Lietuvos rytas, a television station, newspaper and website, broadcasted Tuesday an interview/discussion with Lithuanian Jewish Community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky and Conservative Party/Christian Democratic Union MP Laurynas Kasčiūnas on Saturday’s removal of a plaque commemorating Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika from central Vilnius Saturday.
Kasčiūnas said he and people of like mind have asked the Lithuanian Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the removal of the plaque by Vilnius major Remigijus Šimašius for possibly violating the public interest and the principles of the rule of law. He quoted a finding by the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania–a state-funded, state-administered historical research agency–claiming the Center found Noreika had not collaborated with the Nazis.
Kasčiūnas dominated the interview and spoke rapid-fire according to Conservative Party talking points, repeating claims made by other ultra-nationalists in recent days. When the hostess asked chairwoman Kukliansky to respond to Kasčiūnas’s initial barrage of falsifications, disinformation and half-truths, she asked whether anyone had finally determined who commissioned the Noreika plaque in the first place. Kasčiūnas claimed Šimašius had produced documentation showing the Vilnius city municipality commissioned and paid for the plaque in 1997 or 1998. This appears to be a key point in the entire story and could be of vital importance in legal challenges to Šimašius’s move in the future.
For several years now Šimašius in written correspondence with the attorney for Litvak and Lithuanian citizen Grant Gochin claimed there was no record of the city commissioning or even approving the placement of the granite slab on the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences building. It was hinted the plaque might have been placed there without approval from the city department and commission responsible for the placement of signs and monuments. At the same time, the Academy of Sciences disavowed any claims to the plaque in correspondence with the city of Vilnius and Šimašius. This vacuum of ownership led Lithuanian human rights activist and attorney Stanislovas Tomas to believe he was in fact committing no crime when he attacked and broke up the plaque with a sledgehammer in April of this year. He said so during his live-stream of the event on facebook. Šimašius quickly changed his tune.
The day after the Noreika plaque was seemingly destroyed, Šimašius said it wouldn’t be replaced. Within two days he called Stanislovas’s action an act of bold vandalism and said the plaque would be replaced quickly, which it was, withing four days. Šimašius also revealed he had finally found documents showing the city of Vilnius had paid around 7,000 litai for the sign initially, contradicting his claim for several years standing that it was not the work nor the property of the municipality.
If the plaque is the property of the city of Vilnius, Kasčiūnas and his fellow ultra-nationalists might have a difficult time convincing any court the city has no right to dispose of its own property as it sees fit. It further raises the question of jurisdiction: if the Lithuanian president or others feel such “traditional” (since 1998) monuments are of national interest, does that interest preempt city laws on signage and monuments? As Lithuanian Jewish Community member Pinchos Fridberg has pointed out numerous times, taking down a plaque commemorating Jonas Noreika is not sufficient because he was awarded a high order of the state posthumously in 1996 by presidential decree. If the newly-elected Lithuanian president wants to weigh in on the issue, he has to begin by addressing the fact the modern Republic of Lithuania has decorated a native Nazi war criminal. The pure question of ownership of the plaque has to figure in any legal determination and of course the President’s Office, Government and national parliament have plenty of real estate for displaying plaques of Nazi war criminals if they so choose. The vacuum of ownership regarding the Noreika plaque is mirrored by the desire among the branches of government and national institutions for a vacuum of responsibility: let the municipalities take the heat one way or the other. In this sense Šimašius has demonstrated true moral leadership above and beyond national politicians and functionaries who, so far, have been too frightened to render any moral judgment regarding Noreika.
Kasčiūnas demonstrated his legal arguments were weak at best during the interview, claiming the Genocide Center had found Noreika did not collaborate with the Nazis and had “only” passed on orders in Lithuanian from his German superiors. He attempted to quote the Center’s finding as saying Noreika had “only” taken part in “isolating” Jews and seizing (i.e., stealing) their property. The international definitions of genocide which emerged in jurisprudence following the Holocaust make “just” following orders in the commission of genocide equal to the crime of planning genocide and murdering victims.
Faina Kukliansky attempted to cut through the muddle by personalizing the experience, asking Kasčiūnas to imagine “isolation of the Jews” as involving his own family being forced into a small apartment with numerous other families, being forced to work as a slave, coming home to find his children had disappeared, taken away and murdered. Apparently this was too much for Lietuvos rytas even, because they named their interview “Kukliansky’s Sharp Cuts and a Suggestion to Kasčiūnas Who Defends the Memory of Noreika.”
LJC chairwoman Kukliansky placed three volumes on the table during the interview, the findings of Lithuania’s International Commission to Assess the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania, and asked Kasčiūnas whether these findings were non-sense, and whether all copies should be pulped. In practice the International Commission has done real Holocaust research whereas the main thrust of information emanating from the Genocide Center has been to justify and exonerate Lithuanian war criminals despite compelling evidence and proof to the contrary.
The hostess of the interview/discussion quoted from an editorial in today’s Lietuvos rytas newspaper by editor-in-chief and journalism professor Vladas Bartuševičius who compared Lithuania’s decision to rehabilitate and celebrate its native Nazis with a hypothetical situation where the French parliament decides to celebrate the leaders of the collaborationist Vichy Republic. Kasčiūnas wasn’t able to speak intelligently in response to that comparison, claiming Noreika was an official in independent Lithuania and wasn’t part of the Nazi hierarchy in occupied Lithuania, which he contradicted earlier in the interview saying Noreika was part of the chain of command for the Nazis in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. He then claimed the French experience doesn’t apply in Lithuania’s case.
Chairwoman Kukliansky pointed out in conclusion the Holocaust was a taboo topic in Soviet Lithuania for 50 years and said she didn’t want to blame the Genocide Center but Lithuanian institutions and agencies were operating in a strange manner regarding the Holocaust. She said no one was reading the findings of the International Commission and called for more Holocaust education in general, saying Lithuania had fallen very far behind the rest of the world.