The question of how to mark a history of occupation, oppression, and even homegrown brutality continues to dog Lithuanian-Jewish relations.
VILNIUS | There was no pomp and little ceremony on 11 March, when Lithuanians celebrated the 21st anniversary of the re-establishment of independence. Budget cuts, bad weather, and a natural pause following the relatively grandiose 20th-anniversary events of 2010 dictated a more low-key approach.
Of course, members of parliament still gathered in the main hall of the Seimas, where their predecessors took the courageous step of voting to break free from the Soviet Union in 1990. But the real newsmakers of the day were gathering outside.
Close to a thousand radical nationalists gathered at Cathedral Square and made their way up the main street of the capital city, chanting “Lithuania for Lithuanians.” Pretty girls in long braids and folksy costume waved Lithuanian flags while a few young lads bearing swastikas on their arms made the Hitler salute.
It would be tempting to describe them as marginal malcontents, but the group included a number of prominent figures, including a member of parliament from the governing Homeland and Justice Party and a staff member of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center. Indeed, these parades – held for the fourth year in a row – have already become something of a tradition, with the number of participants increasing each time.
Radical nationalist rallies are not unique to Lithuania, and intolerance appears to have peaked throughout Europe in reaction to the economic crisis. Hit by a sharp economic downturn, high unemployment and massive cuts to public spending over the past two years, Lithuanians have good reason to be frustrated.
Yet the hijacking by extremists of Lithuania’s national holiday is disturbing. The grotesque symbolism of this rally being held in front of the Court of Appeals, a building used by the Gestapo and the KGB as their headquarters in Lithuania, presents an obvious setback to reconciliation between Lithuanians and Jews, and threatens to undermine Lithuania’s efforts to address the traumatic legacy of World War II.
Today the Jewish population of Lithuania is tragically small, a mere sliver of the community of more than 200,000 that lived here until 1941. But in spite of their near-destruction during the Holocaust, the historical legacy of their age-old presence nurtures a growing interest in their culture and identity.
Not surprisingly, Jewish-Lithuanian relations remain fixated on a number of unresolved problems from the past: financial compensation for communal property confiscated during the war, the prosecution of Lithuanians who took part in the Holocaust, the preservation of Jewish cemeteries and other historical sites, and Holocaust commemoration.
And while each of these issues is being addressed with a greater or lesser degree of success, a genuine reconciliation between the Jewish and Lithuanian communities would hinge on a breakthrough in what remains a highly contentious debate over the tragic events of World War II and its aftermath.
As with the other nations of Central and Eastern Europe that suffered both Nazi and Soviet occupations, Lithuania has not yet come to terms with the tragic legacy of those years. Neither, for that matter, has Western Europe become fully aware of the specific nature and legacy of the war on Germany’s eastern front.
Soon after the end of World War II, Western Europe and the Soviet Union arrived at a broad consensus on its significance: the war brought about terrible suffering and the incomparable tragedy of the Holocaust; 1945 marked the victory of good over evil and the beginning of a new era in the Continent. Victory Day (be it 8 or 9 May) could be celebrated by all Europeans both west and east. Or so it seemed at the time.
But when Lithuanians and other "new Europeans" stepped out from behind the Iron Curtain after 1989, their stories about the war after the war – the secret pact over the division of Europe, the brutalities of Soviet totalitarianism, the repression of active resistance, and the indifference of the Western powers – did not fit into the relatively simple, Cold War perspective on World War II and the victory over Nazism.
The multiple occupations of Eastern Europe, the redrawing of borders, collaboration with the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and forced resettlements left such a complex heritage of historical traumas, loyalties, and interests, that it became impossible to squeeze the past into a single framework.
Moreover, Soviet-era limitations on the freedom of speech and inquiry isolated Lithuanians from the debates over the Holocaust and collaboration that took place in Germany, France, and other Western European countries in the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, when Lithuanians began after 1989 to revise the official Soviet interpretation of the war and the postwar era, they focused on their own suffering at the hands of the Communists.
It is true that these years also marked the first time that the Holocaust received official recognition in Lithuania and that the role of Lithuanians in the Holocaust began to be debated among the broader public.
Thus, the Vilna Gaon Jewish State Museum was established in 1989, and the first official admission of Lithuanian involvement in the Holocaust was made in 1990. In 1994, 23 September was declared the national day of remembrance for the genocide of Lithuanian Jews, and it has been commemorated every year since.
