I became involved with the Jewish Museum Holocaust Exhibition in Lithuania,
known as the “Green House,” when I read an article by Rachel Margolis, a
veteran Jewish partisan, about the library that was housed in the wartime
ghetto in Vilne
As Rokhl Kafrissen described in her column, “Vilne, Whispering,” in the September-October
issue of Jewish Currents, the library harbored a weapons
cache and served as a base for the Jewish partisan movement.
At the same time, it was an oasis of peace in the ghetto,
a place somehow apart, where for a time people could escape
the daily roster of starvation, slave labor and death
I wrote a letter to Rachel Margolis
and sent it to her in Israel, where she now lives. To my
surprise, she wrote back almost immediately. Eventually,
I met her at the museum itself, where she used to come every
summer to lead tours. She showed me exhibits I had already
seen but not understood. Every photo took on new dimensions
under her guidance; every item told a story, often personal
for her as well as part of the shared history of Lithuanian
Perhaps most memorably, she showed
me a small collection of documents about “The Partisan Hymn”
(“Zog Nit Keynmol”), by Hirsh Glik. He had flagged her down
one winter day in the ghetto, she said, to recite the poem
to her; people stood looking at these two kids reciting poetry
in the freezing cold. As he said the lines, she began to
sense a rhythm, which turned into a melody that she knew
from some Russian film. They took it to a meeting of the
FPO (United Partisan Organization), where it was adopted
as an anthem.
When Rachel told me this story, I
didn’t know how famous “The Partisan Hymn” is — for many
Jews, an anthem and a vow. For me it was only a track on
a CD, until she told me about its significance. I’m afraid
it means even less to most Lithuanians, who have never even
heard of it.
Something is seriously wrong in Lithuania
when it comes to Holocaust education and historical sensibility.
This becomes most obvious on Fridays and weekends in the
park that fronts the Green House — which is hidden in an
alley, around a curve, up a hill behind apartment houses,
with only a small blue-and-white sign measuring less than
a foot across and six inches high. Local skinheads, mostly
from the apartment buildings around the museum, gather in
that park, which is dedicated, ironically enough, to Chiune
Sugihara, the Japanese consul who rescued thousands of Jews
The skinheads wear clothes with logos
like “HH,” code for “Heil Hitler.” Other hangers-on sometimes
carry axes or other weapons openly. They drink beer and sometimes
leave swastika graffiti along with their bottles and cans.
Last winter, they traced out a giant swastika, along with
some anti-Russian graffiti, in the snow. In order to get
to the Green House, a visitor has to either go through this
park or go around it.
On March 11th, 2008 — Lithuanian Independence Day (February 16th was the traditional
day in pre-World War II Lithuania) — about two hundred skinheads
and their friends marched from the Vilnius Cathedral up Gedimino
Prospect, the main street in town, waving swastikas, neo-Nazi
symbols, and Lithuanian and Latvian flags and chanting “Juden
raus!” as well as calls to kill Jews and expel Russians.
Police stood by and watched. The march was reported in the
media, and some footage is available on YouTube, which is
where I recognized the ‘Sugihara’ skinheads among them. A
number of other participants were members of the Lithuanian
The lack of Holocaust education means that many Lithuanians born after World
War II find it ever easier to deny the facts of history.
In public life, this means that Jewish issues often get biased
treatment in the local and national media. Rarely is a ‘Jewish’
story presented from a detached perspective. When controversy
arose, for example, over a construction project on parts
of the former Jewish cemetery in Vilnius, the news was presented
in a charged tone that played up conflicts within the Jewish
community and downplayed claims that the construction was,
in fact, disturbing Jewish graves. When the issue became
somewhat internationalized (several U.S. Congressional representatives
took note), the Lithuanian press reported that someone inside
the government had stabbed Lithuania in the back and doctored
data to make it appear that the Jewish cemetery had extended
into the construction site. When archaeologists actually
discovered human remains there, the media reported that the
Jewish community had ordered a halt to the dig “they themselves” had demanded. Every time a ‘Jewish’ story
appears — whether it has to do with property restitution
(there has been none to date), war-crimes trials, the restoring
of Lithuanian citizenship to Jews, or anything else concerning
the Holocaust, many Lithuanian journalists get defensive
or go on the offensive.
