Vilnius Mayor Not Ready to Remove Noreika Plaque, Jewish Community and Intellectuals Ignored

A roundtable discussion led by Edmundas Jakilaitis on Delfi TV’s Center of Attention program on September 19, 2018.

In a few days the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto will be observed. What should Lithuania do with monuments to Nazi collaborators who fought for Lithuania’s freedom? Recently Lithuania has come to the center of attention of the most important global media because of these statues. Should calls by the country’s major thinkers and the requests by the Jewish community be taken to heart and memorial plaques removed and statues taken down? Should the president rescind state awards granted them?

On Delfi Center of Attention we have Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky, journalist and publicist Rimvydas Valatka and historian and politician Arvydas Anušauskas. Also on the program: commentary by world-famous Lithuanian writer, poet and professor Tomas Venclova and Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius.

Mrs. Kukliansky, yesterday you held an event at the Jonas Noreika memorial plaque, you read the names of Jews murdered in the Šiauliai ghetto. Why?

Kukliansky: Because we didn’t see any other way to bring the public’s attention to the fact the plaque is located there, on the side of the Academy of Sciences building, honoring, in our understanding, a person who collaborated with the Nazis. We’re not just saying this, but in possession of a finding by the Center for the Study of the Resistance and Genocide of Residents of Lithuania. Perhaps the center or other leaders upon whom the erection and removal of the plaque depend do not consider isolation of Jews collaboration with the Nazis, but we think that if only this had taken place, that Mr. Noreika isolated Jews, that would be sufficient to say this person should not be honored in public spaces.

I’ll explain the situation briefly: he was the head of the Šiauliai district for a period of time during the German occupation, the beginning of the occupation. By his order a Jewish ghetto was established in the city of Šiauliai, by his order some of the Jews were removed to the ghetto, and he signed instructions on how Jews should be removed, how their property should be administered, and many Jews were removed to the town of Žagarė… He decided all issues surround the isolation of Jews. Again, regarding yesterday’s protest: I, of course, apologize for the question, Mrs. Kukliansky, but could you explain to our viewers why you didn’t read the names beginning with the letter A?

Kuklaisnky: Because my mother and my family were among those whom they isolated. In Šiauliai, they lived as all the other people did. Our mechanized mill, the first in Šiauliai, was entered on a list of special sights to see. That was before this isolation, and this isolation wasn’t in a concert hall, a vacation house or some sort of sanitorium… even before this the Jews of Šiauliai had been shot. So everyone understood what isolation meant, although perhaps they couldn’t believe what would happen later. For that reason I began to read the names beginning with the letter T. My mother was Klara Toides, she was ten when Mr. Noreika with his order isolated her from all other people except Jews, and later transported them, maybe not by his order, to the Stutthof concetnration camp.

Photo courtesy Milda Jakulytė-Vasil

Mrs. Kukliansky has a Genocide Center finding from 2015, today we were sent one from 2017, but I am certain the content is essentially the same. A few important highlights: in summary it can be said that during the German occupation Jonas Noreika, popularly known as General Vėtra, did not take part in mass murder operations against the Jews in the districts of Telšiai and Šiauliai, although the Nazi occupational regime was able to coopt him as with other officials from the Lithuanian civilian administration into administering affairs related to the isolation of Jews. Mr. Valatka, you propose taking the commemorative plaques down. Why?

Valatka: It’s very simple: I don’t like any statues of any collaborators or any streets named after collaborators. Would anyone have the idea to name a street after the first secretary of the Communist Party of the Šiauliai district who administered that district on May 22, 1948, during the great deportation of Lithuanians? Probably no one would.

In principle Noreika carried out similar duties, just under a different enemy occupier of Lithuania. If we don’t build statues and name streets after Communist collaborators, why should we do that for Nazi collaborators? Yes, after that Noreika died heroically in the wars against the Red Plague, but your quote shows that he also collaborated with the Red Plague. And in this case the problem isn’t even that, Noreika or not Noreika. In general we should pull back from reading these surnames. We don’t have any position, we are still dominated by the Communist attitude: either a hero or a villain.

Yes, all of us want to have heroes. But sometimes we manufacture those heroes artificially. Most often it happened that one day a person acted as a hero, and the next as a bad guy. And until we adhere to that constant, we will have a problem every September 23, and every upstanding Lithuanian will be ashamed to live on Noreika or Škirpa street, and so on. I don’t suggest we condemn these people, I suggest we continue to remember them when they fought the enemy, but also to remember when they did evil things. And let’s summarize this memory as: let’s make it so there are no more such moments in Lithuania when a person has the opportunity to be a villain.

Mr. Anušauskas, what’s your opinion, should the plaque be taken down or left in place?

Anušauskas: You know, if the story were so simple, the answer would be clear.

This is the setting of a certain standard.

Anušauskas: Let’s set the standard for ourselves that we go by facts and documents. If you say Noreika established the ghetto, I say Noreika repeated the orders of the general commissar and his representatives in those districts, rewriting them in Lithuanian.

