Lithuania continues Soviet-style censorship 30 years post-independence
The name Panevežys undoubtedly rings a bell for huge numbers of Jews all over the world. Despite its relatively small size in comparison to the far more important Lithuanian Jewish centers of Vilna (or Vilnius, the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”), and Kovno (or Kaunas, the country’s capital during its interwar period of independence), the city earned considerable renown because it was the home of the famous yeshiva of Ponevezh (the city’s name in Yiddish).
The yeshiva building still stands opposite the local bus station, with a ceramic plaque to note its origin. Today the building houses a bakery and konditorei, or small cafe. But there is no mention of the Jewish community’s 300-year history in the city’s municipal museum.
It was thus extremely surprising to learn that a theater in Panevežys had undertaken to stage an original play based on the book Musiškiai, which popular Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite and I wrote about the extensive scope of Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and the ongoing efforts of successive Lithuanian governments to hide, or at least minimize, these atrocities.
Although the book was a bestseller in Lithuania, it aroused enormous opposition, especially in nationalist circles, which regarded Vanagaite a traitor, and went so far as to claim that Musiškiai was a “threat to national security.” In that respect, all sorts of absurd conspiracy theories were fabricated to delegitimize the book and its authors, and we were branded Russian agents or said to be in the employ of shady Jewish operatives. In October 2017, the publisher, quite possibly under pressure from state officials, removed all copies of the book (as well as Vanagaite’s five other books, a total of 27,000 copies, none of which had any connection to the Holocaust) from the book stores.
Regardless of these problems, the state theater in Panevežys announced about a year ago that it was planning to perform a play based on Musiškiai, to be written by acclaimed Polish playwright Michal Walczak. As expected, the official response from the Ministry of Culture was that it would have to review the performance before it could be presented, and in fact, a clause was inserted into the contract signed by Walczak that there could not be any mention of Musiškiai or Ruta Vanagaite in the script. Despite the opposition to the play, plans for the performance continued as scheduled.
Three weeks before the planned premiere, however, the Artistic Council of the State Theater was convened to discuss whether the play could be performed. One of the members, Karolina Masiulyte-Paliulis, publicly proclaimed that she would do everything in her power to prevent the play from being performed, and sent the script to one of the most right-wing members of the Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) to appeal for his assistance. Shortly thereafter, the managing director of the theater resigned “for personal reasons.”
IN THE MEANTIME, all three planned performances were sold out. On the eve of the opening night, however, the theater’s artistic council demanded a “run-through” of the play, but director Arturas Areima refused to let them in, and the show went on as planned. (Throughout the months prior to opening night, Areima bravely indicated that if the play would be banned, his actors would perform the entire play in front of the theater.)
I came to Lithuania to see the play and support the actors, and especially artistic director Andrius Jevsejevas, who was fired by the new managing director, but I had virtually no idea what to expect. Areima is known for his avant-garde productions, and indeed the play was very unconventional, but its message was conveyed in a very powerful manner. It focuses on the site of the first large-scale mass murder of the Holocaust, the Seventh Fort in Kovno, where 5,000 Jews were killed in the middle of the city, about one week after the German occupation.
In our book, we revealed that the site had been privatized, and was now being used for all sorts of inappropriate recreational activities, including Christmas parties, treasure hunts and even weddings. The play opens with a couple coming to inquire about the possibility of getting married at Fort VII, and proceeds to portray the horrific consequences of the refusal by Lithuanian society to honestly confront its complicity in Holocaust crimes, focusing especially on the negative consequences for the younger generation, who can easily be manipulated if they are not properly educated. In other words, those raised in a society which grossly distorts its history can easily replicate the crimes of their ancestors.
I left Lithuania inspired by the play and the dedication of those who made it possible and the participating actors. But it is not clear whether the play will ever be performed outside Panevežys. Two additional performances are scheduled for December, but none after. The play is “owned” by the Panevežys State Theater, which can easily censor it by refusing to schedule any additional performances.
In other words, Lithuania might already be independent for almost 30 years, but the Soviet tradition of censorship lives on in more subtle forms. Given the fact that Holocaust distortion is so prevalent in Lithuania, which has initiated and led many of the initiatives in Eastern Europe to rewrite the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust, the “disappearance” of this play would turn a powerful drama into a most regrettable tragedy.
The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel office and Eastern European affairs. The English translation of Musiškiai will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in March 2020.