‘I am a typical, average Lithuanian,” writes Ruta Vanagaite. “I lived my whole life knowing as much about the Holocaust as the majority of our typical average people,” which, as she admits, was very little. For most, “it happened a long time ago, to strangers.”
So what induced her to team up with Efraim Zuroff, a noted Israeli Nazi-hunter, on a quest to reveal precisely what happened to the 220,000 Jews living in Lithuania in June 1941, when Germany occupied the country? For by the war’s end, less than four years later, 212,000 had vanished.
Vanagaite was a journalist and best-selling author whose grandfather actively opposed the Russian occupation following the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. He was found guilty of anti-Soviet activities, and was incarcerated in one of the prisons in Stalin’s Gulag. He suffered a similar fate after the war, but while Germany ruled the country between 1941 and 1944 he had held an official position.
When Vanagaite sought out the secret case file on her grandfather, she discovered that during the German occupation he compiled lists of Jews, while a neighbor of his transported them to an execution site and received in compensation a Jewish house and 4.5 hectares (approximately 11 acres) of land.
It was this discovery that aroused a strong desire in Vanagaite to understand what had happened to her family and her people, and why it had happened. She began to take an active part in Holocaust remembrance activities, and as a result met Efraim Zuroff.
Zuroff, director of the Jerusalem branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, was well known for hunting down Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice. He had a personal interest in revealing the facts about Lithuania. His grandparents had been born in the country, and he was named after a great-uncle murdered in Vilnius. Zuroff gained a reputation for condemning the role that ordinary Lithuanians played in the massacre of the Jewish population, and particularly for his outspoken criticism of the Lithuanian government for failing to acknowledge this.
The collaboration between Vanagaite and Zuroff was born out of mutual respect, colored at the beginning, by considerable mutual distrust. To Vanagaite, he was “Lithuania’s bogeyman, the person who made Lithuanian schoolteachers weep.” On Zuroff’s side, he simply could not understand Vanagaite’s profound empathy with what her people had endured under the successive occupations by the USSR, then Nazi Germany, then the USSR again. “My poor people,” she wrote.
Exchanges between them are interspersed throughout the book. In one, Zuroff says, “You can cry from today till doomsday, but it does not change the facts.... You know why everyone in Lithuania hates me? Because they know that I am right.”
Vanagaite responds, “So let me see if you are right or not. Let me face this truth. Let us face it together.”
This is how they agreed to undertake a joint “journey with the enemy,” an effort to unearth the unvarnished truth about Lithuania’s Holocaust. Selecting 13 locations known to be places where Jews had been massacred, they traveled together to each. Our People records what they discovered.
LITHUANIA’S HOLOCAUST, horrific as it was, has little in common with the all-too-familiar tale of gas chambers, Zyklon B, and crematoria. Of the 212,000 Lithuanian victims, about 5,000 were deported to death camps in Poland. The rest were rounded up in the cities, towns and villages. Some were shot on the spot, but most were marched out to a local forest or beauty spot, brutally shot, and buried in mass graves. Photographs and carefully recorded questioning reveal that in most cases the massacres were carried out by Lithuanians. Sometimes no Germans were present.
One 28-year-old man who volunteered to join the Lithuanian 12th Battalion found himself transported to Belarus in a unit assigned to kill Jews and, well before the notorious Wannsee conference in January 1942, slaughtered at least 15,424 in 15 different locations around the country. Interviewed in 1998, this soldier described the procedure.
“The local police went through apartments and collected Jews, then herded them onto the square.” The Germans kept back anyone likely to be useful to them, and the rest were marched by the Lithuanian unit, in a column four people wide, to pits already dug beyond the city limits.
“They were herded into the pit,” he said, “laid on the ground, and then we shot them.”
Having slaughtered one batch, they forced the next group to lie down on top of the corpses before firing on them, then the next.
“The small children were carried, the others were led. We murdered them all.”
And the Germans? “The Germans shot rarely; mostly they used to shoot photographs.”
Did you ever ask yourself why these Jews were being shot?
“I don’t blame anyone anymore,” he replied, “only God, if He exists, for allowing the murder of innocent people. And that’s how I thought about it then as well.”
The two authors first published their findings in Lithuanian. Both faced vicious abuse. Subject to threats and even violence, Vanagaite became persona non grata in her homeland. Zuroff, who again pressured the Lithuanian government, as he had done in the 1990s, to prosecute those who carried out the slaughter, was similarly reviled.
He also reiterated his condemnation of Lithuania, along with other Eastern European states, for attempting to merge the Nazi-inspired Holocaust with the people’s suffering during the Soviet occupation. He denounced the honoring of national leaders who fought the Russians, but who also participated in the slaughter of Jews.
Our People became a best-seller in Lithuania, but has now been removed from its bookstores. Nevertheless, Zuroff is heartened by knowing that each copy of the 19,000 that were sold has been read by as many as five people, and that people are waiting to borrow it. He believes that the facts that he and Vanagaite disclosed have begun what he calls “the learning process,” an important aspect of healing for Lithuanian society. The book’s title aptly refers to “Lithuania’s hidden Holocaust.” It uncovers a little known aspect of the genocide that needed to be revealed.