Lithuania holds a special significance for me. It was where I survived the Holocaust. In the capital of Vilna, now Vilnius, my parents left me with my Polish Catholic nanny, who baptized me and raised me as her son, saving me from certain death at the hands of the Nazis. And the Nazis weren’t the only concern.
From 1941 to 1944, Lithuanian militias participated with the Nazis in killing around 95 percent of the country’s Jewish population, the largest percentage in any country during the Holocaust. Today, Lithuania is again distinguishing itself from the rest of Europe in a less murderous but still terrible way – through its tolerance for anti-Semitism.
In no other European country has the front page of a national newspaper featured a cartoon with a hook-nosed Jew and a homosexual holding a globe between them with the caption, “Who Controls the World?” None of Lithuania’s leaders condemned it.
European newspapers do not print such blatant anti-Semitism as an op-ed, entitled “The Rabbis are Wreaking Havoc in Lithuania,” whose first sentence reads “I don’t like Jews and nothing can be done about that.”
Unfortunately, these examples are not isolated cases of anti-Semitism in Lithuanian media. Some of the most hateful articles over the past year have been written by former and present members of Lithuania’s parliament, newspaper editors, and other opinion elites.
In no other country have World War II Jewish partisans – like the heroes of the movie Defiance – been named as “persons of interest” by state prosecutors. In May 2008, Lithuanian prosecutors announced that they were seeking two elderly Holocaust survivors, Fania Brantsovsky and Rachel Margolis. Brantsovsky, a former partisan, is a librarian at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute in Lithuania. Margolis, a historian of the partisans who discovered and published a long-lost diary by a witness of the murder of the Jews of Vilnius, lives in Israel, but each summer would give tours of the Vilna Ghetto. No longer. Today she fears interrogation and possible arrest if she were to visit her native Lithuania.
In no other country where it is illegal to incite ethnic hatred have the police escorted a neo-Nazi parade through the capital, as the marchers chanted the Nazi slogan “Juden raus!” (“Jews out!”) and sang “You take that little stick and kill that little Jew.” Lithuanian police did so last March. It took an entire week and complaints by Jewish organizations before Lithuanian President Adamkus criticized the march and the police inaction.
Only in Lithuania is the local Mardi Gras festival celebrated by dressing in costume “as Jews,” as the Lithuanians say, often with horns or long noses. This year a major television channel showed two revelers dressed as chasidic Jews, who sang about the global economic crisis to the tune of Hava Nagila.
Lithuania and Poland are also the only countries in Europe to prevent Jews from claiming Holocaust-era confiscated private property. Lithuanian law, unlike the laws of any other member state of the European Union, requires citizenship prior to December 2001 as a condition for restitution. Since Lithuanian law prohibited dual citizenship until July 2008, survivors or their descendants living outside of Lithuania – virtually all the claimants – were denied restitution.
The first step for Lithuania in addressing these problems is to recognize them. When the capital’s Jewish community center was spray-painted with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans, President Adamkus did condemn the attack, saying that it should be considered “a destructive and sordid act against Lithuania as a whole, not only Lithuania’s Jewish community.” But it took a blatant and high-profile anti-Semitic incident and the world watching to produce such a statement, an exception to what should be the rule.
If the Lithuanian government wants to shed its dubious distinction, it knows the steps it must take. Condemn anti-Semitism. Prosecute those who incite violence against or intimidate the Lithuanian Jewish community. Clear the names of the Jewish partisans. Provide reasonable legal processes for property restitution.