The ‘double genocide’ theory is theofficial
party line. President Valdas Adamkus (who was a young anti-Soviet
fighter who fled with his family to Germany in 1944) tried
to put the specter of World War II atrocities to rest by
creating a panel to study “the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet
occupational regimes” in Lithuania. Initial criticism of
this approach was overcome when the commission attracted
internationally renowned figures, including Yitzhak Arad,
a Holocaust survivor who was the first director of Yad Vashem
in Israel. For several years, the panel turned out reports
and books in English and Lithuanian, sometimes with important
Then Arad himself became the target
of an investigation by Lithuanian prosecutors for alleged
war crimes committed against Lithuanian civilians in World
War II. By following its ‘double genocide’ theory to its
logical conclusion — that Jews also committed genocide against
Lithuanians, so everyone is ‘even’ — Lithuania undermined
the credibility of its international commission. Arad withdrew
and said he wouldn’t be coming back to Lithuania to take
part in a “circus.” Israeli prosecutors refused the request
of Lithuanian prosecutors to interrogate him. Various commentators,
including neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, had a field day posting
to websites such as Ha’aretz and Delfi.Lt to decry the double
standard of refusing to prosecute Jewish ‘war criminals.’
Claims that Jews committed genocide
against Lithuanians had begun in June, 1941, when pro-Nazi
Lithuanians spread rumors that Jews had deported Lithuanians
to the Soviet Union, that Jewish snipers had fired on Lithuanian
civilians, and that Jews had drawn up lists of Lithuanians
for death squads to execute. This adaptation of the Nazi
myth that Jews had “stabbed the nation in the back” helped
to assuage the Lithuanian sense of inferiority, resulting
from their occupation by Poland for twenty years before Stalin
invaded in 1940, and their holding out for only eight hours
before handing the Memel territory back to Hitler’s Germany.
Rightwing Lithuanians began to blame
the Jews for the Soviet invasion. “Jew” meant “Communist,”
“Communist” meant “Jew,” they were “one gang of bastards,”
according to Lithuanian Activist Front propaganda distributed
before, during and after the German invasion. When even the
Nazis expressed shock at the barbarity Lithuanians used in
massacring Jews at the Lietukis garage in Kaunas (June 27th,
1941), it was explained that some of the perpetrators had
lost family members during the Soviet deportations. When
the tide of war turned and Germany pulled back from Stalingrad,
Germans in Vilnius and Kaunas blamed the Jews both for the
defeat and for starting World War II. The Germans — and Lithuanians
— were just the victims of some unspecified Jewish influence
emanating from behind barbed wire.
Almost all of the claims made by apologists for the Holocaust in Lithuania have
been roundly refuted. Jews did not serve in greater percentages
than Lithuanians in the repressive organs of the Soviet authority.
Jews did not draw up death lists of their Lithuanian neighbors.
Jews suffered more from the Soviet deportations and faced
many more restrictions on language and religion than Lithuanians
did. A greater percentage of Jewish than Lithuanian businesses
When faced with these facts, however, true believers in the ‘double genocide’
theory have plunged deeper into conspiratorial thinking —
and Lithuanian prosecutors have expanded their investigations.
Unable to question Yitzhak Arad, Lithuanian prosecutors decided
to question Fania Brantsovsky, the octogenarian Vilna ghetto
survivor and partisan who still serves as librarian for the
Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University, as well as Rachel
Margolis in Israel and another former Jewish partisan, Sara
Ginaite-Rubinson, in Canada. [Ginaite-Rubinson wrote about
the investigation, which was finally suspended in late August,
in the September-October issue of Jewish Currents. See “Follow-Up”
on page 7 of this issue. — Editor]
The investigation centered around
the supposed massacre of civilians in a small village, Koniuchi,
near the Rudniki forest, which was controlled by Soviet partisans
late in the war. Here’s what seems like a probable scenario:
Jewish and Soviet partisans regularly commandeered food and
supplies from local villages. Nazi efforts to contain the
partisans in Rudniki consisted mainly of arming villagers
and local police as proxy fighters. Koniuchi was hostile
to Soviet requisitioning, and contained
Nazi sympathizers who organized ambushes of Soviet partisans
— who organized a counterattack and put torch to the village
by firing incendiary ammunition into wooden buildings. The
pro-Nazi police officers made a last stand and fired back.
Around thirty-five villagers, mainly men but also women and
children, died in the battle. To date there is no reason
to believe any of the people sought by Lithuanian prosecutors
were present during this violence.
Was the incident worth a criminal
investigation in 2008? In nearby Eyshishok, some thirty-five
hundred Jewish civilians were murdered by Nazi killing squads
and Lithuanian collaborators over the course of two September
days in 1941 — and there has been no criminal investigation.
