Holocaust survivors, Madam Speaker and members of the Seimas Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Abba Kovner, who grew up here in Vilnius, and emerged, soon after the start of the German occupation, as a leader of the Vilna ghetto’s partisan fighters, wrote in one of his retrospective books:
One day my son told me, “Dad, I'd like to go to Vilna with you sometime, and you could show me where it all happened." My son was surprised when I told him: “Son, that place doesn't exist anymore!” Strangers live in my house there now, and we can't go see it.
The school where I learned Hebrew has become a lumber shed. The ghetto was plowed.
There is no memorial to the Vilna Gaon's Beit midrash. The Jewish streets have been turned into sports fields and public parks… And because all that is gone, that place has no meaning anymore.
I stand before you today in Vilnius, in independent Lithuania’s parliament. That is a great privilege.
And yet I feel deeply sad, because the places where Kovner and his fellow Jews lived before the Shoah, the legendaryYerushalayim de-Lita, Lithuanian Jerusalem, no longer exist. The Vilna Gaon's Beit midrash - is no more, the old Jewish market - is gone.
Hundreds of thousands of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in this country by the German Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators. Almost the entire Jewish community of Lithuania became extinct. The totality of the destruction of such a remarkably vibrant Jewish community, of such a creative Jewish culture, annihilated so cruelly and systematically during the Holocaust - and to a significant extent by the local population, is characteristically distinct to Lithuania.
Insane, poisonous antisemitic hatred eradicated an entire civilization - my people’s civilization - here, in your homeland.
עַל אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה עֵינִי עֵינִי יֹרְדָה מַּיִם כִּי רָחַק מִמֶּנִּי מְנַחֵם מֵשִׁיב נַפְשִׁי. (איכה פרק א)
"For these things I weep. Mine eye, mine eye, runneth down with tears, Because the comforter is far from me." (Chapter 1 of the Biblical Book of Lamentations)
Still, I dare, with great consideration and respect, to partially disagree with that outstanding Jewish hero, Abba Kovner, regarding the final words of his passage,
“that place has no meaning anymore”
Because for me, for so many Jews, Israelis, Lithuanians and others - that place – call it Vilnius or Vilna - DOES have meaning, now and in the future! It must have meaning!
This is my second visit to Lithuania in less than 12 months. I have met with your Prime Minister and the Speaker of the Parliament in Vilnius and Jerusalem. I also hosted your Foreign Minister, whose great-grandmother, Ona Jablonskyte, has been recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations. I am encouraged by their understanding of the issues concerning Holocaust remembrance in Lithuania. Significant actions are still to take place, but the attitude of the current Lithuanian leadership and its parliament, the Seimas, gives me hope.
We are encouraged by gradual but substantial progress made over the years in Lithuania, including important initiatives regarding Holocaust remembrance and preservation of her Jewish heritage some of them in cooperation with Yad Vashem.
But, unfortunately, not yet enough progress has been made: though the attitudes expressed by much of your country’s leadership are cause for hope, as are some of its policies, a great deal remains to be accomplished. Our task is not completed with until this understanding trickles down to the last member of Lithuanian society.
I am inspired to respectfully, but clearly, touch upon this sensitive topic by the example and memory of one my predecessors in the Chairmanship of Yad Vashem:
the late Itzhak Rudnicki Arad, also known as Tolka, his nom de guerre as a partisan.
He was born in Svencionys, fought in the forest against the Nazis and their collaborators and even infiltrated the Vilna Ghetto.
Dr. Arad became a prominent historian of the Holocaust and contributed greatly to its research and remembrance. Tolka passed away in May 2021, shortly before I became Chairman of Yad Vashem.
I know that he would have urged me to declare here before you, the distinguished Seimas, that an antisemite, especially a murderer, cannot be considered "otherwise a good person”, let alone a hero. An antisemite, is an antisemite, is an antisemite.
In addition to refraining from attributing public honor to such butchers, Lithuania must consistently acknowledge that many of the Lithuanian Jews massacred in the Holocaust,
died at the hands of their Lithuanian co-nationals, and that Lithuanians also took part in the extermination of Jews in neighboring countries. Such recognition is obviously owed to the Jewish victims, but also to the present and future generations of Lithuanians.
Forgetfulness is an unacceptable educational option for your youth.
We should show zero-tolerance towards antisemitism, including in this chamber. That zero-tolerance policy must apply also towards glorification of war criminals associated with the massacre of Jews. Such names as Noreika, Skirpa, and Krikštaponis do not add to the honor of your nation, nor to its adherence of international norms of appropriate national remembrance.
Lithuanian history during the Holocaust indeed contained admirable rescuers. I myself , together with the Prime Minister, bestowed the title of Righteous Among the Nations on several of those heroes and heroines, here in Vilnius last year, through their descendants.
But Lithuanian history during the Holocaust also included vile perpetrators. And of course, many bystanders. All of them must be remembered - accurately, proportionally and in context.
That is precisely why the ongoing efforts to promote accurate Holocaust research, documentation, education, and commemoration are so essential. In this respect, Yad Vashem pledges to continue working together with Lithuania to accelerate the process and make it more comprehensive.
Esteemed members of the Seimas, next Sunday, at sundown, on the 10th day of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, Jews all over the world will mark Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.
I will be at my home in Israel, living proudly and safely in a sovereign and independent Jewish state. But having returned barely 48 hours earlier from Vilnius, I am quite sure that my thoughts, during Yom Kippur prayers, I am sure will be reflecting a very different Yom Kippur, 81 years ago.
In 1942, the 21st of September, - today’s date - was Yom Kippur. That same day Herman Kruk wrote in his diary, here in Vilnius:
"Preparations have been made for Yom Kippur. The high point was to be the prayers in the theater auditorium. The hall is filled with Jews who have come to observe the holy day. Everyone is waiting for the chief of the Jewish Council. He enters and puts on a prayer shawl. A great lament breaks out. It is the wind of Ponar, of death, of the children, women, and men who have been torn away.
Kruk somehow survived the Vilna Ghetto. But he did not survive the Holocaust. In September 1944, exactly two years after he lamented the murder of Lithuanian Jewry,
One day after he buried his diaries for safekeeping, And only one day before liberation,
Herman Kruk was murdered by the Nazis in the Lagedi concentration camp, in Estonia.
In the words of the ancient Jewish prayer for departed souls:
Yitgadal Ve-Yitkadash shemey-rabba!