“We need our Jewish history for ourselves, not just to attract tourists.”
This was the message of Lithuania’s UK Ambassador Asta Skaisgiryte Liauskiene, who admitted that many Lithuanians still need to recognise the giant role that the country’s Jewish community — almost entirely wiped out during the Second World War — played in their national history.
On Monday Lithuania took up the presidency of the EU, but has been widely criticised as the European country that most tolerates antisemitism.
Every year, on March 11, Lithuania’s independence day, neo-Nazis parade through Vilnius, escorted by police. Last year, the government paid for the remains of Juozas Ambrazevicius, the country’s wartime leader who collaborated with the Nazis, to be transported to Kaunas and reinterred with full honours.
Ms Liauskiene insisted, however, that “absolutely everyone in the Lithuanian government understands what the Holocaust was… We should be careful not to ‘cherry pick’ the facts.
“In the past ten years, Lithuania has done a great deal to discover and preserve its Jewish heritage. Last year we passed a law which compensated Jews who lost property during the war — which was controversial in Lithuania because society is not unanimous on this — and Holocaust education was introduced.”
The ambassador added that until 20 years ago, there was no Holocaust education in Lithuania, and when people discovered what had happened, they were “shocked”.
“Before, in Soviet schools, nobody taught Holocaust lessons. ‘Nazis killed Soviet citizens’ — that was the history we were taught.”
Of Lithuania’s pre-war Jewish population of between 208,000 and 210,000, around 195,000 were murdered before the end of the Second World War, most by 1941. One reasons why the Nazi genocide was implemented so quickly in Lithuania was that there was extensive assistance from local groups that enthusiastically carried out the Germans’ orders.
Ms Liauskiene said that while “some Lithaunians collaborated with the Nazis”, there were also people who saved Jews — “we have 800 people recognised in Yad Vashem”.
Will Lithuania take up any of the issues of primary concern to Europe’s Jews during its EU presidency? While Lithuania supports the British campaign to have Hizbollah banned, Ms Liauskiene gave no indication that this was an urgent matter for her government: “We have to have a consensus in the EU, and we don’t have that at the moment.”
On the push by a number of EU countries to have Israeli West Bank settlement products labelled as such, Ms Liauskiene said that the issue was “not a priority for us”.