2019.08.08 11:30

Protest in Vilnius against mayor's memory policies draws several hundred demonstrators

BNS, 2019.08.08 11:30

Several hundred people rallied in Vilnius on Wednesday evening to protest the city administration's historical memory policies, and called to restore the name of Kazys Škirpa Alley and reinstate the plaque to Jonas Noreika.

On Wednesday evening, predominantly elderly people bearing Lithuanian flags gathered outside the Academy of Sciences Library by a makeshift stage hosting various activists, musicians, and politicians. Above them, several unnamed activists, allegedly dressed as workers, unfurled a banner across the Gediminas Castle with portraits of Lithuanian World War Two-era figures, including the controversial Škirpa and Noreika.

Read more: Despite protests, Vilnius renames street dedicated to Škirpa 'who promoted Holocaust'

Both men, in different ways, are accused of collaboration with the Nazi authorities and promoting anti-Semitism during the Second World War.

Read more: Vilnius removes plaque for anti-Soviet partisan and accused Nazi collaborator Jonas Noreika

Gathered next to a statue of King Mindaugas, people held banners featuring portraits of Škirpa and Noreika, and posters accusing Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius and the Lithuanian Jewish Community (LŽB) of antagonizing society and working for the Kremlin.

Stanislovas Buškevičius, head of the fringe nationalist party Jaunoji Lietuva (Young Lithuania), read out a mock letter from Russia’s President Vladimir Putin to Šimašius, ‘thanking’ for his actions.

On the sidelines, around a dozen counter-protesters stood wearing rainbow colours and displaying posters denouncing Škirpa and Noreika for anti-Semitism and Nazi collaboration.

Read more: Accusations against Noreika are ‘outrageous’, but we shouldn’t ‘heroize controversial figures’ – experts

Angelė Jakavonytė, the daughter of a participant of the post-war anti-Soviet resistance, called on politicians “not to belittle patriots” and to properly commemorate people who fought for the independence of Lithuania.

“Let us not forget the heroes of our nation,” the protester said.

Read more: President calls for pause ‘on erasing historic memory’ amidst controversy over Vilnius memorials

The memorial plaque to Noreika, a pre-war Lithuanian military officer and an anti-Soviet resistance fighter also known as Generolas Vėtra (General Storm), was taken down from the wall of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences Library in late July. The move was welcomed by parts of the public, including the Lithuanian Jewish Community, but drew indignation from others.

Across the street from Wednesday's demonstration, people laid flowers and lit candles next to the wall where Noreika’s memorial plaque previously stood.

Mayor Simašius said he ordered to remove the plaque in view of the fact that Noreika, as head of Šiauliai County during the Nazi occupation, put his signature on decrees to set up a Jewish ghetto and expropriate Jewish property.

The move came after Vilnius City Council decided in late July to rename a small street named after Kazys Škirpa, a 20th-century Lithuanian diplomat and military officer, due to his outspoken anti-Semitic views.

Police told BNS more than 300 people took part in Wednesday’s rally.

“Noreika and Skirpa are our heroes who fought for Lithuania,” said Renata, a 35-year-old protester who declined to give her last name.

Giedrius Laučius, an 80-year-old pensioner, said he was angered by the city's decision to remove the commemorations without proper public discussion.

“Such things are inadmissible,” he said.

Several politicians, including two candidates for last May's presidential election, Arvydas Juozaitis and Mindaugas Puidokas, took part in the rally.

Amid heightened tensions, the Lithuanian Jewish Community announced on Tuesday it was closing, for an indefinite period of time, the Vilnius Synagogue and its headquarters due to threats.

Read more: After Jewish Community receives threats, PM condemns 'ethnic hatred'

Several local Jewish organizations have criticized Faina Kukliansky, the community's chairwoman, saying her “tactless” statements may antagonize the Lithuanian society.

Read more: Lithuania's Jewish community divided over response to historical commemoration debate