Lithuania’s Chief Rabbi has urged the country’s Evangelical Reformed Church to remove Jewish headstones being used as stairs to a Vilnius church.
Rabbi Chaim Burshtein’s call concerns a 30-foot-long staircase made out of Jewish headstones that leads to the main entrance of the church’s largest building in the Lithuanian capital.
The headstones were installed when Lithuania was part of the Soviet Union.
“We regret the deplorable state and destruction of the last remnants of the memory of Lithuanian Jewry,” Burshtein told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA).
Lithuania, he added, “has many places built out of Jewish headstones. I think the authorities and the Jewish community need to perform thorough research and correct at least this historic wrong.”
The building, which was confiscated by the government during communist rule, was returned to the church after Lithuania’s independence and, following renovations, reopened in 2007.
“These headstones need to be removed and preserved,” Dovid Katz, a Yiddish scholar and member of the Jewish Community of Lithuania, told JTA. “It is very painful that, in Lithuania, which likes to boast about its commitment to preserving the memory of its once great Jewish community, churchgoers literally walk over Jewish headstones on their way to pray.”
Kārlis Seržants, a high-ranking member of the Latvian parliament or Saeima and part of the ruling coalition, blamed “clever Jews” for the nation’s woes in the course of a radio interview on Thursday.
Interviewed on Latvian public radio’s LR4 Russian-language, Seržants – a member of the Greens and Farmers Union political grouping and a member of the Saeima’s national security committee – veered into anti-Semitic rhetoric, as a transcript of his comments shows.
The former journalist and television presenter said people working to undermine the Latvian state were “mostly people of a very smart nationality with lawyers [among them].”
Asked if he was referring to Russians, Seržants replied:
“No, I mean the Jewish ethnicity.”
He then elaborated once again on these Jewish legal experts’ particular skill in operating “on the edge” of the law.
Challenged by the interviewer over his statement, Seržants attempted to backtrack by praising the cleverness of Jews as a nationality:
“Well, no I’m not saying it’s only [Jews], but Girs, Gaponenko… who else do we have… Zhdanoka, Koren [all prominent pro-Russia activists] — they are Jews I believe. I am not a chauvinist, absolutely not, and that is exactly why I am telling that being of Jewish ethnicity means being very smart.”
With the interviewer again intervened, pointing out that Latvians or Russians might be equally smart, Seržants responded:
“Right, all of them are smart, but they are, let us say it this way, especially smart.”
The views expressed by Seržants are even more remarkable given that since 2014 he has been a member of the Saeima group for cooperation with the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
We here at ASW.com believe that only by understanding the wider global context of Antisemitism can we properly start to understand and challenge this evil. Only by moving away from navel gazing in just our own back yard can progress be made. All too frequently people and organisations appear to trouble themselves simply about what is going on in their locality. It is a start but it is not enough. Through our global horizon scanning ASW is able to begin the process of ‘joining the dots up’ to make a real difference!
In our latest find ASW brings you a report about the hostility minorities, including Jews, face currently in the Baltic states and the on-going attempts by some in those countries to rewrite Holocaust history.
Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, writing for i24news explains this year marks the 25th anniversary of Baltic independence and more than a decade of full membership in the European Union and NATO. If the assumption was that those developments would cure Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian society from the scourges of fascism, racism, and anti-Semitism, the events of the past month clearly show that these plagues have not been eradicated. During this period, four separate neo-Nazi/ultra-nationalist marches were held in the Baltics, all of which I attended as a monitor/protester, and I believe that it is important to publicize what I saw and attempt to evaluate the importance and potential dangers posed by those events.
The first question in that regard is the legal status of these marches. Those in Latvia (in Riga on March 16, to honor Latvian SS veterans) and in Lithuania (in Kaunas on February 16 and in Vilnius on March 11, both days on which Lithuanian independence is celebrated) have been a subject of controversy since they were launched, in Latvia in the 1990s and in Lithuania in 2008. Local courts decided to allow the marches on the basis of freedom of speech, and all attempts to have them banned, or at least moved out of the city center, including my appeals this year to the mayors of both Lithuanian cities, have not achieved any practical results.
The second question concerns the sponsors of the events and the number and identity of the marchers. With the exception of Estonia, where the march was organized by the Blue Awakening youth movement, closely linked to the new Conservative People’s Party (EKRE), the organizers in Lithuania and Latvia are not officially connected to political parties, but clearly identify with those on the extreme right. In the past, there were government ministers who participated in the SS veterans’ march in Latvia, but since the annexation of Crimea, the government has forbidden such participation and last year it cost a minister his post. This year quite a few MP’s from the right-wing All for Latvia party marched, and the ministers of justice and of culture, along with Parliament Speaker Ingrida Murnietse, attended a memorial service for the SS.
The number of marchers ranged from 200 in Tallinn to 500 in Kaunas and 1,500 each in Vilnius and Riga. In Estonia, the overwhelming majority of marchers were young – most appeared to be high school students – whereas in Lithuania, most were young adults and in Riga there were also many elderly supporters. One must remember, however, that for every person marching, there are at least several hundred Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians who fully agree with the marchers’ ideology. Thus, for example, in Estonia’s election several days after the march, the EKRE obtained seven parliamentary seats (out of 101), after garnering more than 46,000 votes.
