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
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
“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
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
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
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 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
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.”