THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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Interviewer Andrius Navickas
Authorized translation by Judita Gliauberzonaite and Kerry Shawn Keys
We offer you an interview with the poet, public figure, co-founder of NGO Maceva www.litvak-cemetery.info and the Lithuanian Jewish Community’s public relations advisor, Sergejus Kanovičius, about the current situation of Jews in Lithuania and what is today the most inciting factor of anti-Semitic manifestations in Lithuania.
Are there any statistics of how many Jewish people are left in Lithuania today, and whether this group is increasing or decreasing in number?
In 1988, there was an inaugural congress of the Lithuanian Jewish community and five hundred of the delegates barely fit into the Trade Union Hall on Tauras hill. About 20 thousand Jews were still living in Lithuania at that time. Today, according to unofficial estimates, the Jewish population of Lithuania consists only of 3.500 Jews. Thus, the dynamics are sad. More Jews die in Lithuania than are born, and we can say that we are witnesses of the extinction of the Jewish community in Lithuania, or, at least, its last century.
True, the remaining Lithuanian Jews live a full life. The community’s updated web page (www.lzb.lt) has recently been launched, children attend Jewish schools, and the Maccabi Sports Club is active, as well as a number of cultural organizations. Life in the Jewish community is in full swing, something is always happening there, and it does not seem that we are seeing a sad period of the life of the Lithuanian Jewry. Unfortunately, over the past few decades, the last Jewish watchmakers, carpenters, furniture makers, tailors, shoemakers, and barbers have disappeared.
At the conference on tolerance and totalitarianism, which took place in Vilnius on November 16, Professor Irena Veisaitė noted that since the restoration of Independence, a lot has been accomplished in the raising of Holocaust awareness. A couple of decades ago, after the liberation from the Soviet empire, Lithuanian historians or politicians did not dare to even touch upon the subject of this tragedy, though now new research is being carried out and studies written. The Kaunas Chamber Theatre has even produced a play on the subject.
How do you rate the accomplishments in the sphere in question over the past two decades? What now? What are the biggest challenges to be overcome today; what are the biggest hurdles for a more comprehensive understanding of the Jewish component of our state’s identity?
I welcome the fact that there are numerous studies, government-initiated commissions and conferences. However, I still doubt whether that much has been done in raising awareness of the Holocaust. I think it is more important to answer the question what has been done and how? It is enough to mention the fact that this year (interview was taken at the end of 2011 – Vilnews.com) the number of anti-Semitic attacks has increased. Are you sure they have received a proper response? Are you sure everything is done to keep the haters from poisoning the public space?
Unfortunately, the material of conferences and commemorations usually gets noticed by a very small group of people and does not reach the schools and universities. In my opinion, Lithuania lacks real educational activities not just designed to earn a credit, drink a glass of champagne at the end, or to please esteemed foreign guests. There’s a lack of in-depth lessons, lectures and excursions for young people, presented in a lucid manner. True, there are pleasant exceptions – usually in places where teachers act on their own initiative, rather than urged by someone else. Thank God, these teachers still exist and it is a small but significant counterbalance to the hostility that occurs every time whenever the Lithuanian media starts discussing any kind of topic related to the Jews – whether concerning the Jews living in Lithuania, or Israel.
Today, it is very important to achieve real changes in the information field in which our younger generation is spending most of their time. Unfortunately, hostility and negative information prevail there, and there’s a lack of good news that would make one think, and clarify the minds and hearts. Such good news do exist. . For example, the constructive co-operation between the LJC and the Government of Lithuania or the tremendous work done by the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel led by H.E. Ambassador D. Degutis. Why do they keep the good news from us? Without it, we remain in the field of negativity.
One more thing – when there is a seriously ill patient at home, they need constant care. Such care should be provided for Jewish history education in Lithuania as well, not merely Holocaust education. After all, we don’t get angry with the patient because he is sick, but we try to help him in any way we can. Similarly, the Holocaust should not be perceived as going back to accusations. Who of those living today may be guilty of a crime he or she did not personally commit?
We should carry out Holocaust education in a way that wouldn’t be annoying or causing anger, but, to the contrary, in a way that would inspire compassion and make us feel obliged to make sure that this will never happen again. Unfortunately, this cannot be achieved only by means of conferences and scientific studies. Of course, they are necessary and important, but they cannot substitute a lesson. We should be paying a lot more attention to schools. As long as Lithuanian Jewish history is kept out of the school curriculum and not studied in detail, the Holocaust in Lithuania will not be perceived as our common tragedy, and not some kind of phenomenon that took place somewhere, and has nothing to do with our country.
