A row has broken out over the “duplicitous and unacceptable” involvement of Lithuanian government officials in a conference on Lithuanian Jewry taking place in London next week.
The “Jews and non-Jews in Lithuania: Coexistence, Cooperation, Violence” event, organised by the Institute of Jewish Studies at University College London and the Oxford Institute of Polish Jewish Studies, is being held to mark the launch of the latest volume of Polin: Studies in Polish Jewry. Participants include Brandeis University Professor Antony Polonsky, Lithuanian MEP Leonidas Donskis, Board of Deputies president Vivien Wineman, and Holocaust survivor Ben Helfgott.
Attendees will also hear from Asta Skaisgirytė Liauškienė, Lithaunian ambassador to the UK, as the conference is being organised in tandem with the Lithuanian Embassy. Campaigners from the organisation “Defending History” have said this is unacceptable and a cover for the Lithuanian government’s alleged failure to tackle “state sponsored antisemitism and Holocaust obfuscation”.
Similar criticisms were made over a conference on Lithuania last year.
Monica Lowenberg, whose father lost his family in the Holocaust, has launched a petition challenging the embassy’s involvement, drawing attention to Lithuania’s failure to acknowledge historic responsibility for collaboration with the Nazis, the official backing of the "double genocide" campaign to falsely equate Soviet and Nazi crimes, the continuation of an annual neo-Nazi march, and public threats of war crimes investigation into Jewish Holocaust-era partisans.
Ms Lowenberg and her father Ernest, 90, are planning to hand the petition to the organisers on Monday morning to draw attention to “the discrepancy between what the Lithuanian government does at home and what they do abroad”.
She stressed that her opposition was not to the conference itself, but to the fact that UCL had accepted help from the Lithuanian Embassy, who did not want to further historical study but simply to “ingratiate itself to Jewish communities in Western cities”.
“The Lithuanians are using an established organisation for their own political agenda,” she said. “Their agenda is to excuse the inexcusable”.
Her criticisms were backed by Dr Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, who said he would like to see the cancellation of what was “basically political propaganda” on the part of the Lithuanians, and who had harsh words for the “apologists” who were happy to work with Lithuanian officials. “It’s very important to expose what the Lithuanian government is doing and how they are trying to fool the British community,” he said. “This conference is not going to enlighten, it is going to distort the history of the Holocaust and hide the problems behind a fake image of amity and tolerance.”
Prof Polonsky, who is convening the conference, said that one of the benefits of having the Lithuanian embassy involved was that “they have to listen to us”.
“There is no doubt that on the Lithuanian government side there is goodwill.,” he added. “But it’s an ongoing process”.
Prof Polonsky, the author of a two volume work on The Jews in Poland and Russia, Volumes, said he was one of the people who had felt that many of the things the Lithuanian government had done had been counterproductive.
“But I believe essentially in dialogue - you have to talk,” he said. “It’s not sensible to say ‘first admit that you are a bunch of swines, then we might talk to you’.
“The people who are participating in the conference are people who have criticised the Lithuanian government and done so in a courageous manner,” he added.
He said that the new volume of Polin was full of criticism of the country’s record, but that such criticism had much more impact if it was made by Lithuanian scholars in front of Lithuanian officials.
Mr Donskis, who pointed out that he regulalrly criticised his government and his country “for its "memory politics" and antisemitism” said he did not understand “why scholars and academics should answer the questions that must be addressed to Lithuanian politicians in the first place”.
Sir Sigmund Sternberg, president of the Institute of Polish Jewish Studies, Oxford, said that the embassy’s participation should be “regarded as a positive development”
“I am well aware, as are we all, of the distress felt by some Lithuanian Jews – survivors or the children of survivors of the Nazi-fascist Holocaust – of what they regard as blatantly antisemitic acts against them,” he said in comments that will be read at the opening of the conference. “We share their hope that this conference - with its wide view of a bitter-sweet relationship which has spanned the centuries – will go a long way to improving understanding between all the democratic elements in Lithuania and demonstrate the concern of the government to combat bigotry and prejudice wherever it manifests itself.”
A spokesman for the Lithuanian embassy said that it would not comment on the petition. “We are open to all opinions and welcome discussions, hence our invitation to participate in the conference has been extended to wide range of journalists.”