MONTREAL — Concordia University professor Mikhail Iossel was cautiously optimistic as he was about to leave for Vilnius, Lithuania, to take the first steps in launching a historically unprecedented undertaking, the Litvak Studies Institute (LSI).
The institute will operate as a permanent, non-profit studies program in Vilnius – known as Vilna to generations of Jews – seeking to preserve and transmit the rich religious, literary, linguistic and cultural legacy that defined Jewish Lithuania and was all but obliterated in the Holocaust, the creative writing professor said in an interview.
But the endeavour, Iossel acknowledged, is being undertaken in a country that – like most of eastern Europe – is experiencing rising nationalistic undercurrents and rumblings that depict Nazism and Stalinism as equal historic evils. Lithuania itself is being presented as a victim of genocide as the government attempts to sanitize its own involvement in the Holocaust.
The Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism adopted at an international conference in 2008, for example, describes Communism and Nazism as a “common legacy” with “similarities between [the two] in terms of their horrific and appalling character and their crimes against humanity.”
In that context, teaching about the Holocaust at Iossel’s new institute could be treading on treacherous terrain. Prof. Dovid Katz, one of the world’s most eminent Yiddishists and a key consultant to the new institute, discovered this when Lithuania authorities notified him that his contract at the government-funded Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University would not be renewed. Some supporters of Katz, who will be the new institute’s director, charge that this occurred because he dared to question the government’s shifting version of history.
Iossel, however, said that the LSI, while not seeking to be “confrontational,” would also not shy way from “pushing back” if need be.
“We don’t want to antagonize or impugn a priori anything or anyone,” he said. The institute’s fundamental term of reference will be “to play an instrumental and vital role in having a Jewish presence in Lithuania.
“This is still a profoundly Jewish place, saturated with a presence that is no longer there.”
Still, in the institute’s preliminary description, Iossel says it will serve as “a public affairs civic voice on behalf of the Jewish community of Lithuania.” The document refers to the “ongoing struggles of the remnant Litvak community on the issues of Holocaust revisionism; [and] the accusations against Holocaust survivors and veterans of anti-Nazi partisan resistance.”
The new institute is an outgrowth of a successful program in Vilnius that Iossel put together last summer – also with key input from Katz – called the Jewish Lithuania Program, a parallel part of the Summer Literary Seminars (SLS) Iossel created about a decade ago (an SLS is also due to take place in Montreal in mid-June).
The institute will also focus on ensuring the welfare of surviving Litvaks and on projects and programs intended “to preserve… as much of the Litvak heritage as can be saved internationally.”
The funding for the institute, Iossel said, is still up in the air. He indicated he would seek support from individuals, international Jewish foundations and others, but he was ambivalent about the possibility of some funding coming from the Lithuanian government. More than 500 people have already expressed an interest in the institute on Facebook, he said.