Why Naujaneriai is also important

Efraim Zuroff
The Jerusalem Post

Among the victims were 512 men, 744 women and 511 children, who were buried in a grave some 20-meters long and 2-meters wide.

In Lithuania there are 227 documented Holocaust mass murder sites, so it’s not surprising that a place like Naujaneriai has hardly ever gotten much attention.

After all, some 70,000 Jews were murdered in Ponar (Paneriai), which is also on the outskirts of Vilna/Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, so the 1,767 Jewish men, women and children killed in Naujaneriai by Lithuanian Nazi collaborators on September 24, 1941, until now have remained a minor statistic in a litany of Holocaust horror.

This year, however, that anonymity was lifted for the first time in decades. Naujaneriai was chosen as the site for the annual alternative Holocaust memorial ceremony held by a new initiative called “Cia guli Musiskiai” (Here lie our people) initiated by popular Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite. (Full disclosure, we wrote a book together last year on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes titled Musiskiai: Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy.

In Lithuania, Holocaust Memorial Day is officially marked on September 23, the day the Nazis evacuated the Vilna Ghetto in 1944. This year, because the date fell on Shabbat, the ceremonies were shifted to a later date. Anyone who has ever attended the state ceremony at Ponar, the largest mass murder site in Lithuania, can quite easily identify the glaring problems plaguing official governmental commemoration of the Holocaust in Lithuania.

Of course the tragedy is bemoaned and the victims must be remembered, but there is no mention of the extensive role played by all strata of Lithuanian society, from the political leadership and intelligentsia to the hooligans, in all stages of the mass murder.

Nor is there any mention of the fact that 96.4% of the Jews living in Lithuania under the Nazi occupation were annihilated, the highest percentage of victims in the large Jewish communities ravaged by the Shoah.

Nor is there mention of the fact that a Lithuanian murder squad killed close to 20,000 Jews in Belarus and that thousands of foreign Jews were brought to Lithuania to be murdered.

At the same time, the extent of assistance provided to Jews by brave Lithuanians is grossly exaggerated, helping to distort the historical narrative of these events. Trite, meaningless speeches, usually by minor politicians, are the norm, to a captive audience of bused-in school children, while the only participants who come voluntarily are a few members of the local Jewish community.

Upset by the systematic falsification of the history of the Shoah, but greatly encouraged by the surprisingly enthusiastic reception of our book Musiskiai, especially by young Lithuanians, Vanagaite launched her Cia guli Musiskiai initiative to draw attention to neglected Holocaust mass graves, as part of our efforts to humanize the victims and thereby help reveal the historical truth regarding Lithuanian complicity in the Shoah. Last year’s ceremony was held in Veliucionys, where 1,159 Jews were murdered in a forest near Vilna, which we discovered has been privatized by the government and handed over to an individual who is trying to sell the land, including, believe it or not, the mass murder site.

This year Naujaneriai was chosen as the site of the memorial ceremony, which was held on September 24, the 76th anniversary on the murder of the Jews of Maisiagala, Paberze and other villages in the Vilna district.

Among the victims were 512 men, 744 women and 511 children, who were buried in a grave some 20-meters long and 2-meters wide. The ceremony was attended by Philippe Jeantaud, the French ambassador, Simon Gurevich, the newly elected young leader of the Vilna Jewish community, as well as noted Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivaskevicius and prominent TV journalist Indre Makaraityte, who during the past year were the most prominent public figures to urge Lithuanian society to face its Holocaust past honestly.

Of unique significance was the presence of students from the Laisves Gimnazija, a local public high school, several of whom produced a film last year titled The Forgotten, to commemorate the fate of the Jews of Lithuania during the Shoah. They came to the ceremony at Veliuconys last year and arrived in larger numbers at Naujaneriai with their teacher Marius Janulevicius, who inspired them to make the film. And perhaps even more impressive was their initiative this year, to take their entire high school back to Veliucionys for a memorial ceremony for the victims of the Shoah, at which the students placed stones painted with the names of Jews killed in Veliucionys, which they found on the Yad Vashem website (those listed on Pages of Testimony in the Hall of Names).

This symbolic gesture is of great significance in a country where for years no one related to the victims as human beings, and certainly not as fellow Lithuanian citizens.

And it was that lack of even minimal solidarity with their Jewish neighbors, before and during World War II, that paved the way for the participation of so many Lithuanians in the mass murder of Jews. The ceremonies at Veliucionys and at Naujaneriai have begun to encourage Lithuanians to realize the humanity of the victims and to understand the great tragedy for them of the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry during the Holocaust, an important theme that was emphasized by Vanagaite in her remarks at Naujaneriai and Veliucionys.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book, with Ruta Vanagaite, is Musiskiai: Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), which has been published in Lithuania and Poland and is scheduled to appear in Israel and Russia this coming year. He can be followed on Twitter @EZuroff and his websites are: www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post (Archived Link)

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