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Removal of a controversial memorial plaque in Vilnius triggers a firestorm

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Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

What many believe was a controversial decision of Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius, the removal of a memorial plaque early Saturday morning to Jonas Noreika, a high-rank pre-war Lithuanian military officer and an anti-Soviet resistance fighter implicated in Jews’ genocide, in central Vilnius has triggered a major firestorm, with the sides trading insults and accusations.

The plaque was placed on the facade of the Wroblewski Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences.

A tough question

The bottom line question is this: can someone, even such a staunch defender of statehood as Noreika, known to the public more as Generolas Vėtra (General Storm), be glorified with a major smear on the escutcheons – Noreika allegedly approved the Nazi administration’s decisions to establish a Jewish ghetto and seize their property in the north-eastern Lithuania.

Asked by BNN to weigh in on the question being raised by many analysts this week in Lithuania, Kęstutis Girnius, a Lithuanian analyst of American descent, called it «a very difficult question».

«We have a combination of historical and political matters. On one hand, with the record he (Noreika) has he is a legitimate national hero, but, on the other hand, he had a high post on the Nazi administration and was responsible for setting up a ghetto and appropriating Jewish assets. Therefore, some people deem him a Holocaust perpetrator, someone who cannot be honoured in any form, at least not in Lithuanian capital. In the cusp of the controversy is bad timing – why the plaque was removed in the middle of night and why the decision was made exclusively by the mayor himself?» Girnius said.

MP asked Prosecutor General to opine

Conservative party stalwarts, MPs Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Audronius Ažubalis and Gabrielius Landsbergis (the latter is chairman of Lithuania’s Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats, known colloquially as the Conservative party) were raging against this week particularly vociferously. The former even asked to the Prosecutor’s General office to probe the mayor’s actions.

«I am ashamed that a true Mankurt (according to a Kyrgyz legend, mankurts were prisoners of war who were turned into slaves by being exposed in the hot sun with their heads wrapped in camel skin – L. J) stands at the helm of my native town, Vilnius. I am ashamed he is unable to separate oppressors and collaborators, who willingly handed freedom of our nation to Communists, from those who, under very complicated conditions, sought to retain our state’s independence and who have always been on the side of our state,» Kasčiūnas lambasted Šimašius on his Facebook account.

Mayor defends decision

Šimašius however defended himself, arguing that the decision to remove the plaque was aimed at applying the “equal principle” to all memorial signs related to totalitarian regimes, be it the removal of the Soviet statues from the Green Bridge four years ago, or the removal of the plaque to Noreika.

He nevertheless admitted that removing the plaque clandestinely in early morning hours was the only mistake he made in passing the decision.

The mayor’s decision was notably applauded by equally many high-ranking politicians and influencers, like the celebrity TV producer Edmundas Jakilaitis.

So who is wrong?

It depends how you look at it

«What I see ongoing now is a major clash of views and perceptions on morality, values and what true human virtues are. It is all about how we look at it. Simply speaking, can someone, albeit very courageous and who himself perished from oppressors (Noreika was murdered by KGB after his apprehension in 1946 – L. J.), be praised after committing a major error in the life?» Arvydas Anušauskas, a Lithuania historians and parliamentarian, asked rhetorically, referring to Noreika’s implication in Holocaust.

Historians, including Anušauskas, do not even question what now has been known for long: as head of Siauliai County during the Nazi occupation period, Noreika signed documents on the establishment of a Jewish ghetto and on arrangements regarding Jewish property.

Bad timing

However, Anušauskas was perplexed that the plaque was removed without broader consultations with historians, besides, nearly in way too early hours.

«It was not up to the mayor to decide what to do with it. His decision to do it singlehandedly is deplorable and certainly lacked consistency,» Anušauskas emphasised to BNN. «I find it weird when the Noreika plaque, according to Šimašius, has nothing to do with totalitarian regimes, however the monument to Petras Cvirka (a controversial Lithuanian writer who in 1940 went along with others went to Moscow to ask the-then dictator Joseph Stalin to allow Lithuania to join the Soviet state – L.J.)    supposedly is (related to them),» noted Anušauskas.

Bad publicity

As a matter of fact, public discussions on this plaque have been simmering in Lithuania for many years.  Lithuania’s Jewish community has been long urging Lithuanian authorities to take down the plaque honoring Noreika. Not without the community’s exertion, several articles blasting Lithuania, and Vilnius, for honoring Noreika, have appeared in influential Western media, including «The New York Times».

«All along, there have been persistent whispers that General Storm, whose real name was Jonas Noreika, also helped the Nazis kill Jews. But these were largely discounted as the work of ill-willed outsiders serving a well-orchestrated campaign by Moscow to tar its foes as fascists,» stated a New York Times journalist in his article last autumn.

Approached by BNN, the Communication Department of Vilnius Municipality, did not say what part the international pressure has played on Šimašius’ decision, but insisted that any piece of unfavourable information harms the city’s interests.

Grant Gochin, a Jewish US citizen of Lithuanian descent, has sued Lithuanian government’s historical institute for what he called is «facilitating» of Noreika «honouring». He’s lost in court several times in recent years but has vowed to take the issue to the European Court of Justice.

Plaque was smashed in spring

The plaque in April was smashed with a hammer by Stanislovas Tomas who unsuccessfully bid for the European Parliament. It was latter glued back together and put back on the wall, however.

The International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania has concluded that, in Noreika’s case, there are «undeniable facts»  about his involvement in the formation of ghettos and seizure of Jewish assets, and they also underlined that nobody denies his merits to Lithuania and independence but these history pages and specific biographic facts of this person do not allow honoring him in public and making him a hero. This is also what Lithuanian Foreign minister Linas Linkevičius underscored defending the Šimašius decision.

Also last week, Vilnius City Council decided to rename a small street in central Vilnius named after Kazys Škirpa, a controversial 20th century Lithuanian diplomat and military officer, due to his declared anti-Semitic views. Both decisions received support and backlash.

Amid the scandals Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda has called for «a moratorium on erasing historic memory», insisting that the discussions need to involve more institutions and experts to formulate the principles and regulation of a national memory policy.


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