdoms of the Litvaks (2009), available free online.

In 1990, when he first succeeded in obtaining a visa for a trip to Lithuania, he rapidly negotiated an agreement between Vilnius and Oxford universities that enabled Lithuanian students to become immersed in Yiddish and Judaic studies at Oxford; it was reported in the New York Times in 1991, and various of the program’s veterans today hold important positions in Lithuania.

Yiddish scholar, to a Yiddish town

A Yiddish linguist by trade, Dovid Katz mounted expeditions twice a year to map the area of Lithuanian Yiddish and begin an atlas of its dialects based on his searches for the very last speakers of Lithuanian Yiddish in the towns and cities of Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, eastern Ukraine, northeastern Poland and other parts of the territory that Jews call Líte (Lithuania). He quips that “When the offer came from Vilnius University in 1999, I rushed to relocate in Vilnius to work on my atlas and build Yiddish studies in our ancestral Litvak homeland. When my mother (now 97) heard that I’d opted to earn less than a tenth of the Yale salary, she said ‘There you go, that’s just for you Dovid.’”

Dovid Katz describes his first nine years at Vilnius University as “academic bliss.” But then something happened in 2008 that added Holocaust studies to his remit, an issue over which he became a public advocate. Two of his closest friends, Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis, both women in their mid 80s were that year sought by armed plainclothes police on suspicion of “war crimes” for having escaped the Vilna Ghetto to join the anti-Nazi partisans. 

In close cooperation with the entire Holocaust survivor community in Lithuania and beyond, and working closely with then chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish Community Dr. Shimon Alperovich, he protested against the Holocaust revisionism underway in much of Eastern Europe, and after three early articles, in the Jewish Chronicle (London), the Irish Times (Dublin) and the online Guardian, his contract at Vilnius University was terminated.

Dovid Katz had launched his online journal, DefendingHistory.com in Sept. 2009; Professor Dovid Katz is proud that it brings together Lithuanian and Jewish as well as other voices in the cause of defending the history of the Holocaust against the ultranationalist revisionism that espouses the “Double Genocide Theory” epitomized by the 2008 “Prague Declaration.”

In partnership with an Australian professor, Prof. Danny Ben-Moshe, Katz co-authored the response, the “SeventyYears Declaration”  and is very proud that among its seventy-one signatories are eight eminent Lithuanian parliamentarians, led by Dr. Vytenis Andriuklaitis, today European Union health commissioner.

Yiddish mini-museum online

In 2018, to honor the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the modern Lithuanian republic in 1918, he initiated a new online Yiddish mini-museum, stressing the daily harmony of interwar Yiddish-Lithuanian multicultural and bilingual life. Even as it was locking horns with those who would glorify Holocaust collaborators, Defending History was highlighting the people that the editor believes to be the true heroes of 1941: those who risked all to just save a neighbor from the Hitlerists. The journal named 2018 and 2019 for Lithuanian wartime Rescuers.

Today, Dovid Katz is a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Vilnius Gediminas Technical University (VGTU). His latest Yiddish projects include an in-progress translation of the Hebrew Bible into Lithuanian Yiddish  (ten books completed to date), and a new online Yiddish Cultural Dictionary (which has 170,000 Yiddish words of text to date). He has made his mark in Holocaust Studies, too, with a decade of scholarly publications in academic journals and collective volumes.

Alexandra Kudukis: Professor Katz, you shared that although you were not surprised by the decision, you believed the verdict only serves to divide and hold Lithuania as a culture and people back. Could you please expound on that thought?

My view, consolidated after twenty years of choosing to live in beautiful Vilnius, is that the Lithuanian people by and large have absolutely no interest in there being state-sponsored monuments to Holocaust perpetrators and collaborators or street names glorifying them. This is a kind of self-destructive obsession of a very small but very powerful elite that deals with “history” in government, government-sponsored research and public affairs, agencies and history departments.