You’re totally correct. Formally he was the head of the district, he issued orders. Actually he carried them out under the occupation regime. In any case, as the Genocide Center says in their finding, they managed to get him involved. Because they couldn’t get others involved?

Anušauskas: They didn’t manage to get some others involved, some refused to continue to work in the occupational administration, it was varied. Just, when you raise the question of the plaque… A book, for example, is also a kind of monument and Noreika’s comrade in the resistance struggle, Viktoras Ašmenskas, wrote [a book] 21 years ago… I simply opened the book and I thought, maybe he suppressed the period of the Nazi occupation. No, all documents issued are described in his book, even those of the opposite opinion, everything is included in that book. This is also a monument. The man sees the story from different sides. In this case let’s also see the story as it was. It wasn’t simple.

Of course it wasn’t simple, but the state has to make a decision, to leave it on a government building or take it down–that also demonstrates a certain attitude by the state.

Anušauskas: Of course it does. I understand that the state is understood as such an abstraction by us, but there is also the municipality, and private individuals…

There is the municipality, the Academy of Sciences, the President’s Office and the chancellery of state awards, and many…

Anušauskas: So Rimvydas and I will go and take that plaque down…

You might have been able to do that 15 years ago until that plaque was registered as municipal property. Although it appeared without any permission, now it is inventoried as city property, and you would be charged with the crime of destroying state or municipal property. There are many documents with Jonas Noreika’s signature related to Jews. Here are a few excerpts from those documents:

Announcement no. 6

“All people of Jewish ethnicity who have fled from the towns of the Šiauliai district do not have the right to return to those downs, returnees will be arrested. Home owners and building managers who allow Jews returning to the towns to live there will be punished.

“All Jews living in the towns of the Šiauliai district without regard to gender or age must wear a star of David on their left side as of July 25 of this year. Of yellow color, 10 cm in diameter. The Jews themselves have the patches made at their own cost.

“Those Jews discovered without the sign or who wear it in an invisible way (under a cloak) will be punished.

“People of Jewish ethnicity are allowed to walk and appear in public from 6 [A.M.] to 8 [P.M.]. Those found on the streets or in public spaces at a different time will be punished, except for those carrying special permits.

“People of Jewish ethnicity who have real estate in the towns from which they must move, real estate they must liquidate, give priority to making agreement with Lithuanians owning real estate in those areas or locations (to which the Jews are being moved) and who want to move away from that location.”

August 6, 1941. To the aldermen of the rural districts and mayors of small towns of the Šiauliai district.

“The local municipality takes into its jurisdiction the protection of the property, moveable and immovable, left abandoned, of Community activists and generally citizens of Jewish ethnicity until there is a government decision on what to do with that property.”

August 28, 1941. To the aldermen of the rural districts and mayors of small towns of the Šiauliai district.

“By order of the Commissar of the Šiauliai military district, all of the district’s citizens of Jewish origin, and also half-Jews, must be removed from the rural districts and towns of the district and settled in one neighborhood, the Ghetto. All Jewish property must be guarded and inventoried by the municipalities.

“Non-Jewish citizens in the neighborhood allocated for the Jews are allowed to select other locations within the borders of the district. If one of the non-Jews moving out must leave behind immovable property, then they are allowed to select property of corresponding value from that left behind by the Jews.”

So, such were the orders on what to do with Jewish property and the property of fleeing Communists. All of them signed by Jonas Noreika. There was a letter by thinkers sent to different institutions. One of the signatories was world-famous Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova. Mr. Venclova, what do you see as the solution to the problem, what should Lithuania do? How is it possible to deal with our statues, with our history, without offending the feelings of certain other people?

Venclova: It seems to me statues are for people who have taken part in the activities of the state–with cultural figures it’s a little different, cultural figures can be forgiven more–but if a person took part in the actions of the state, he should be above reproach for memorial plaques and statues to be erected in his honor. If there are blemishes on his record–and there are–then to deny that would be a dishonest attempt at avoidance, and that plaque would have to be taken down, and those dubious statues removed. We already have enough heroes without the dubious ones.

Do you think having these kinds of plaques and statues diminishes Lithuania’s stature in the eyes of the world, and does this provide opportunities for Russian propaganda to belittle Lithuania’s fight for freedom?

Venclova: Yes, it undoubtedly does provide such opportunities. This operates in favor of Putin’s propaganda more than many other of our actions, and when Putin’s propagandists say there are fascist sentiments in Lithuania, when these sorts of things go on, it’s difficult to deny that. It would be better if we could issue a clear denial–no, they certainly don’t exist among us. Regarding this I have heard statements such as, we can’t bend to the opinions of outsiders, for us it’s important as a matter of morality and law. But morality and law also demand these statues be removed.

What would the ideal solution to this problem be in the run-up to the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto, according to Tomas Venclova?

Venclova: Calmly and, as they say, without great fanfare to remove these controversial statues, not making a big fuss about it, not creating a big panic and not claiming this is a violation of our rights and our most sacred national feelings, because it isn’t. It is exactly those who want these statues to remain unconditionally who are violating the rights and most sacred national feelings of the nation.

