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Why Litvaks Need Special Protection

by Geoff Vasil


Discussion of the recent spate of rejections of applications for Lithuanian citizenship by Litvaks has included the statement that the Lithuanian law doesn’t contain any language about Jews one way or the other. I believe it should. Here’s why.


Lithuania is not a large country and while it’s nice to propagate the idea everyone is equal under the law, this hasn’t been true historically, nor is it now. Lithuania is most assuredly not a melting pot, and that’s part of its charm. Instead, Lithuania falls more on the Canadian side of western democratic aspirations, where ethnicity and ethnic communities are respected, allowed to form their own institutions and speak their own languages. Of course Canada sometimes goes too far in that direction, such as when Harper’s Government agreed to fund projects by the large ethnic Ukrainian community to commemorate the Ukrainian Waffen SS division more commonly known as Galicija as Ukrainian heroes at Canadian state institutions. Still, the principle remains sound.


In World War II as Hitler rolled out Operation Barbarossa, otherwise known as the invasion of the USSR and the Holocaust, the Nazis employed a special word, a euphemism in a long series of Nazi euphemisms leading to the low point of human history and Germany’s total defeat, to describe the deportation of Jews eastward. Jews were subject to „special handling.“ Special treatment, in other words. I believe if Jews were subject to „special treatment“ then, meaning their mass murder, it would be the right thing to do now, to set things somewhat right, to apply special treatment in the good sense to applications by the few surviving Litvaks around the world who seek Lithuanian citizenship for a variety of reasons, most of them sentimental and, believe it or not, patriotic. Yes, a number of survivors still speak Lithuanian many decades after leaving and many I’ve known personally were great advocates of Lithuanian independence in 1918, and in 1990.


As a rule I think affirmative action programs don’t work. What is happening right now in South Africa–reverse discrimination against whites who can’t find work because all public sector jobs are slated for blacks regardless of qualification–is a stepping stone on the road to Zimbabwe, where president-turned-dictator-for-life Robert Mugabe basically declared open season on whites and any remain property they might own. Affirmative action has worked in the United States to a great extent in introducing black and brown faces into spheres which were very white before, but the internalization of a kind of social affirmative action program has led to some very poor choices, such as the election of the current president who is patently unqualified to even sit on a city council. 


These examples don’t really fit Lithuania’s case, though. Lithuania is not a melting pot and ethnic homogeneity is not the goal here. Neither is tribal rule, whether the tribe be a genetic one or a group of political cronies and goons. And opposition to affirmative action is not the dynamic at work in the Migration Department’s change of heart and individualistic rereading of the Lithuanian law on citizenship.


Instead, a sort of moralistic reasoning is at work. This sort of language is even contained in the law, if you read carefully between the lines. The idea is that somehow Jews, or whichever ethnic group, quit Lithuania in her hour of need, and therefore don’t deserve Lithuanian citizenship now, in what appears to be better times. It’s all about loyalty, and the provisions about „repatriates“ who took citizenship in their supposed homeland, whether that be Israel, Poland, Russia, Belarus or elsewhere, are intended as a kind of loyalty test of applicants. In the decades since independence Jews in the popular imagination occupy perhaps the lowest rung on that ladder of loyalty. The popular myth is Jews fled with their own, the Soviet Communists, during World War II, that they served the Communists more enthusiastically than any other group, and were subsequently compensated for that loyalty with higher salaries, higher standards of living, etc. The problem with all that is, it’s a myth. Jews suffered higher percentages of deportations to Siberia, Jews were only extremely rarely allowed into the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded (a handful of cases perhaps) and even Communist Party members with credentials were turned back at the de facto Soviet border if they didn’t have formal travel orders. There were more Lithuanians in the early Lithuanian Communist Party than Jews, and more Lithuanians continued to build socialism after the war than Jews did. In many cases there was such an aversion to Communism that Jews didn’t even consider trying to flee that direction, and so many who might have lived died in Lithuania instead. 