Here, in this most delightfully democratic of countries, the one exception is freedom to disagree about history! My dear friend Evaldas Balčiūnas, for example, did the country a huge service by publishing a series of articles, starting in 2012, in both Lithuanian and English, on the topic of “Why does the state commemorate murderers?” He lost his job and career, and was lugged into court for useless kangaroo hearings for years (for the saga in English, please see his section in Defending History, here: (please scroll down to May 2014). In fact, virtually all who have spoken up on these issues have seen our jobs come to a rapid end (see a summary here).

So, perhaps to get nearer to answering your question directly, no, I am not in the least surprised when state institutions continue to uphold bogus ultra-nationalist narratives of history that do the country no good, and/or so blatantly, and, unnecessarily in a country with an amazing thousand year history that overflows with true heroes of all humanity (including Gediminas and Vytautas in the 14th century), and the amazing people in 1941 who risked everything to just save a neighbor from the LAF and the other Hitlerist powers about.

If I may quote from my Irish Times article of exactly a decade ago, in May 2009 The second of the three that were cited when my termination of contract conveyed to me that year.

“Lithuania has just elected a dynamic new president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, an economist born after the war. And what a grand opportunity she has to rapidly dismantle the ultranationalist, history-distorting, anti-semitic, and racist “genocide industry”that is a blot on her fine country, from the commissions to the devious resolutions before the European Parliament. What an opportunity to recreate the majesty of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and to attract talent from every corner of the planet.”

What is your opinion of the removal of the plaque to Jonas Noreika? And replacement? What does that feel like? And, what are the cultural ramifications?

I unequivocally condemn violence against property, and Defending History’s “unequivocal condemnation” appeared the moment we learned of the plaque’s destruction.  That is not the way forward. Legal civic action needs to continue until Europe is free of publicly sponsored monuments for Nazi collaborators and perpetrators that ipso facto relegate the Holocaust to some trivial mishap along the way. The rapid replacement of the plaque on the eve of Easter and Passover did cause some understandably anxious reaction from the official Jewish community here.

For the dwindling remnant of Holocaust survivors here (whom I continue to count as among my best friends, these plaques and street names, whether for Noreika or Brazaitis, Škirpa or Ramanauskas or for the 23rd of June, cause huge and deep pain, the message that the destruction of their people and families is somehow being celebrated, or is such a minor detail so as not to interfere with someone being a national hero.

The Lithuanian people deserve much better! To say that Holocaust collaborators who were anti-Soviet (and I have been anti-Soviet and a hater of Soviet communism all my life, and a detester of Putin and Putinism!) can “also be heroes” is one of the greatest nonsenses, for the simple reason that virtually all of the tens of thousands of collaborators in the lands conquered by the Nazis in Operation Barbarossa in 1941 were “anti-Soviet” and prayed for a Nazi victory.

It is equally nonsensical when politicians try to say that those who liberated Auschwitz in 1945 are morally “identical” to those who committed the genocide there. That does not mean that the atrocious Soviet and Stalinist criminality against all of the countries it occupied should not be studied. It should and must be studied, commemorated, and justice sought, as a major separate issue, not as some kind of cockamamie ruse to make way for a false equivalence with Nazism.

Had the Nazis won the war, there would have been no Lithuania or Latvia to become independent. Today, we must all stand united against Putin and Putinism and the repressive, authoritarian and dictatorial impulses merging with a dangerous revanchism. The way to do this is to promote true democracy through the EU and NATO area, not to try to “fix the history” of 1941 to 1945. They are two completely separate questions.

The cultural ramifications are that while Lithuania’s splendid youth moves rapidly into the realm of tolerance and love of all the cultures and peoples of these lands, the same ultranationalist, far right, and often racist and anti-semitic elite continues to obsess over public glorification of Hitler’s henchmen. These folks, with their genocide centers and commissions are the real enemies of Lithuania’s progress. Sadly, so many young people who espouse tolerance, including nearly all of my own former students here, have emigrated.

Prof Dovid Katz @Arūnas Baltėnas
The argument over his actions is only a portion of the story. He is fact is an author, having penned a book and several essays. Could you please share a bit about his book, and essays that he wrote early in his life?