Since independence, in fact, Lithuanian authorities have
intentionally dragged their feet in confronting the Lithuanian
role in the Holocaust and have delayed trials of known Lithuanian
war criminals deported from the U.S. or stripped of U.S.
citizenship. Since independence, Lithuania has prosecuted
only three Lithuanian Nazis — and spared them imprisonment.
Yet suddenly it seemed to prosecutors
to be a good idea to investigate the Koniuchi incident. Why
was this case more important than all the cases in which
Jews were worked to death building the Vilnius-Kaunas highway,
railways and airports in Vilnius and Kaunas; in which Jews
were murdered, their property stolen by locals, police, municipalities
and Germans; in which Jewish corpses were raided for their
gold teeth; in which the Jews of Slobodka were literally
butchered, carved up, and beheaded by Lithuanians?
Something is terribly wrong in Lithuania
when elderly Holocaust survivors, who escaped from Lithuanian
ghettos and, despite hunger, cold and incredible hardship,
waged war on the Nazi monster, become targets for legal harassment.
And harassment it is. In Lithuania, prosecutors don’t leave
the office to investigate; they issue a summons for you to
come to them or face arrest. They issue as many as they like,
as often as they like. Investigations drag on for years,
during which time prosecutors have the power to control your
life, seize your passport, forbid discussion and take you
into custody. Most Holocaust survivors really don’t have
all that much time left on earth, barring new breakthroughs
in human longevity.
One interesting theory about what’sgoing
on in Lithuania suggests that even educated people have only
recently learned enough English to begin browsing Holocaust
memoirs in that language, and so have had a chance to learn
something of their own history. Such a process of discovery
hasn’t fundamentally changed the discourse about the Holocaust,
however — to the contrary, their English literacy allows
anti-Semites to go wild with Holocaust denial, as they discover
an entire corpus of anti-Jewish materials in English, as
well as logos from racist websites that have been creeping
into Lithuanian graffiti for a few years now, alongside the
classic “Juden raus!”
In addition, the Baltic states have
seen something of a pagan revival, especially among youth,
for a few years, which often goes hand-in-hand with a folk
nationalism involving Aryan ideology. Swastikas, of course,
are a pagan symbol, and so fascist imagery and ideology are
bridging youth subcultures — though it’s not fair to say
fascists are the majority in any subculture but their own.
Swastikas were part of the graffiti
with which vandals defaced the Jewish Community of Lithuania
building in Vilnius in August, during the Tisha B’Av observance.
Other elements included a Star of David at the end of a hangman’s
noose and gallows, “Juden raus!” and a somewhat mangled rendition
of the old symbol of Lithuanian statehood, the Post of Gediminas.
The vandalism covered the entire front of the building along
Within two days, hundreds of comments
by newspaper readers indulged in two conspiracy theories
about the event: that the Jews did it to themselves, or that
the Russians did it to foment ethnic strife. The arguments
for the first thesis were that Jews in Lithuania needed to
play the victim to win public sympathy over recent bad press.
Besides, no Lithuanian would’ve mangled the symbol of Gediminas
so badly! The arguments for the second theory revolved around
the fact that Lithuania had supported Georgian claims to
South Ossetia — hence, Russian revenge.
Comments about the vandalism revealed
that the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism is alive and well in Lithuania.
The usual charges were reiterated: that Jews had deported
Lithuanians to Siberia and had death lists of Lithuanian
victims ready before the Bolsheviks took power. Some of the
more ingenious anti-Semites called for charges and punishments
to be levied against the Lithuanian Jewish Community Center
itself for displaying swastikas along the length of its building,
because Lithuania recently made illegal the display of the
swastika in public!
The defaced building is located on
Pylimo Street. The old headquarters of the Jewish museum
are located right next to it. The Green House and the Sugihara
statue in the municipal square are only a stone’s throw away.
If I were a Lithuanian investigator, rather than organizing
a counter-intelligence operation to catch the Russian spooks
red-handed, or setting up cameras to catch the wily Jews
in the act of damaging Jewish property, I would take the
easy way out and decide to investigate known local anti-Semites
who congregate nearby.
With the graffiti incident still fresh,Lithuanians
received another shock to their preferred version of history
when the respected London-based publication, The Economist,
ran a story that labeled the prosecution of Jewish anti-Nazi
partisans as an attempt to cover up Lithuanian complicity
in the Holocaust. Lithuanian state television reported this
as a top story, and excerpts were quickly translated for
Internet publication at the delfi.lt site, infamous hangout
for Lithuanian anti-Semites. The Economist website also provided
the ability to comment, and people lost no time in explaining
to the world how their state was being defamed by the Jewish
global financial/media conspiracy.
