Leonidas Donskis, a Lithuanian philosopher, scholar and former member of the European Parliament, deputy chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, political activist, author and notable figure in Lithuanian society and academic and political life, died Wednesday morning.
He reportedly died at Vilnius International Airport from a heart attack.
Dr. Donskis was born August 13, 1962 in Klaipėda, Lithuania. According to his public statements, his father was a Litvak rescued by Lithuanians during the Holocaust and raised Catholic. Donskis described himself as secular, and said in an interview: “I am a Jew whenever and wherever I encounter anti-Semitism,” explaining he would never deny being Jewish out of respect for his father. Donskis was outspoken in his support of Holocaust education in Lithuania, promoting tolerance in Lithuanian society and respecting the rights of Jews and Litvaks.
He earned undergraduate degrees in Lithuanian philology and theatrical pedagogy from the Klaipėda Pedagogical Faculty of the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theater in 1985. In 1987 he earned a degree in philosophy at Vilnius University. He defended a dissertation, “Crises of Culture and Their Philosophical Reflection (An Historical/Methodological Analysis of Conceptions of History by Spengler, Toynbee and Mumford),” at Vilnius University on December 11, 1990. He defended a dissertation at Helsinki University in 1999 qualifying him as a doctor of social sciences. He was a professor at the Political Science Cathedral of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas and senior researcher at the Center for Émigré Studies at the same university from 2002 to the time of his unexpected death Wednesday.
He headed the Philosophy Cathedral at Vytautas Magnus University from 2003 to 2005. In 2004 he was habilitated there (liberal arts, history of ideas).
In 2005 the Senate of Vytautas Magnus University bestowed upon him the academic title of professor. He served as director of the Political Science and Diplomacy Institute there since 2005, and as professor in the Political Science Cathedral since 2006. He became a member of the university’s Senate in 2005.
Dr. Donskis was elected to the European Parliament in 2009 as a candidate from the Liberal Union list of potential MEPs. He was the first candidate on the list. About 7.86% of the electorate voted for the party, and Dr. Donskis was the only Lithuanian Liberal Union representative at the European legislature.
The Lithuanian Jewish Community and all who knew him mourn the passing of the great Lithuanian thinker.
“I knew him as a philosopher and in his capacity as deputy chairman of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, and I’d like to say he sets an example for the whole Jewish community. He was a highly educated man whose thinking spanned a wide horizon; he wasn’t interested in all the mundane matters which seem to occupy society. He was a man of a wide range of thought, and as much as I knew him, I never heard him say an unkind word even in a moment of passion,” Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky recalled.
Historian Egidijus Aleksandravičius speaking on Lithuanian National Radio said: “Leonidas’s case is such that anyone would say, even entering into the realm of the banal, that the best leave first. Leonidas was truly unique in his hard work and the ferment of his intellectual creativity. His significance, his insights, as so often happens when an author dies, will only become more well known.”
The historian and fellow professor said his friendship with Leonidas Donskis was the of the sort more common 100 years ago than at the present time. “He was my close intellectual buddy, a friend in the classical sense. The sort of friendship where there is no circle of whispering members of the gang, but which is simply a kind of space where principles and public affairs can be discussed. The kind of friendship where the truth is told to one’s face and where friends don’t have to bow down and scrape so as not offend one another’s egos,” professor Aleksandravičius recalled. He said Leonidas Donskis especially liked Shakespeare’s sonnet 66:
And captive good attending captain ill:
Tired with all these, from these would I be gone,
Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.
Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė issued a statement saying Leonidas Donskis’s death was Lithuania’s loss of a noble humanitarian who actively defended freedom and human dignity. “Lithuania has lost a noble humanitarian who in his academic and public work actively defended freedom and concepts of human dignity. Professor L. Donskis was a strong example of European values and Western thinking not just for the younger generation, but for all people of Lithuania.” Her statement also said that as deputy chairman and an active member of the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Dr. Donskis made great contributions to preserving the country’s Jewish culture and heritage, and to promoting tolerance, equality and respect for the individual.