I would defer to the two specialists here, the aforementioned Evaldas Balčiūnas and Dr. Andrius Kulikauskas who have done such splendid pioneering work of research into the documents and testimonies.  They have both found alarming racist and anti-semitic sentiments in his pre-war writing. But let me make it clear: All the world has flawed heroes! If a great national hero once wrote something racist or anti-semitic in his or her youth it does not mean their statues need to be removed. But if one participated in genocide of the citizens of one’s country who are of another ethnicity that does indeed disqualify one from state-sponsored commemoration in countries that adhere to and celebrate the humanistic values of the European Union and NATO.

But if I may, I’ll use your question to also answer “in my own way” and say that the greatest moral heroes Lithuania has today are indeed Lithuanian people like Evaldas and Andrius, who choose to live out their lives here and have risen to tell the truth, often suffering career-destroying consequences here. I hope they will at long last achieve the international as well as the domestic recognition they deserve.

What would you say is the most important step first step forward in healing our shared culture’s history, in helping all members to understand that our culture was always comprised of hard working, loyal members who were Jewish, ethnic-minority, well as native Lithuanians. What is a concrete step that we can take as one shared culture towards this renewing understanding?

My own opinion may surprise you. I don’t believe that there is some generalized problem between Lithuanian and Jewish people (certainly not in Lithuania). They are building friendships, partnerships, marriages and all kinds of projects every day of the year. And, when it comes to these passionate debates about Holocaust revisionism and its related issue, lo and behold, we find Jewish and Lithuanian people on both sides of the debate. It is not a debate “between Lithuanians and Jews” and it never was.

If we are to talk about solving a problem, we have to identify the problem. The problem is the far right, the ultranationalist camp that insists on having Holocaust collaborators in the national pantheon of heroes, and insists on revising Holocaust history into a bogus equivalence of “two equal genocides”, and constantly employs the hateful tactic of labeling anyone who dares disagree as some kind of Putinist lackey. By the way, they are indeed far-right by definition. Center-right mainstream parties and institutions and folks do not make heroes out of Hitlerist collaborators and do not condemn their colleagues who stand up against such activities.

To translate this into an issue current this week, I am sorry to have to say that the recent decision to inaugurate in Chicago a monument to someone who boasted of leading the LAF Hitlerist squad in the Druskininkai district in June and July 1941 represent a lamentable step backward.All the more so when this personage appears glorified here on the huge banners of the neo-Nazi marches that mar the beautiful centers of Vilnius and Kaunas.

The abandonment of glorification of Holocaust-era Hitlerist accomplices is one of the sine qua nons for healing the divisions that do exist, not between everyday people, but emanating from a certain political, nationalist elite that is pursuing the wrong road.

A second sine qua non is, to put it colloquially: If someone, whatever their ethnicity or background or religion, opposes a monument in Chicago that they believe with all their heart and soul with do damage to the cause of Lithuania’s prestige in the world, for Heaven sakes, whether you agree or disagree, that person is your friend, not your enemy. Those who have spoken up in good faith against this monument going up in Chicago will without the slightest doubt one day be seen as Lithuania’s truest friends in the year 2019.

I often have to remind my Jewish friends around the world that nobody forces me to live in Vilnius, and to have chosen Lithuania as my home over these past twenty years (the second decade being after my discontinuation at Vilnius University for writing those three articles). The wonderful Lithuanian people here are warm, tolerant, friendly and full of good humor. The last thing on their mind is a statue in Chicago that will cause so much pain for decades to come.

To conclude with a prediction, the far right’s obsessions will soon sink into deserved oblivion, and Lithuania will contribute to world culture in the next century in a magnificent way, one that is inclusive of all the Grand Duchy’s peoples who are proud to be Lithuanian, one that is out of all proportion tothe country’s size and population. Wait and see!

Thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts Professor Dovid Katz.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not represent those of the Lithuania Tribune or its staff.

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