March 11 is the day Lithuanian independence was restored in 1990, with the Soviet Union on the brink of collapse.
For the past seven years, the country’s “nationalist youth”, a euphemism for neo-fascists and ultra-nationalists, have chosen to celebrate it by marching through the central boulevard of the capital. On every occasion, they chant exclusionary slogans (“Lithuania for Lithuanians”) and bear banners glorifying their heroes, among them Juozas Ambrazevicius-Brazaitis, the prime minister of a short-lived provisional Lithuanian government that fully supported Hitler and the Third Reich and actively collaborated in the mass-murder of Lithuanian Jewry.
Only eight of us came out to protest against this mockery of the Holocaust, an open expression of xenophobia and antisemitism. Although we were protected by the police, it was quite difficult to experience the deep hostility shown toward us. If looks could kill, we would have been murdered time after time.
Then there were the men and women who came up to myself and Professor Dovid Katz to shout at us in Lithuanian, knowing full well that neither of us understands the language.
We are the most outspoken and identifiable (my kippah; Dovid’s striking physical appearance) critics of the Lithuanian government’s systematic efforts to distort the history of the Holocaust by failing to punish any unprosecuted local killers, minimising the extremely large number of local perpetrators, artificially inflating the number of Lithuanian righteous, and promoting the canard of historical equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes. As such, we were the perfect target for their venom and hostility.
The march ended with a protest assembly in which I found myself conducting a heated debate with a Lithuanian who insisted that I was to blame for ruining Lithuanian-Jewish relations. “Let bygones be bygones,” he said. “Why don’t you speak to the crowd about the brave Lithuanians who saved Jews at great risk during the Holocaust? They will applaud you.”
I tried to explain that I truly admire the righteous but this was a crowd that preferred Nazi collaborators as their heroes. In response, the man said that he had visited Israel and had been extremely impressed.
Imagine my surprise when I learned his identity — it was Vitas Tomkus, the editor of Respublika, a tabloid that has published more than its fair share of openly antisemitic articles and cartoons, including a notorious one portraying Jews and gays controlling the world. “How could you do such a thing?” I asked Mr Tomkus. “Take it as a compliment. I would be flattered if anyone ever thought Lithuanians controlled the world,” he said with a chuckle, leaving us to ponder the difficulties of combating antisemitism in post-Communist Eastern Europe.
On Sunday, which will be Purim, we will have a second chance to do so, as we continue to Riga, Latvia, to protest against a march of Nazi SS veterans.
Efraim Zuroff is director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre’s Israel Office