Speech by Viktoras Pranckietis, Speaker of the Seimas, delivered at Yad Vashem during the commemoration ceremony of the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto
Heads of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre,
Ladies and gentlemen,
In his prayer for the Angelus during the apostolic journey to Lithuania this September, His Holiness Pope Francis said the following:
“As we read in the Book of Wisdom, the Jewish people suffered insults and cruel punishments. Let us think back on those times and ask the Lord to give us the gift of discernment to detect in time any recrudescence of that pernicious attitude <...>.”
The Yad Vashem History Museum offers everyone an unparalleled opportunity for learning and discerning.
I would like to sincerely thank the developers and leaders of the Centre for their efforts in preserving the memory of the Holocaust, which must in no way be forgotten. The uniqueness of the Holocaust is undeniable. Preserving the memory has always been and will always remain of crucial importance.
I am touched by the fact that Lithuania, my home country, which had also witnessed outrageous crimes, is featured in the exposition, too.
While being here, in Israel, namely Jerusalem and Yad Vashem, and meeting with you, I am trying to imagine the horrors and the sufferings which the families and close ones of Jews, our fellow nationals, had to overcome.
It was 23 years ago that the then President of the Republic of Lithuania, Algirdas Mykolas Brazauskas, paid an official visit to Israel and, in his address to the Knesset, offered a public apology to the Jewish people for the involvement of Lithuanians in the Holocaust. I fully subscribe to his words.
I remember once finding a letter in my father’s old book some 19 years ago. The letter dated back to 25 August 1941 and was written by Samuel Bekin, a man of tragic destiny. The letter went as follows: “The Jews will regain their state and will have consuls all over the world. […] If I happen to survive by a miracle, I will announce my last words to the entire world. But if I happen to die together with my Jewish brothers, these last words will anyway be made public.”
Three weeks ago, we attended the Paneriai Holocaust Memorial to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the Vilnius Ghetto. As I was standing there, I asked whether anyone was aware of how many destinies had been ruined there. After all, the loss of one is already one too many.
What happened in Lithuania constitutes a tragedy not only for the Jewish people, but also for the whole of Lithuania. It is one of the most horrible and darkest pages in our country’s history. I heard of them from my father and continue to hear them from my mother. Today, as Lithuanians, we fully realise and understand our responsibility.
There are over 200 holocaust sites in Lithuania, somewhere near former shtetls, in the forests or along the riversides. Those places bear memorial signs. The names of the Holocaust victims are publically read out across the country annually on the National Memorial Day for the Genocide of Lithuanian Jews. Old Jewish cemeteries are designated as cultural heritage sites, thus enjoying the highest degree of legal protection. Former ghettos, synagogues, and Jewish schools bear internationally recognisable memorial symbols. Special tribute is paid to deserving people for their merits to Lithuania.
During the Soviet period, many old Jewish cemeteries were destroyed. Thousands of tombstones were used as building material in construction sites. These days, fortunately, they are in the hands of researchers. After research is conducted, the monumental stones will be placed in a respectful place they deserve.
These are the topics that we explore with our younger generation, too. Lithuanian secondary school curriculum includes classes on the history of Lithuanian Jews and the Holocaust. Apart from schools, children learn the information on the aforementioned topics in centres of tolerance or as part of various educational programmes.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today, we repent for the harm inflicted on the Jewish nation. As I am standing here, in the Synagogue, I firmly believe that the spirit of the Jerusalem of the North, which Vilnius was previously referred to as, will be reborn with the revival of the heritage of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius.
Although the ruins of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius are currently the only reminders of the Jerusalem of the North, I would like to conclude with the words by painter Samuel Bak, a former martyr of the Vilnius Ghetto, who I had a chance to meet last May and who said that “sometimes ruins can tell more than buildings”.
Therefore, let us continue telling the stories.