Operation: Last Chance.ARTICLES
MARCH 30, 2018 nytimes.com
Where the Genocide Museum Is (Mostly) Mum on the Fate of Jews

VILNIUS, Lithuania — During the Holocaust, many Lithuanian Jews were not killed in Nazi death camps, but by their neighbors, usually shot or even beaten to death. In all, 90 percent of an estimated 250,000 Jews perished, wiping out a community that had been part of Lithuanian life for five centuries.

So it may come as a surprise that in Vilnius, the country’s capital, there is a thriving Jewish community center (including a cafe serving bagels), an expanded new Jewish Museum and fully functioning synagogue — beneficiaries of a Western-looking government that encourages Litvak Jews to return and has proposed to declare 2019 “The Year of the Jew.”

In the Ponary neighborhood, on the outskirts of town, there is a memorial, which eventually included the 70,000 Jews who were stripped naked and shot to death in the forest there. And in the city, there is a huge Museum of Genocide Victims.

That, however, is where the glowing picture suddenly becomes murky.

Until recent years, the museum, in what was once the headquarters for the Nazi S.S. and later the K.G.B., the Soviet secret police and intelligence apparatus, did not even mention the Holocaust, in which the German Nazis used Lithuanian partisans and police to round up and kill the country’s Jews.

More Jews were killed in Lithuania, in actual numbers as well as percentages, than German Jews who died in far more populous Germany.

The word genocide in the museum’s name refers to what the Soviets did after their occupation of the country upon the Nazi defeat in 1945. While Soviet rule was brutal, few historians would classify it as a genocide.

Some 20,000 Lithuanians were killed in Stalinist purges and in Siberian camps, where a quarter million Lithuanians were deported. There was never an effort to wipe out the Lithuanian population.

In 2011, after international criticism, the museum added a single room, in a small K.G.B. interrogation cell in the basement, devoted to the genocide of Jews. But it stuck to describing what Russia did as “genocide” in the rest of its three floors of exhibits, in a building that takes up much of a city block.

Dovid Katz, a Jewish scholar of Yiddish and a historian with Lithuanian ancestry, called the museum “a 21st-century version of Holocaust denial.” Mr. Katz, an American who lives in Vilnius, edits the Defending History website, devoted to challenging what he sees as Lithuania’s revisionist approach to the Holocaust.

“Calling what the Soviets did a genocide is a lot of double-talk sophistry to turn all the victims into criminals, and all the murderers into heroes,” he said.

But Ronaldas Racinskas, the executive director of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, said, “We should avoid an ‘Olympics of suffering’ by asking questions like ‘Who suffered more?’ or ‘Which occupation is better or worse?’ ” Critics of the commission have said it is designed to make the Soviet occupation equivalent to the Holocaust.

Much in Vilnius, which had once been world famous as a center of Jewish culture and scholarship, makes Lithuanian Jews uncomfortable. Streets are named after people like Kazys Skirpa, who advocated ridding Lithuania of Jews even before the Holocaust began, and after dates like the 23rd of June, the day the German invasion and Lithuanian Holocaust began.

One of the capital’s most prominent churches, the Evangelical Reformed Church, which is ecumenically related to the American Presbyterian denomination, has its main front steps formed of headstones from Jewish cemeteries, some with Hebrew inscriptions clearly visible.

A church spokesman, Nerijus Krikscikas, laid the blame for that on the Soviet authorities, who had seized the church and rebuilt it. He said the authorities hoped to eventually remove the headstones but were hampered because it was a registered historical place.

“The massive destruction of cultural heritage is a clear indication of the Soviet regime’s anti-Semitism and anti-Protestantism,” Mr. Krikscikas said.

On a bigger scale, the giant Soviet-built Palace of Concerts and Sports, where Lithuania’s famously popular basketball stars play, is built over an ancient Jewish cemetery. The government wants to expand it, rather than tear it down.

The small Jewish community in Lithuania, numbering some 3,000 to 4,000, is deeply divided over how to respond on such issues. Renaldas Vaisbrodas, the executive director of the Lithuanian Jewish Community association, a national group, said he expected the church’s Jewish headstones would eventually be returned, as part of a process happening throughout the city with such artifacts.

“This was done during the Soviet times when headstones were used in all sorts of building projects,” he said. “We must also acknowledge in past years a wonderful project by local authorities to replace and gather them up in a proper place, so the headstones are slowly returning.”

Simonas Gurevicius, head of the Vilnius Jewish Community association, a local group that has split from the national association, said the cemetery itself had enormous historical significance, with most of its remains intact, even if all the headstones were used for building materials.

“The Soviets didn’t build just coincidentally the Sports Palace there, they built it as part of an anti-Semitic campaign of destruction of Jewish sites,” he said. “Is this Soviet despotism a part of the heritage we would like to keep?”

This painful debate is part of a broader one as Eastern European nations continue to grapple with the legacy of the Holocaust.

Mr. Katz, the scholar, is among those who has described the Lithuanian approach to its history as “double genocide” — meaning an effort to equate the Soviet occupations in Eastern Europe with the Holocaust by, for example, having national holidays commemorating both Nazi and Soviet evils on the same day.

Long before Poland aroused controversy this year with a law making it a crime to blame Poles for complicity in the Holocaust, Lithuania has had an even broader such law on its books. Since 2010 Lithuania has criminalized “denial or gross trivializing” of either Soviet or Nazi genocide or crimes against humanity.

Efraim Zuroff, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s chief Nazi hunter, said that the center had the names of 20,000 Lithuanians who participated in the Holocaust but that only three were ever prosecuted and convicted — and of those, none ever served jail time. “It’s a joke,” he said.

“Until recently, Lithuania was really the locomotive pulling this whole train of Holocaust distortion in Eastern Europe,” he said. Now Poland, Hungary and Ukraine all have engaged in trying to minimize the Holocaust, he said.

“If everyone’s guilty, no one’s guilty,” he added.

Mr. Katz considers the Lithuanian commission one of the founders of the double genocide conceit.

“It’s a massive effort to rewrite history,” he said. “Double genocide makes it sound so universal and noncontroversial that people don’t know they’re signing up for a far-right revision of history that turns murderers into heroes. Virtually all of the Eastern European murderers were anti-Soviet.”

Mr. Racinskas, the commission’s executive director, said the group had a separate sub-commission on the Holocaust that included international Jewish representatives, like members from Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance center in Israel.

Last week, the Lithuanian Parliament reacted to the controversy over the Museum of Genocide Victims by voting to consider a measure that would change the museum’s name to the Museum of Occupation. The bill has yet to pass.

Monika Kareniauskaite, the chief historian for the museum’s parent organization, the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, said the museum had focused on Soviet crimes partly because the building is where many of the K.G.B.’s torture and killings took place, whereas Holocaust crimes took place elsewhere.

“Today we would be happy also to change it and focus more on Nazi crimes and Holocaust,” she said, but funding is short and, she added, many older Lithuanians and particularly former political prisoners insist on keeping the focus on what they view as “Soviet genocide.”

Mr. Katz, the scholar, scoffed. “Congratulations on abandoning the misconceived campaign to set up a fake genocide to obfuscate the real one that took place here,” he said. “It needs to go much further than fix its name.”