Two dangerous themes were dominant in practically every event. The first was the open hostility toward local minorities – Poles, Russians and Jews in Lithuania, the latter two in Latvia and Estonia. The second was support for ongoing efforts throughout much of post-Communist Eastern Europe to rewrite the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust. These are designed to hide or minimize the extensive crimes by local Nazi collaborators, promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes (erroneously classified as genocide), and glorify those who fought against the Soviets regardless of whether they had murdered Jews during the Holocaust.
“Section of the march gets underway at Vilnius’s Cathedral Square on the March 11th independence day event organized by neo-Nazi and far-right elements with state acquiescence.”
Thus, Latvian SS veterans are portrayed as freedom fighters who paved the way for independence, even though the Nazis had absolutely no intention of granting the Baltic countries sovereignty, and marchers in Kaunas carried a huge banner with the image of Juozas Ambrazevicius, the prime minister of a short-lived provisional Lithuanian government, who publicly supported the Third Reich and lethal measures against Lithuanian Jews. In both Lithuanian cities many marchers wore swastikas, and in Vilnius, a large black SS flag was displayed. Only in Estonia was this theme missing, but each summer an international gathering of SS veterans from all over Europe is held, including from countries in which such meetings are legally banned.
The final question relates to the reactions to the demonstrations. Unfortunately, with the exception of Riga where about two dozen protesters symbolically “fumigated” the Freedom Monument after the SS march, there were very few counter-protesters, 12 individuals in Kaunas, no one besides myself in Tallinn, and about 20 in Vilnius, almost all of whom came thanks to the dedicated efforts of Prof. Dovid Katz, the editor of www.defendinghistory.com who is the sole active Jewish voice in the Baltics against Holocaust distortion.
The only good news was that for the first time since Faina Kukliansky assumed the post of Chairperson of the Lithuanian Jewish community, she issued a statement denouncing the march in Vilnius (after ignoring the one in Kaunas), and several community officials participated in our protest. There was only silence from the Jewish communities of Latvia and Estonia, as well as from the Israeli embassies in Vilnius, Riga and Helsinki.
Outside of the region, with the exception of Russia, there were no official responses despite numerous international media reports, especially about the Riga march. I can only surmise that perhaps the incessant, and to a large extent justified (albeit often exaggerated) criticism from Moscow of this phenomenon, has silenced those in the West, who long ago should have been the first to object.
Jews in the Baltic countries of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia fear a revival of the Holocaust-era hatred that once nearly wiped out their numbers.
Jewish leaders say their communities are feeling increasingly uncomfortable as Antisemitism re-emerges.
An Estonian museum exhibition mocking the Holocaust, a stage musical celebrating the life of a notorious Latvian Nazi mass murderer and the repatriation of the remains of a Lithuanian leader long linked to Nazis have all contributed to a climate of hate that has Jews on edge.
This includes the 2012 repatriation from the U.S. to Lithuania of the body of wartime leader Juozas Ambrazevicius Brazaitis. He was re-buried with full honors, endorsed by the Lithuanian government, despite having been a Nazi puppet during his brief tenure. Brazaitis was accused of overseeing the establishment of a concentration camp, and also signed off on the establishment of the Kaunas ghetto.
After complaints from Jewish groups, Lithuania’s much heralded Museum of the Genocide in the capital, Vilnius, only recently created a section acknowledging the annihilation of the once flourishing Lithuanian pre-war Jewish community of more than 200,000 that was very nearly wiped out, many at the hands of Lithuanians.
In Talinn, Estonia, a highly controversial Holocaust-themed exhibition caused outrage last month when, among its exhibits, was a picture showing the iconic Hollywood sign replaced by the word “Holocaust,” which some perceived as a suggestion the genocide was an entertainment event. Another sick exhibit recreated a gas chamber and had 20 naked actors pretending to be Jews playing tag, seemingly suggesting there was humor in the gas chambers experience. The exhibits were eventually withdrawn.
In October 2014 a Latvian musical ‘Cukurs, Herbert Cukurs’ premiered celebrating the life of the ‘Butcher of Riga,’ Herbert Cukurs, who was tracked down and killed by Israel’s Mossad intelligence service in Montevideo, Uruguay, more than 20 years after he fled Europe. He had overseen the murder of many thousands of Jews in his native Latvia where he had been a pre-war national hero. He was witnessed personally shooting more than 500.
Last month’s Estonian general elections saw the far-right EKRE party break the electoral threshold and gain seven of the 101 seats in parliament. Considered by some to have Fascist-Neo-Nazi sympathies similar to many other flourishing nationalist parties in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, the EKRE’s leader Mart Helme is a controversial figure, especially after the party’s “If you’re black, go back” slogan was attributed to him.
Efraim Zuroff, chief Nazi hunter of the Simon Weisenthal Centre in Jerusalem, has been monitoring a series of “Nuremberg-esque” marches in the Baltics in recent weeks and has been dismayed by the fact that no western media have shown up to report on the worrying trend.
“The European Union… does not appear to be particularly perturbed by genuinely disturbing phenomena in the Baltic countries and elsewhere, which, of course, in no way would justify Russian aggression, but deserve to be handled seriously and promptly before they get out of hand,” Zuroff wrote in the International Business Times.