Mr. Anušauskas, if you were the mayor of Vilnius and the Jewish community had appealed to you this summer as the group of thinkers did several years ago, thinkers including the late Leonidas Donskis and Antanas A. Jonynas, names known to a great many, what would you do about that plaque?

Anušauskas: That’s a good question. Actually I’d say, if that problem was only raised now, that… Anyway, when did this plaque appear? About two decades ago, right?

I’m afraid to say exactly, but it appeared as property of the municipality in 2003, and it certainly was there before that, so probably two decades ago…

Anušauskas: So every time a sign is hung or a name bestowed, clearly initially all the historical information should been collected before that. Of course you have to make a judgment before that. I would do this: at first you asses, you collect information, then you act.

But it already has been [collected], just as with decoration by the state in 1997, one of the state’s highest decorations.

Anušauskas: Sometimes state awards are rescinded. The legal principle is clear that a person can lose the award if he’s committed crimes and in this case this is an indisputable thesis, because people have lost awards before. Incidentally, awards have been taken away from members of the resistance before as well.

Mr. Valatka, how would you solve this problem, taking into account–I will quote from the finding by the Genocide Center which is also very important: “German security chief in Lithuania Karl Jäger characterized the reasons for Noreika’s arrest thus (Noreika was later arrested by the Nazis, imprisoned in a concentration camp and later shot for anti-Soviet activities by NKVD agents in 1947): ‘He commanded the Lithuanian resistance movement and especially agitated against the mobilization of the Lithuanian people announced by the Reichskommissar.’ By order of the chief of the Security Police and SD in Ostland, with the consent of his superior commander, he was sent for an extended period to a concentration camp.” So it was due to his efforts that there was no Lithuanian SS division, unlike Latvia. Many different circumstances. What would you do?

Valatka: That nice circumstance doesn’t annul the initial ugly circumstance and doesn’t negate anything because it was already an accomplished fact. I can’t think of a better thing and probably no one else can either than to apply the mirror principle. No one in Lithuania would get the idea to erect plaques to or name streets after a person from the KGB or a post-war high Communist Party official…

Or associated with the deportation of Lithuanians, as you said before…

Valatka: Right, so let’s apply that to all statues. I also feel enough is enough, there is the Salomėja Nėris Gymnasium and the Petras Cvirka statue. This is a school named after a writer, it’s named after a collaborator, just as the statue was built for a collaborator, but not to honor Cvirka the writer. If he had been just a writer, they wouldn’t have built a monument to him. Let’s apply the mirror principle and then we’ll have a standard. Of course many cases will be exceptional, but that’s a matter for the president, who can convene a commission and invite historians.

Anušauskas: An exceptional case is the first secretary who led the KGB and who became Lithuania’s president. An exceptional case, the statue stands.

Valatka: It’s a different era, because if he had been one of those who in 1948 or 1951 had executed the deportations, it would really be nonsense.

Anušauskas: Certainly.

Let’s look at what Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius has to say about this problem. The foreign minister says we shouldn’t be arguing about this and we need to take it down quickly because it’s compromising all freedom fighters. What do you think, Mr. Šimašius?

Šimašius: Haste makes waste. I really think we need to make good decisions. When it is clear what a good decision is, then it needs to be done quickly. In this case, at least our state institutions should perform a full investigation. I am perhaps one of only a few people who have read this investigation and also the investigation which our fellow citizen Grant Gochin performed, who lived in California now and is a descendant of Litvaks. I really see a lot of emotion on both sides, a strong desire for one side to be right, but when historians look into things and discover things and don’t talk, then the truth remains somewhere in the corner and that’s not a good situation. I think we need to seriously get involved with this matter, to make a decision and to implement it when it’s clear that that decision is the only correct one.

Is the municipality able to adopt controversial decisions before elections?

Šimašius: WIthout a doubt it can, if it leads to the truth. The only question is, does it lead to the truth?

But the truth is that he established a ghetto.

Šimašius: This is one version of the truth. The final version of the truth has to come from institutions which research historical data. There is one version of the truth, there is another version of the truth–they’re talking about the same things from different perspectives.

Unfortunately, truth is facts and lies are the fruit of fantasy. There is no such thing as two truths. Mrs. Kukliansky, back in summer you appealed to the municipality for the plaque to be removed. You wanted this done to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Vilnius ghetto. Thousands of people were annihilated. It sees as if the plaque will stay. What do think about this?

Kukliansky: Yes, I think the plaque will stay, it’s always easier to hang something up than to take it down. That requires civic courage, not just reading the finding by the Genocide Center. Every person’s life is complicated and it’s very complicated and a great responsibility to judge a person’s life. I agree with Mr. Valatka, there is no pure white or pure black, but nonetheless a question occurs to me. If General Vėtra’s actions were just the execution of orders from the Germans, how did 250,000 Jews vanish? Someone hid them somewhere. First they isolated them, later took them away, some where not isolated. They isolated those who, you might say, were lucky enough to be isolated. The vast majority were murdered right where they lived. Therefore, despite everything, in the name of the Lithuanian Jewish Community I would ask for a decision to be made and the removal of the plaque commemorating a man with a controversial reputation.

Full interview in Lithuanian here.