President Algirdas Brazauskas delivered a speech to the Council of Europe in 1994 and a public apology to the Israeli Knesset in 1995, where he openly admitted the involvement of Lithuanians in the Holocaust and promised to bring war criminals to justice.
However, these steps could all be described as “top-down” initiatives, with limited impact on the attitudes of the population at large. Meanwhile, natural expression and popular rituals of collective memory remained sharply divided between the Lithuanian and Jewish communities.
After the first deportee memoirs began to be published in massive runs in 1986, Lithuanian families engaged in a widespread effort to commemorate the loss of their relatives who suffered the killings and deportations of the Soviet era. Starting in 1987, thousands of Lithuanians made pilgrimages to Siberia and Kazakhstan, erecting crosses and monuments at former prison and forced labor camps. Many took a further step and brought the remains back to Lithuania for reburial, often accompanied by large processions down the streets of Lithuanian towns.
Meanwhile, a separate wave of commemorative travel to the sites of the Holocaust in Lithuania and elsewhere in Eastern Europe began as well. Visitors from Israel, America, and Western Europe took advantage of the removal of Soviet-era travel restrictions to visit the towns and villages in Lithuania where their Jewish ancestors had lived. More often than not, they were shocked to see that cemeteries and memorial sites were neglected, overgrown with grass and weeds, sometimes without even a sign showing the way to the site of a mass killing.
The dearth of information concerning Lithuania’s Jewish past stood in stark contrast to the abundant detail concerning ethnic Lithuanian heritage. Regional tourist guides from the 1990s carefully document the location and cultural significance of every ancient stone or brook of folkloric significance, as well as every cross and monument to the resistance and deportations across the land, but contain virtually nothing to suggest that entire communities of Jews had ever lived in this or that town.
In this context, it is not surprising that Jewish visitors might have little interest in the history of the Lithuanian communities or much sympathy for the complexities of Lithuania’s post-Soviet predicament. Interaction between the communities of memory was minimal or absent. And as the vectors of collective memory continued to diverge, practical efforts to redress the wrongs of the past encountered numerous obstacles.
In the early 1990s, Lithuania exonerated about 50,000 people who had been convicted for acts relating to anti-Soviet resistance. The process was rushed, and people who may have participated in perpetrating the Holocaust were among those who had their civil rights restored. The process was then reviewed, and more than 100 individuals subsequently had their status of “repressed persons” revoked.
The prosecution of Lithuanians involved in the Holocaust has been similarly charged with controversy. The courts made their first, and probably their last, conviction in 2001, largely at the instigation of the United States. Kazys Gimzauskas, deputy chief of the Vilnius security police during the German occupation, was convicted of genocide for arresting Jews and turning them over to the Nazis. But at 91 years of age and with severe health problems, he was ruled unfit to serve out his sentence.
The restitution of property confiscated from Jews during the war has likewise been the cause of much controversy. Restitution to individuals was restricted to Lithuanian citizens, disqualifying most Holocaust survivors, who had since become citizens of Israel, the United States, or other countries. The restitution of religious and communal properties has suffered delays but has finally seen progress in a law on compensation that is now making its way through the Lithuanian parliament.
A NEW APPROACH
In the mid-1990s, a new formula emerged for addressing the legacy of World War II that sought to encourage awareness and recognition of both the Nazi and Soviet crimes as the civic duty of all Lithuanians. The establishment in 1998 of the International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania was the focal point of this effort.
The mandate of the commission was structured in a way to ensure that the Holocaust in Lithuania received as much attention as the crimes committed by the Soviet regime. It has as many members from abroad as from Lithuania, including several leading representatives of Jewish communities in Israel, Britain, and the United States.
The inclusion of Yitzhak Arad, a former director of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance museum in Israel, was seen as indicative of the commission’s commitment to a balanced approach.
The commission has invested significant efforts into educational programs. It established a network of Holocaust education centers across Lithuania and launched a number of innovative programs, such as a module for Lithuanian schools in which students learn about their Jewish neighbors and the communities that once lived in their area.
Meanwhile, politicians from Lithuania and other Eastern EU countries have joined forces to secure greater recognition among Western Europeans of the distinct history of Eastern European nations during World War II and its aftermath.
