The agenda item for commemorating the work of the American Jewish welfare organization the Joint Distribution Committee in the Lithuanian city of Panevėžys came up at city council in August, 2014. The main point was to celebrate 100 years of activities by the Joint in Lithuania and to commemorate the organization in Panevėžys. The proposal made at council was to set up a stele to honor the organization at what was formerly Joint Street, now Zikaro street, in the Lithuanian city.
During consideration one council member, Raimondas Pankevičius, opposed the project. Pankevičius went beyond slandering the activities of the Jewish welfare organization and presented a false history of the Holocaust in Lithuania to his fellow council members.
Over 90% of all Jews living in Lithuania were murdered during the Nazi occupation. Panevėžys Jewish Community chairman Gennady Kofman went to Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky over the matter of these anti-Semitic statements, who in turn sent a complaint to the Office of Prosecutor General of Lithuania regarding the councilor’s words. Prosecutors began an investigation and laid charges against Pankevičius. At the first court hearing in March, Pankevičius said he had misspoken, and instead of saying “Jewish SS,” meant to say “Jewish police.”
At the third hearing in the trial against Pankevičius on May 18, 2016, a group of his supporters, elderly residents from the Rožynas neighborhood of Panevėžys where he lives, came to court. At the third hearing Pankevičius said he didn’t renounce his words to the effect Jews took part in the mass murder of their fellow Jews. Now he said he was citing passages from separate sources which Lithuanian historians use in their dissertations at the city council meeting in 2014. None of those sources claim there were Jewish SS who shot more than 5,000 Jews in one day in Lithuania, which is what Pankevičius claimed. At the third hearing Pankevičius continued to mock Jews when he spoke with a correspondent from Lietuvos Rytas. He tried to wiggle out of the situation by constantly altering his statements. He told the reporter: “there were such exceptional cases where Jewish ghetto police shot Jews.” Asked whether he was modifying his earlier statements, Pankevičius answered with an emphatic “No!”
“I read quotes from books which were written by former ghetto prisoners,” he claimed.
Pankevičius says he wants the historical truth to be restored. One wonders what sort of truth he has in mind. Listening to him, one begins to wonder who actually exterminated the Jews of Panevėžys, Kupiškis, Pasvalys, Rokiškis and all the other small towns of Lithuania, since there were no Jewish police in those small ghettos. He keeps changing his story. Now he says Jews shot Jews in southeastern Lithuania, while Vilna ghetto Jewish police only selected Jews for execution and transported them to Ponar. Pankevičius says he didn’t slander Jews.
The Panevėžys District Court decided to seek clarification on Pankevičius’s statement from the Lithuanian History Institute, the Lithuanian Genocide Center and the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum. All of them told the court there is no evidence Jews were complicit in the mass murder of Jews at Ponar or elsewhere in Lithuania. They had never heard of any Jewish SS units. Their responses reject Pankevičius’s statements. Despite the expertise provided, Pankevičius read out various passages taken out of context to the court.
The Panevėžys Jewish Community believes we must oppose Holocaust denial more actively as a matter of truth and honor. The world is struggling with similar attacks, with Holocaust denial, to ensure it never happens again. The Jews of Lithuania respect and honor the ethnic Lithuanians who risked their lives and those of their families to save Jews during the Holocaust. The trial is not over yet and the court has yet to decide whether to admit the material Pankevičius submitted. The next hearing is on August 10.
Full story in Lithuanian here.