In new Holocaust controversy, Lithuanian law would ban books critical of country

Proposed legislation, seen as response to Holocaust book ‘Our People,’ provokes condemnation by critics saying it curtails free speech

'Our People' (Musiskiai) by Nazi hunter US- born Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff and Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite pictured during the presentation of the the book in Vilnius, February 17, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)
'Our People' (Musiskiai) by Nazi hunter US- born Israeli historian Efraim Zuroff and Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite pictured during the presentation of the the book in Vilnius, February 17, 2016. (AFP/Petras Malukas)

The Lithuanian parliament is preparing to vote on a government-sponsored bill that would ban selling material that “distorts historical facts” about the nation.

The bill, which Economy Minister Virginijus Sinkevičius submitted Monday, is widely seen as a response to the controversy in Lithuania around the publication of a 2016 book about the Holocaust titled “Our People.” Viewed by some nationalists as an insult against the Lithuanian nation, it is also credited with breaking some taboos in Lithuanian society about collaboration during World War II.

The bill, which according to the Delfi news agency is an amendment to the Law on Consumer Protection, provoked passionate condemnations in Lithuania and beyond by critics who said it curtails freedom of speech and debate about the genocide, in which 90 percent of Lithuanian Jews were killed, mostly by other Lithuanians.

Several Eastern European countries have laws that limit free speech about the Holocaust, including Poland, Ukraine and Latvia. The Polish law, which criminalizes blaming the Polish nation for Nazi crimes, has sparked a major, ongoing dispute with Israel.

Lithuania’s bill targeting the sale of critical books “would be, if passed into law, one of the most blatant and harshest of them all,” said Holocaust historian Efraim Zuroff, who co-authored “Our People” with Rūta Vanagaite, a best-selling novelist.

Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite who co-authored the book “Our People” (Musiskiai) with top Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff is pictured during the presentation of their the book in Vilnius, on February 17, 2016. (AFP / Petras Malukas)

Last year, the Alma Littera publishing house in Lithuania recalled another book by Vanagaite after she spoke in an interview about Adolfas Ramanauskas, an anti-Soviet combatant during the war, who admitted to commanding troops that witnesses said butchered Jews in the ghetto of Druskininkai, 75 miles southwest of Vilnius.

Vanagaite’s controversial statement was not about the Holocaust. She said her research into Ramanauskas’s death in 1957 suggested he committed suicide after betraying the names of fellow nationalists to the KGB, which captured Ramanauskas the previous year.

“Rūta Vanagaitė’s statements are unacceptable to us and incompatible with the values of the Alma Littera publishing house,” its CEO, Danguolė Viliūnienė, said in a statement. Vanagaite has since left Lithuania.

Last week, the New York Times published a critical article about the alleged downplaying of the Holocaust at the Museum of Genocide Victims in Vilnius. The state-run institution until 2011 did not mention the more than 200,000 Lithuanian Jews who died in the Nazi Holocaust.

Lithuania is the world’s only country that officially defines the domination of its territory by the former Soviet Union as a form of genocide, which is the museum’s main theme.

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