Citing security threats, the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LJC) on August 6 ordered the closure of the Vilnius Choral Synagogue and the Jewish community offices. The closure prompted criticism from within the Jewish community, and the buildings were reopened two days later, after “assurances of security” from Lithuania’s president and prime minister.
In a statement Tuesday (August 6), Jewish community chair Faynia Kukliansky said:
The Lithuanian Jewish Community has received threatening telephone calls and letters in recent days. In this atmosphere of rising tension and incitement to more tension, neither the LJC nor the synagogue in Vilnius have the means to insure the safety of visitors, including Holocaust survivors and their families. […]
In order to insure the safety of members of the community and worshipers and without any indication that the proponents of this escalating provocation will be called to disciple or account publicly, in cases where the law provides for this, the LJC has been forced to make the painful but unavoidable decision to close the LJC building and the Choral Synagogue in Vilnius for an indeterminate period.
She said the community was also requesting that “additional security be provided at the Jewish cemetery on Sudervė road in Vilnius to prevent vandalism.”
The move came in the wake of the decision by Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius to remove a controversial plaque in central Vilnius that honored Jonas Noreika, also known as “General Storm” — a Lithuanian anti-Soviet resistance hero who, evidence shows, was also a fierce antisemite who collaborated with the Nazis in murdering Jews during the Holocaust.
Noreika was executed by Soviet secret police in 1947 and has been regarded by many as a national hero.
The plaque honoring him was removed from the wall of library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences on July 27, following years of protests and legal battles.
His granddaughter, Silvia Foti, wrote about his complicity in the Holocaust last year, in an article titled “My grandfather wasn’t a Nazi-fighting war hero — he was a brutal collaborator.”
In a related move, the Vilnius city council renamed a nearby street that had been named in honor of Kazys Škirpa, who, as the LJC put it, “was the founder and commander of the Lithuanian Activist Front which undertook the mass murder of Jews in Lithuania during the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.” The street was renamed Tricolor Alley “in remembrance of Škirpa’s act during the dawn of modern Lithuanian independence in 1919 when he hoisted the tricolor flag of the Lithuanian Republic on top of Gediminas Hill.”
The moves triggered a spate of new protests. The rightwing Conservative party and others have vociferously defended Noreika, in a manner that Kukliansky said “border on Holocaust denial.”
In her announcement of the closure of the synagogue, Kukliansky said:
The continual, escalating publicly-expressed desire by one political party for recognizing perpetrators of the mass murder of the Jews of Lithuania as national heroes and the demand these people be honored with commemorative plaques and by other means, as well as the public call to attend protests to defend this shameful position on August 7 not only divide Lithuanian society, but actively set factions against one another.
Anti-Semitic comments and inscriptions which are posted to social media pages of political parties and their leaders are being tolerated and go unpunished […], which makes us wonder even more whether we are safe or not […].
We underline the fact that up to the present time we have not seen any reaction by any institution to the escalating discord. We would like to hear the opinion of the leaders of Lithuania and to hear a firm position on whether public propaganda in favor of honoring Holocaust perpetrators will continue to be tolerated in Lithuania.