In June 2008, Vaclav Havel and other prominent politicians from the region signed the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism, which calls on Europeans to recognize the crimes of the former communist regimes as deserving the same kind of condemnation and commemoration as the crimes committed by the Nazis.
The proposal to make 23 August, the day of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, an official European day to commemorate the victims of totalitarian regimes, was perhaps the most iconic and hotly debated aspect of their proposals.
The idea gained support and was debated at the European Parliament. The text underwent a number of changes and was ultimately approved by a large majority in 2009 as a resolution titled “On European Conscience and Totalitarianism.”
The replacement of the word "communism" with "totalitarianism" in the title was a sort of compromise. For the political left in Western Europe, communism as a whole was not to be equated with the worst crimes of Stalinism. At the same time, the name change also captured the fact that Eastern European countries suffered under Nazi occupation, too.
But for some, the inclusion of both Nazi and Soviet crimes under the banner of totalitarianism implied an unacceptable comparison and moral equivalence.
In a February 2010 interview with The Jewish Chronicle, Efraim Zuroff, a former head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, called the EU resolution a "Red-Brown" manifesto and said the ideas it represents are insidious.
Similarly, Dovid Katz, a scholar and editor of a website focused on the legacy of the Holocaust in the Baltics, wrote in the Guardian last year that the Prague Resolution is a “rightwing-motivated revision of history” that aims to “downplay Hitler's role and play up Stalin's in order to wipe out the eastern stain of Holocaust participation.”
Nonetheless, over the past couple of years, the basic principle of the Prague Declaration, of seeking recognition and promoting awareness of the crimes of both Nazi and Soviet regimes, has gained broad acceptance.
The popular reception of recent historical works such as Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Yale professor Timothy Snyder has also done much to raise awareness of the specific nature of the wartime experience in this region of Europe.
OUR OWN WORST ENEMY
Zuroff and Katz’s critique of the Prague Declaration boils down to the assertion that Lithuanians and other Eastern Europeans are pursuing a “hidden agenda” of covering up the involvement of their populations in the Holocaust.
In this light, the ongoing scandals and manifestations of anti-Semitism in Lithuania undermine the credibility of Lithuania’s pursuit of historical justice and reconciliation, and the entire approach to the past represented by the Prague Declaration.
For example, in 2008, prosecutors sought to question a number of Jews who had escaped from the ghetto and participated in Soviet partisan units fighting against Nazi forces in Lithuania, in connection with the killing of Lithuanian civilians by these partisan units. The individuals were summoned as witnesses, not as suspects, but the mere fact of having Holocaust survivors – including Yitzhak Arad – being questioned in relation to war crimes caused an international scandal.
Arad’s case was quickly closed, but the summons to the others remains in force. While the prosecutor’s office insists that all allegations of crimes against humanity deserve investigation, Lithuania’s dismal record of prosecuting Nazi war criminals has left it with little credibility, and the legal authorities’ sudden interest in this particular case has come to be seen in a political light.
Meanwhile, Lithuania’s mainstream media have provided a steady stream of anti-Semitic commentary. In January 2009, Respublika published a front-page article asking “Who Controls the World?” with a grotesque caricature of “the Jew” and “the Gay” holding up a globe. On 14 November 2010, the popular weekly Veidas published a commentary by an official of the Interior Ministry that described the Nuremberg trials as the “biggest farce in history” that “provided a legal basis to the legend about the 6 million supposedly murdered Jews.”
Such manifestations of blatant anti-Semitism are disturbing, but the passive attitude of the authorities, bordering on complicity, is truly worrisome. In these days of extreme cuts to public spending that would have easily toppled the governments of Greece, Spain, or practically any other Western European state, one can understand the instinct of Lithuanian officials to lay quiet, as extremists channel popular frustration toward Jews, homosexuals, and liberal intellectuals.
But this self-serving approach of pitting one social group against the other is as futile as it is dangerous.
It is a pity that the success of the Prague Declaration in securing greater recognition for Eastern Europe’s distinct history has been tarred by scandal. And it would be a tragedy if manifestations of extremism and the tenor of racism and intolerance supported by apathy, ignorance, or complicity of the authorities themselves became the norm of public discourse in Lithuania. In this atmosphere, the process of healing and dialogue, so desperately needed in this much-abused part of Europe, will again be deferred to a distant point in the future.