Unabashed anti-Semitism in the Baltics

By Dr. Efraim Zuroff*

Two months ago, as Israelis were deciding for whom to vote during a bitter election campaign, nationalist and anti-Semitic demonstrators marched proudly through the streets in the heart of Baltic capitals. In less than one month, from mid-February to mid-March, four neo-Nazi/anti-Semitic rallies were held: The radical Right in Lithuania held two marches, while Latvia and Estonia hosted one apiece, with thousands of people attending.


Dr. Efraim Zuroff (Wikipedia)

I attended them all as an observer/protester and felt as if I had traveled back to the 1930s, when these types of rallies in these very cities were commonplace. And as someone who is well-versed in the history of the Holocaust in these countries, where cooperation with the Nazis was widespread and enthusiastic, I was horrified at the spectacle.


It was hard to believe that European Union and NATO member states could allow rallies such as these on their soil, in their capital cities, but that is exactly what transpired in Kaunas (Kovne) and Vilnius (the second-largest city and the capital of Lithuania respectively); in Tallin (the capital of Estonia) and in Riga (the capital of Latvia).


We can learn what motivates these demonstrators by perusing their signs and listening to the slogans they chant while marching. Beyond slight local variations, it's possible to point at two central motifs that fan the flames of protest for the radical Right in the Baltic. The first is hatred and intolerance of the local minorities.


In Lithuania, the ire is generally aimed at the Poles, Russians and Jews (even though the Jewish community consists of barely 5,000 people). In Latvia and Estonia, hostilities are aimed primarily at the Russian "settlers" who moved there during the Soviet era with the blessing of the Communist regime, but also at the Jews, who are seen as having a greater affinity with Russia than their current home country. Russia's annexation of Crimea and its involvement in the war in eastern Ukraine have undoubtedly exacerbated feelings of distrust and hostility prevalent in right-wing Baltic circles toward anyone suspected of disloyalty to the government and an over-fondness for Vladimir Putin. The centuries-old tradition of xenophobia and deep-rooted anti-Semitism, which are nothing new or unique in any sense of the matter, merely serve as added oil on the fire.


The second motif, however, is a new and disconcerting development which has gained steam in post-Communist Eastern Europe. It threatens to pose a severe detriment to the memory of the Holocaust and negate important achievements that have been made in recent decades in regards to education and commemoration. I am talking about the radical Right's fervent support for efforts by Baltic governments to revise World War II and Holocaust history. These are not attempts to deny the Holocaust took place, rather efforts to systematically minimize or conceal, as much as possible, the important role they played as Nazi collaborators responsible for the murder of Jews inside and outside the Baltic, and to convince the world that the crimes perpetrated by the Communists were no less egregious than the ones committed by the Nazis. By doing so, these countries hope to shed the label of "murderers" and replace it with a label of "victims." Not only do they want their heinous crimes erased, they also want the world's sympathy, even material benefits if possible.


Amid this backdrop, the marchers in Riga present the Latvian SS, which fought with the Third Reich against the Soviets, as freedom fighters who paved the road to their country's independence -- even though the Nazis had no intention of granting Latvia independence and despite the fact that some of them murdered Jews even prior to joining their Nazi units. Therefore, in Vilnius, there were a large number of flags with swastikas and SS emblems, and in Kovne I saw a very large sign with the face of the prime minister temporarily installed in Lithuania immediately following the Nazi invasion, who supported the Third Reich and the murder of Lithuanian Jews.


Standing as a lone counter-demonstrator in Tallin (in the other cities as well only a very small number of people gathered to protest these rallies), I asked myself why these events don't receive an appropriate response from the EU, the U.S. and Canada, not to mention the Israeli government and the local Jewish community. The Jewish communities are afraid of sparking anti-Semitism and feel especially vulnerable due to their small numbers, but what about the rest? Perhaps this week, as we remember the Holocaust, it is the right time to demand answers to these questions.


* The writer is the chief Nazi hunter at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center's Jerusalem Office.

First published in Israel Hayom