Perhaps, in the end, a little ‘conspiring’
is what is needed to protect Lithuanian Jews and force Lithuania
to face up to its World War II history. In 2009, for example,
Vilnius is to share with Linz, Austria, the distinction of
being named the cultural capital of the European Union. Unfortunately,
one culture will probably be missing from the festivities
— that of the Litvaks, the Lithuanian Jews. Cancelling the
designation for Vilnius would send a strong message to the
Lithuanian government and public about post-World War II
Similarly, the Guggenheim Museum announced
a joint project worth millions with the Lithuanian government
to create a major art museum in Lithuania. But does Lithuania
have a sufficiently developed museum culture, given that
the so-called “Genocide” museum mentions Jewish victims once
or twice in parentheses while the Green House is hidden from
tourists? Again, cancelling the deal would send a strong
message about values.
The idea of a tourism boycott of Lithuania
has also frequently cropped up in respect to Holocaust denial.
Over the last decade, increasing numbers of Israeli tourists
have begun to visit the country, which has basically rescued
the failing economy of the southeastern resort town of Druskininkai,
once known throughout the Soviet Union for its spas. Since
the tourism sector in Lithuania has been a major area of
growth, a concerted tourism boycott of the country would
send a very strong signal about the values held by the modern
Unfortunately, the walk-softly approach
hasn’t worked so far. Israel’s Yad Vashem has made a priority
of teaching Lithuanian teachers how to teach the Holocaust
in their classrooms, but there is little evidence that teaching
the Holocaust is important for more than a handful of Lithuanian
teachers. Western embassies in Vilnius have used various
approaches in trying to get the Lithuanian state to take
these issues seriously, but their reluctance to rock the
boat and disturb the early years of a fragile democracy has
made their efforts ineffectual.
Meanwhile, various citizenship laws
enacted in recent years have put Jews at a disadvantage in
obtaining dual citizenship, while property restitution has
been delayed through various tactics, including the requirement
that current citizens of Lithuania be compensated first.
When foreign voices have pointed out that profit was a major
inducement for some Lithuanians to murder their Jewish neighbors
during the Holocaust, the Lithuanian press and public have
tended to deny Lithuanian involvement and liability, even
though major Holocaust sources and documents in the Lithuanian
state archives prove that volunteer murderers, local police
and local populations were fully engaged in stealing the
assets of their victims, so much so that the German authorities
had to issue special orders on how to deal with the theft
of what they saw as Reich property.
The internal dialogue has devolved
into noise. The most effective pressure would be deprivation
of funding for prestige projects, combined with an increase
in funding for Holocaust education in public schools, in
higher education, and perhaps even in the military and police
academies. The logical source of this negative and positive
pressure would be European Union institutions, Western non-profits
and foundations, and the general public in countries where
the Holocaust is not kept secret.
LITHUANIA: The Back-and-Forth History of World War II
Lithuania was an independent country
from the end of World War I until 1940. At that time, the
Lithuanian Jews numbered about one hundred and sixty thousand,
or 7 percent of the total population.
In 1939, Lithuania and Germany signed
a nonaggression pact, but within two months, Germany annexed
the Lithuanian territory of Memel-Klaipeda, which had an
ethnic German majority.
The Soviet Union occupied Lithuania
in June, 1940 and annexed it in August. Within a year, the
Jewish population of Lithuania swelled with refugees from
Nazism to about 10 percent of the population.
Following the 1941 Nazi invasion of
the Soviet Union, the Germans occupied Lithuania, and Nazi
mobile killing units (Einsatzgruppen) and Lithuanian auxiliaries
began killing Jews. Within three months, most rural Jews
had been wiped out, and the surviving forty thousand were
concentrated in ghettos and labor camps. By the summer of
1944, when the Soviet Union reoccupied the country, 90 percent
of Jews in Lithuania had been murdered.
Under Soviet rule, between one hundred
and twenty thousand and three hundred thousand Lithuanians
were exiled to Siberia or other remote lands. Russians were
encouraged to settle in Lithuania, and all political activity
was controlled by the Lithuanian Communist Party. In 1991,
Lithuania became the first Soviet republic to claim its independence
from the crumbling USSR.
More than five hundred Lithuanians
are recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations”
for risking their lives to assist Jews.