What we need is not a few lines in the textbooks about the fact that for almost 700 years in Lithuania, Jews and Lithuanians lived in peace... History textbooks should show how the Jews lived and what they did. The Holocaust was not only a great tragedy and a crime, but also an enormous loss. We have to explain this through education, to tell what we have actually lost. I believe that the Ministry of Education must think about who and how could tell in children’s textbooks about what is Judaism, Vytautas Magnus’ privileges to the Jews, their importance and uniqueness in the historical context of the time, the teachings of the Vilna Gaon, Jewish craftsmen’s contribution to the small Lithuanian manufacturing, and of the most famous Lithuanian Jewish artists, scientists, and how the Lithuanian Jews and their number changed from the times of Vytautas Magnus until now. Someone should tell the children the history of the Lithuanian Jews. After all, it neither started nor ended with the Holocaust. Someone should tell the story of Jewish life in Lithuania, not only death. And as long as this story of life remains largely untold the story of Holocaust will be missing its true meaning.
You mentioned that the Lithuanian Jewish community seems to cooperate well with the Lithuanian government. Finally, the law regarding the goodwill compensation for the Jewish religious communities’ real estate has been passed, but again, some Lithuanian politicians rushed to criticize it. How do you rate this law and maybe you could explain its essence to the “Bernardinai.lt” readers?
I would like to stress that the cooperation is constructive. This means that mutually acceptable solutions to problems are found. They are oftentimes a compromise that both parties aren’t completely satisfied with, but what satisfies both sides is the fact that a certain result has been achieved. But that does not mean that problems don’t exist or all of them are solved. There are tangible results of that cooperation. In our opinion, the most important are two aspects – good will and competence. The law that you’ve mentioned is just one example. This is the way of competent, benevolent, and compromise solutions. There is no better way to explain the essence of the law than Seimas’ Public Relations Department did.
Now, the government is working on the activities of the Fund provided by the law, and it would be unethical to comment on things that have not yet happened.
LJC, in turn, expressed its position in the statement it prepared on the same day (http://www.lzb.lt/lt/titulinis/16-lzb-naujienos/283-lzb-padeka-del-priimto-geros-valios-kompensacijos-uz-zydu-religiniu-bendruomeniu-nekilnojamaji-turta-istatymo.html).
Now we should hope that the word becomes flesh. As to some politicians’ former criticism of the law, I think it’s no longer relevant, just as LJC’s former criticism of this law is irrelevant too. To those who doubt whether the Jews will take Lithuanian budget money out of the country, I can only say – first of all, read the law, secondly, we hope that when we are forever gone, everything we would like to do with that money together with you will stay where it belongs – in Lithuania. When the last synagogue in Lithuania is going to be closed forever, the key to its door will stay with the neighbors.
We have always communicated with all Lithuanian governments and intend to do so in the future.
I would like to wish future governments the benevolence similar to that demonstrated by Andrius Kubilius’ Government. I think that with this government we have succeeded to move from the mode of communicating through public statements and mutual reproaches to real problem solutions. Of course, hurdles still exist, but that’s life. Certainly, there are disagreements on certain issues, but we understand that there are problems, which, in order to be solved, require a more favorable political and social situation. Especially bearing in mind the field of animosity and negative information sustained in our media by certain people and social organizations that are not numerous but quite enthusiastic..
There are things for which we have no moral right to negotiate. This applies to the memory of Jews killed in Lithuania. We believe that only political will is needed for the name of the Victims of Genocide Museum to be changed. It does not reflect the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews, and no exhibition room in it dedicated to the Holocaust – no matter how big or small – is going to change the situation. And no new building no matter where it may be built – in Paneriai or the 9th Fort in Kaunas – and no matter how it might be called, will compensate for this. The name demeans the memory of those murdered Jews as well as those Lithuanians who saved Jews – there was no other genocide on Lithuanian soil. We could follow the example of our Latvian neighbors who called such a museum the Museum of Latvian Occupation. There can be no compromise with the memory of the murdered, because it is immoral. I would like to hope this is resolved as soon as possible. I think that the resolution of our Parliament to separate the Year of the Holocaust from the Year of Great Losses did not contribute to the rapprochement or common memory– such confrontation of the memory does not serve to depolarization. And no conferences can help in removing newly installed memory hurdles.