Underneath this moralistic reasoning and hidden loyalty test there is a deeper belief, an anti-Semitic one, which holds Jews as a people traitorous to the Lithuanian state and the Lithuanian people. Without parsing too finely the nonsense of a whole ethnic group harboring treason in their hearts, in my experience, Jews I have known from the period were great activists on behalf of Lithuania even when the country disappeared into the Soviet Union, maintained a real love for what they considered their home country, continued to speak fluent Lithuanian and tried to come to terms with what happened during the Holocaust. Of course there are plenty of Jews and Litvaks in America who cringe at the mention of the word Lithuania as well, but as a rule, in my experience again, these people often inherit a kind of reactionary hatred from their parents and don’t have any firsthand knowledge of Lithuania or Litvak culture here. It’s simply not true to say Jews were traitors to Lithuania, even after Lithuania basically embraced Italian fascism in 1926 (long before Hitler came to power in Germany, by the way), Jews in the Republic of Lithuania remained loyal to what was still their country.


Why would any self-respecting Jew want Lithuanian citizenship? There are a variety of reasons, most of them sentimental, as I said. My concern is more practical. Granting Lithuanian citizenship to Litvaks and their descendents is one practical thing, one useful thing the current state can do to try to start making amends for the past. A special provision for Litvaks needs to be inserted into the Lithuanian law on citizenship, a third or fourth path to citizenship created especially for Litvaks, because they are in a special situation, which would make dual citizenship, something which the Lithuanian Constitutional Court rightly found should be „exceptional,“ an easier option for them. Their situation is exceptional. It is of possible use to Litvaks because having a second passport allows easier escape when as they used to say in South Africa „the big crunch“ comes, whether that be South Africa’s further descent into Zimbabwe-style madness, or an assault on the state of Israel, or any other contingency. A Lithuanian passport also allows Litvaks to work legally in the EU. I see the option as a real, tangible benefit the Lithuanian state could provide Litvaks, instead of the annual sad speeches at the mass killing sites by Lithuanian politicians which happen once or twice a year, while the rest of the year the dead are forgotten, as are the living. 


Why does Lithuania need Jews? We know or think we do that Gediminas invited Jews to come to Lithuania to work at a time large swathes of Europe were persecuting Jews, and that Vytautas granted a charter for them to live unmolested in Lithuania in perpetuity. We also know the LAF, which is really just another name for Lithuanian Nazis, attempted to annul that grant in leaflets, over the radio and through their Provisional Government, but lacked any moral authority to make or rescind such a thing. One could be forgiven for thinking that the grand dukes as well as the Lithuanian Nazis were engaging in some sort of magical thinking about Jews, that they believed them either good luck charms or a curse, much as the Japanese imperial government courted Jewish favor and sought to set up a Jewish homeland in occupied Manchuria, even as their ally Hitler was rising to power on the promise to rid Europe of the Jews. I ascribe somewhat higher motives to the grand dukes. I think they rightly perceived Jews as having exceptional skills they needed, and appreciated their scholarship and high education. All the things the more patriotic Lithuanian historians say came from the adoption of Christianity from Poland, I see as riding into Lithuania on the carts of Jewish peddlers and passing into Lithuanian consciousness through personal contact, namely, that thing we call Western Culture. Now, as then, Lithuania needs new skills, new information, and the few Litvaks who might entertain the idea of actually acquiring citizenship and visiting, or perhaps even living here, don’t arrive empty handed. Besides Nobel prizes, great literature and great accomplishments in the sciences, Litvaks are an industrious people and many are accomplished in business. It seems a strange thing to tell Litvaks, your investments are welcome, but you personally are not. What Lithuania really gets out of the deal, though, is reconciliation with part of itself, an expanded national identity along the lines of the inclusiveness of the Grand Duchy, rather than the country-bumpkin ethnocultural model chosen midway into the life of the interwar republic, a model largely based on mythical notions of Lithuanian culture and identity developed by Polish-speaking romantics, incidentally. 


Another thing I find difficult to understand is why Lithuania would consent to some sort of quota of refugees nominally from Syria who likely are nothing other than the families of ISIS fighters and the combatants themselves, who began to flee Syria right before the Russian actions there. Why would Lithuania agree to take in what are probably terrorists or proxy terrorists, but reject her own Litvaks who, despite everything, despite the anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 30s, the Holocaust, the insults of the immediate post-1990 republic, still want to belong here, still have a personal stake in this country? It’s baffling and dumbfounding, it makes no sense whatsoever. At least not if we take at face value the somewhat veiled legal language and practices of the law and the state about loyalty and citizenship.


In summary, providing easier access to Lithuanian citizenship is one small but useful thing we can do for our Litvaks around the world, and no harm accrues to Lithuanian society or the state in doing so, there are only benefits. Not just externally, in terms of international reputation, but internal benefits at all levels.


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