On the occasion of the International Day for Tolerance a conference was held in Vilnius to share current experience and insight on the state of tolerance in today's world, on the origins of anti-Semitism, xenophobia and other hate-generating phenomena and on the ways of overcoming their emergence within a new geopolitical, social and media context ("Totaliarianism and Tolerance. The Chalenge to Freedom"). Participating at the conference was Professor Irena Veisaite, a literary scholar, theatre critic and one of the few Holocaust survivors.
I feel I am one of the last remaining witnesses of the most sad and fateful events of the XX century. I was born in an independent Lithuania of the inter-war period, I survived the Holocaust, the Soviet occupation and now I am happy to live again in a free Lithuania. All of my life I have been interested in the issues surrounding the Holocaust, asking myself how such a thing could have happened.
I was greatly impressed by Zygmund Bauman's book "Holocaust and Modernity". He elaborates on a thought Hanna Arendt raised in her book "Eichmann in Jerusalem" where she talks about the banality of evil (H. Arendt was invited to observe A. Eichmann trial). Z. Bauman writes that one needs to know and to speak about the Holocaust because a potential perpetrator may exist in every one of us: in me and in you. And the threat of mass murder is not limited only to Jews. After all Adolf Eichmann - a murderer of millions - was also an excellent father, a wonderful son, a great husband, one could say an exemplary citizen. An Eichmann may find his way into one's being quite unexpectedly. I remember how I was participating in a parade of gymnasts in Moscow in 1951. We were marching to the tune of a loud band across the Red Square. Suddenly Stalin himself appeared on the rostrum. The apparition of Jesus Christ could not have invoked such euphoria. The lines of marching people broke rank, the band became inaudible. When we found ourselves at the bottom of the Square suddenly I became aware that I was shouting and screaming with the whole crowd. By that time I no longer believed in Stalin, my second mother Stefanija Ladigiene was imprisoned in Siberia, I had no illusions... but still I was shouting with the crowd and was unconscious of it… This was one of the scariest moments of my life. I had been affected by mass hysteria...
Today we are celebrating the International Day for Tolerance. In spite of the devaluation of words and their mundane usage (after all, note how many "tragedies" do we experience in our everyday life? We missed the sale - a tragedy! A train was late - a tragedy! etc.) tolerance has not lost its value. So I shall continue using this term. It is my conviction, that the condition of tolerance is mutual understanding. A German saying goes "dazu gehoeren zwei" (an equivalent could be "it takes two to tango"). Hence I would like to look at what is happening in Lithuania from two sides: from the Lithuanian and the Jewish. (I am able to do this because I feel that I possess these two identities - Lithuanian and Jewish).
Although Lithuania has not fully come to terms with the painful past of the Holocaust, there are significant changes that need to be appreciated. Most importantly, the Holocaust has been accepted as part of Lithuania’s history by politicians and academia. It is seen to be one of the most tragic pages of Lithuanian history.
Deniers still exist, and this is evident in numerous internet commentaries which sometimes are horrific and extremely hurtful indeed. Just like there are articles in certain Lithuanian newspapers of similar nature. However this kind of talk does not silence the main discourse. Today Jewish culture is considered to be an essential part of Lithuania's ethnic culture, it is being studied and I would even say that it is being admired. A great number of Lithuanian historians and art scholars, particularly of the middle and young generations, are interested in Jewish history of Lithuania.
In 1997 I participated in a renowned international conference in Nida organized by our well known historian Alvydas Nikzentaitis. It was the first time that issues concerning the Holocaust were discussed in Lithuania. As we remember, during the Soviet era we could not speak about this topic in our own voice. It was mainly foreigners who spoke about the Holocaust at the conference. The Lithuanians were not ready for it yet. Today however, there are many professional Lithuanian Holocaust scholars and they have produced numerous scholarly publications. Artists are also starting to show an interest in this subject.
It is a significant development that the narrative of the Holocaust now appears also in our textbooks. It is still an insufficient and incomplete narrative, however it already exists. Teachers travel to get training in Israel, to Yad Vashem for example, so that they are better equipped to teach their children about the history of the Jews in Lithuania. There is an International Committee on Nazi and Soviet Crimes active here and in schools there are scores of Tolerance Education Centres. Teacher training seminars are being organized.
From the first days of our independence, the Lithuanian government dissociated itself from anti-Semitism. V. Landsbergis said at the time that the Holocaust is not a Jewish problem, it is a Lithuanian problem. We also all know of A. Brazauskas' visit to Israel when he asked for the forgiveness of the Jewish People. There were other apologies. It seems to me that today it is no longer necessary to ask for forgiveness. 70 years have gone by and there is a need to speak about the past in a different way because we are addressing a different post-war generation. At the same time it is important not to forget that changes in peoples' mentality happen very slowly everywhere in the world, they take centuries.
Let us now take a look at how the Jewish people react to what is going on in Lithuania. I think that many of them are seeking to find common ground. I agree with Robert Cohen's article in "Bernardinai.lt". The author clearly says that Israel and Palestine are not able to find a good, just, perfect solution for everyone, but that it is imperative to continue searching for compromises. It is essential to find a way to exist together. There is no other option.
This wisdom always applies to both disagreeing parties. When looking at the Lithuanian-Jewish relations a lot of damage is caused to both sides by any kind of Holocaust denial or diminishing of the events by Lithuanians. On the other hand equally damaging is a constant blaming of Lithuanians meted out by some Jewish activists in the media who only see Lithuanian duplicity and insincerity in everything. I am convinced that we cannot push one another into a corner with ones accusations because this will only provoke a defence reaction. It is essential to see, to acknowledge and to appreciate positive efforts. We do need each other. Therefore let us build bridges.