News & Analysis

Vilnius mayor wins praise for changing Lithuania’s Holocaust narrative

Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius, has been praised for his efforts to correct the narrative around Lithuanian complicity in the Holocaust at a event organised by the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Earlier this summer, Šimašius oversaw two important decisions regarding Holocaust memory in Lithuania. The first was changing the name of a street honoring Kazys Skirpa, founder of the Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF) resistance organisation, and the second was removing a plaque honoring Jonas Noreika, an anti-Soviet fighter who was responsible for the imprisonment of Šiauliai Jews and seizure of their property during the Holocaust.

Those decisions sparked an intense backlash against the mayor and Lithuania’s International Historical Commission, whose authoritative reports served as the basis for the mayor’s actions. Right-wing, populist Lithuanian groups protested, mainstream politicians were largely silent, and even recently elected President Gitanas Nausėda avoided the controversy by calling for “a moratorium on erasing historic memory.”

“Twenty years ago, people in Lithuania were ignorant,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJC director of International Jewish Affairs. “They saw themselves as victims of communism and did not realise that some of the anti-Soviet fighters they admired were also complicit in the murder of Jews. But now with the benefit of an accurate historical accounting they know better. So, when they honor people like Noreika and Skirpa, they are also saying that their antisemitism just doesn’t matter.”

Mayor Šimašius, reflecting on his decisions, said, “It’s clear that their (Skirpa and Noreika) participation in the Holocaust was not an accident. It’s not about plaques or street names, but about principles.”

In addition to sharing his personal reflections about his family’s experience during the Holocaust, and the complexity around dealing with Holocaust memory, Šimašius expressed gratitude for the US military serving on Lithuanian soil.

US Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues Cherrie Daniels praised the mayor’s use of the findings of the International Historical Commission. “It takes courage in any country to look at one’s own past and one’s own heroes with an objective eye and honestly assess the impact that that person had, for good and for bad,” said Daniels. “The best we can do is honestly assess that past, even the unsavory parts, and use those lessons in Holocaust education.”

Photo: Remigijus Šimašius official Facebook page