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10 September 2012
Deakin University's Danny Ben-Moshe did not expect his brief trip to Lithuania to visit his grandmother's village would turn into an international battle to support a fellow academic's campaign to stop Jewish genocide being rewritten out of the country's history.
His journey, led to an ongoing global political campaign that has got the backing of senior politicians across Europe and is the subject of a documentary going to air on SBS this Friday 14 September.
“My original intention in visiting Lithuania was that of a roots tourist,” explained Associate Professor Ben-Moshe, from Deakin's Centre for Citizenship and Gobalisation, whose expertise in Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism and documentary film making was brought to bear on the campaign.
“I intended to spend a couple of days there, visit the shtetel (village) where my grandmother came from and learn a little more about this once great centre of Jewish life.”
As part of the visit Associate Professor Ben-Moshe also planned to visit the site where members of his family died.
“The moment I visited the Lithuanian forest and the death pit which contains the remains of my family, changed me,” he said.
“Standing at the mass grave left me with a feeling of abject hopelessness.
“I vowed to remember them and had thought such remembrance would be in accordance with Jewish custom, photos, memorial candles, and diary entries, but I didn’t realise that this vow would put me at odds with the Lithuanian Government.”
Associate Professor Ben Moshe’s questions about how the Holocaust was being remembered led him to Dovid Katz who was then a Professor of Yiddish at Vilnius University.
“What Dovid told me was horrifying,” he said.
“For 600 years Jews lived in Lithuania, where the capital, Vilnius, was the global centre of Jewish intellectual and rabbinical life.
“In fact Lithuania was affectionately known across the Jewish world as the ‘Jerusalem of the North’”.
“But by the end of 1945, 95% of Lithuanian Jewry had been destroyed - the highest percentage of any Jewish community to be killed during WW2 and this happened at the hands of the local population, and started before the Germans occupied and took control of the country.
“Yet rather than confront this past the Lithuanian Government was engaged in a European-wide campaign to rewrite its history.
“My family had lived in the village for hundreds of years, yet there was no acknowledgement of how they had died, nor any recognition of the rich cultural heritage that had existed.”
Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said this was totally against the grain of what was happening in Poland and Germany.
“It was clear that an inconvenient history was being rewritten,” he said.
“Rather than confront the past, it is easier to rewrite it and this is what the Lithuanian Government is doing.”
Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said rather than admit their role as perpetrators of genocide; the Lithuanians have redefined genocide to regard themselves as victims of genocide at the hands of the Soviets.
“This is known as “Double Genocide” but this distorts what genocide is and blurs the uniqueness of each and the important lessons that can be learned,” he said.
“Lithuanians were tortured, deported and oppressed and thousands died but unlike the Jewish people who died during the Holocaust, they were not the victims of a deliberate quest for racial purity.”
Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said Lithuania’s approach was complicated by the fact that many of those who killed the country’s Jewish community, - the White Armbanders (Lithuanian Activist Front) - were the same individuals who were deemed national heroes for also fighting against the Soviet occupiers before and after German occupation rule.
“They are regarded as national heroes,” he said.
“To admit their role in the killing of Jews would mean removing national heroes.
“What is worse is that the Lithuanian Government passed a law preventing questioning of the Double Genocide campaign and it is currently investigating Lithuanian Holocaust survivors for war crimes.”
Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said the Lithuanian Government had also tried to get the Double Genocide policy adopted by the European Union.
“It has had some success in doing so and the policy is spreading across Eastern Europe,” he said.
“Dovid, arguably the world’s leading scholar of Yiddish and Lithuanian Jewish culture also lost his job at Vilnius University because of his strident criticism and campaigning against “double genocide” including the “defending history” website he started.
As a fellow academic I felt I had to stand up with him. “This was the initial impetus for my campaign, to support this maligned scholar and his website, but that turned into something much bigger.”
The academics’ campaign to stop the “double genocide” culminated in The 70 Year Declaration which was released on the 70th anniversary of the Wannsee Conference which initiated the Final Solution.
The declaration was presented to the President of the European Parliament and was symbolically signed by 70 European politicians, including several former Europe ministers.
Associate Professor Ben-Moshe said the lessons from historical Europe were particularly important now.
“Europe is again facing tough economic conditions and it is in this climate where leadership is lacking that extreme politics touting anti-Semitism and persecution of racial minorities gains ground because it presents easy answers and gains followers,” he said.
“Today’s protagonists are not skinheads – they are politically adept, highly educated, sophisticated and charming and they use the political system to achieve their ends.
“If mankind’s first industrial genocide is written out of history, it opens the door to other racists not only to rehabilitate Nazism but also to rewrite other histories they find inconvenient.”
Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe
Principal Research Fellow, Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation
0418 517 395
Promotional trailer for the documentary.
Associate Professor Danny Ben-Moshe