A Lithuanian literature professor—who is also a Holocaust survivor—is a recipient of this year’s Goethe Medal.
Irena Veisaite, 84, has spent her time since the end of World War II working to benefit the community at large, through societies she founded like the Lithuanian Soros Foundation, as well as her literary work.
The Goethe Medal is a German honor designating “outstanding service” from foreigners in the area of German language and international cultural relations.
Veisaite was awarded the honor “for her life's work as a driving force in German-Lithuanian cultural dialogue, her creativity, and her political courage to address even uncomfortable themes.”
The scholar is known for addressing communism in her work. She has said that while in the Kovno Ghetto she read German classics in a secret, underground school.
The award was given to Veisaite and two others—a writer from Bosnia and a theater director from Kazakhstan—at a ceremony Tuesday.
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe Institute, said at the ceremony, "Our award winners use the power of the word, to cite social developments and to understand, come to terms with the past and convey the human community as a cultural achievement."
However, some Jewish leaders have criticized Germany’s decision to award Veisaite with the award. Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, took umbrage with the scholar’s comparison of Soviet communism to German Nazism.
In a German newspaper article on Tuesday, Veisaite said, “The Soviets were very, very bad. Different from the Nazis, but not better.”
Zuroff told The Jerusalem Post: “It is particularly unfortunate that the recipient of this year’s Goethe prize is a Holocaust survivor who allows her personal tragedy to be exploited, in the service of the current Lithuanian government’s efforts to distort the history of the Shoah – by minimizing or hiding the unusually extensive complicity of Lithuanians in the mass murder of their fellow Jewish citizens, and by promoting the canard of historical equivalency between the crimes of Communism and those committed by the Nazis.”
Lithuania’s 200,000-strong Jewish community was almost entirely decimated during the war.