Lithuanian media likes to emphasize the differences in opinion among the Lithuanian Jews – how much the Jews living in Lithuania are actually united?
I do not know how Lithuanian Jews are different from Lithuanians, Poles or Lithuanian Tartars – of course, there are disagreements. But the media never really cared about the core of those disagreements; all it’s interested in is to celebrate the very fact that there are disagreements. It is no secret there is a small group of people in Lithuania that seems to be trying to steal the Lithuanian Jewish identity, as if they represented all the Jews of Lithuania, trying to present themselves as the sole representatives of that identity. Yet no one has given them such a mandate. The Lithuanian Jewish community is the largest organization representing Jews in Lithuania. Its leaders are elected through democratic elections. There is a small minority that does not wish to conform to such facts of life. It is a shame that the media, which writes on the topics of the Lithuanian Jewish community life, does not care to get any kind of insight into the problems. Very often these writings are as incompetent as they are unkind. But they reach their goals and contribute to creating the field of hostility, suspicion, and distrust. The only way to break out of it is to speak in terms of facts and good news.
On the other hand, I do not know why, but the good news are concealed or, at best, put as far from the reader’s eye as possible, because the news portals would be ashamed to show the small number of comments visitors to their advertising clients. The topics related to Jews or Israel, and the Lithuanian media is a separate issue that requires a whole lot of attention and a more serious analysis. The positive results of the hard work of the Lithuanian Embassy in Israel – state delegations, student and teacher group exchanges, signed cooperation agreements – is too good news to squeeze into the hostile field of information. But if Lithuania voted against the Palestinian UNESCO membership, it gets twisted into the joy of Satan, and Walpurgis Night, and becomes a great opportunity to show your hatred not only for Israel in particular, but the Jews in general... And what about the good and positive achievements?
I have already mentioned the negative information field, which is not counterbalanced in any way. It is hard to understand why a Lithuanian politician, who goes abroad to, for example, a conference on the Holocaust, talks about the past openly and honestly, but readers in Lithuania never get to read his speech in native language. It is a bad practice of double standards to speak of certain things only when abroad, and when at home to be as quiet as a mouse.
Ideally, politicians should make those open speeches not only on festive and commemorative occasions and not only in Paneriai, but in university auditoriums and classrooms as well. The teachers should not be afraid of their students. Silent teachers will produce mute students. And who knows what they will be capable of? Holocaust education of Lithuanians should take place not in London or Washington – it should take place in the classrooms of Lithuanian cities and towns. The Genocide (I am purposely using this term) of the Lithuanian Jewry is a Great Loss. If it is not understood in this way, we should do something about it. And, again, we can only realize this if many more than two to three pages in our history textbooks are dedicated to the Jewish-Lithuanian coexistence that lasted over 700 years. You can not “jump over” 700 years of history and lead your students directly to the pits in Paneriai. It is time that is buried in those pits, and we should make our younger generations understand and memorize this – not just as tens of thousands killed, but as murdered Lithuanian time. It does not belong only to the Jews. The time belongs to Lithuania. And we can not fill it with commemorative plaques – a plaque makes sense only if it appeals to real, living memory, which is the only one able to give it any kind of meaning. Otherwise it becomes another mute decoration of the city. Commemorations should happen naturally – in our memory on a daily basis. Like a prayer. And remembrance should be promoted not only by conferences – we need a good education concept. It is time to realize that we do not owe Holocaust education to Israel or the U.S. – we owe it to our children. We are their teachers. And, first and foremost, we need to teach them. Not only by conferences. I am sure that once they have learned this lesson, our children will be grateful for it. We’ve already had warning signs – in the Lithuanian land scorched by the Holocaust it would be extremely irresponsible to raise generations which wouldn’t realize the extent of the tragedy, and began to count the history of Lithuania only from the time of construction of shopping centers. To understand the scope of the tragedy of Lithuanian Jews as a tragedy and loss of Lithuania, we need to realize that only as few as 70 years ago, tens of thousands of Jews were walking the sidewalks of Vilnius. Their path ended in a tragic way. History textbooks should reflect it. If it is virtually impossible to get to know a living Lithuanian Jew, we still can, if we want, to know their history – the story of their life. From the beginning. And only then talk about their end. We won’t learn much talking only about the endings. We should speak of the path. And we should try to walk our students through it. And, thank God, we still have pupils. Yet, they will not find a teacher on their own. We all need to help them.
Interviewer Andrius Navickas
Authorized translation by Judita Gliauberzonaite and Kerry Shawn Keys
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