I first started demonstrating for Jewish causes almost 50 years ago, in the mid-1960s, as a young and impressionable high school student recruited for the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry by its founder, Jacob Birnbaum. Very few people were interested in the plight of Soviet Jewry in those days, however, and I remember our small demonstrations in the vicinity of the Soviet Mission to the United Nations as very intimate gatherings of a few chevre. We were not allowed near the “target,” and there were no physical confrontations with the “enemy.”
In the following years, as the Soviet Jewry movement grew, the number of demonstrators rose considerably, but the nature of the protests, marches, and rallies I participated in remained basically the same. Once the gates of the Soviet Union were opened wide to Jewish emigration, I assumed that my days of demonstrating for Jewish causes were over and I could rest on my laurels, having done my share for a highly successful campaign.
But in the past few weeks, however, I have once again found myself demonstrating, not once or twice, but three times within one month, in very hostile territory and badly outnumbered by those I was demonstrating against. My protests took place in response to marches of neo-Nazis, ultra-nationalists and/or SS veterans down the main avenues of the three major cities of Lithuania and Latvia, and were motivated by a sense of urgency not only to reject the anti-Semitic and racist messages being broadcast, but also to protest against the systematic distortion and revision of the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust in these countries, a phenomenon which has dangerously intensified during the past decade.
As someone who has worked since the fall of the Iron Curtain to get unprosecuted Baltic Nazi war criminals put on trial in their home countries, I did not need any formal introduction to the marchers. Nor did my colleague and dedicated protest partner, the Yiddish expert Prof. Dovid Katz, editor of Defending History and a persistent public critic of Baltic Holocaust distortion.
Thanks to my kippah, Dovid’s large size—and striking physical similarity to Karl Marx—and the fact that there was hardly anyone else protesting, especially in Lithuania, our protests, while totally justified, might have been somewhat reckless. We basically turned ourselves into targets for several thousand extreme Baltic nationalists, whose heroes are the people whose active participation in Holocaust crimes and/or fighting alongside the Wehrmacht for a victory of Nazi Germany are the heart of the problem.
Luckily for us, we had publicly announced our intention to protest in Kovno, Vilna, and Riga, and the authorities were well prepared to prevent any violence. We had uniformed police in front of us and plainclothes police behind us, and probably dozens others in every corner. In that respect, I cannot remember ever feeling so protected, but that did not stop the hostile stares and the numerous shouts, in Latvian and Lithuanian—languages neither of us fully understands—but which seethed with perfectly clear venom and hatred. It was as if our mere presence was a disgusting provocation. The fact that the marches in Vilna and Kovno were each held on one of Lithuania’s two Independence Days—one for 1918 and one for 1990—only made things worse.
In my worst nightmares, I never imagined being anywhere near several thousand Lithuanians or Latvians intent on glorifying Nazi collaborators or SS veterans, some of whom were wearing Lithuanian swastikas, while others carried large images of the prime minister of a provisional Lithuanian government which fully supported Hitler and actively participated in the murder of the Jews, whose remains were recently reburied in Kovno with full national honors. Many shouted exclusionist slogans against minorities whose identity needed no clarification, but after practically every screamed insult, I kept remembering what had happened some seven decades previously in these same streets, in these cities which were once among the most important and impressive Jewish communities in the world. And that is why I traveled all the way to Lithuania and Latvia to protest. If necessary, I will do so again.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of its Israel office. His most recent book, Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice deals extensively with the failure of the Baltics to honestly confront the extensive participation of their nationals in Holocaust crimes.