see why 'double genocide' is a term Lithuanians want. But
it appals meTo equate Soviet and Nazi crimes is dishonest
and historically false. Why has this poisonous idea taken
such deep root?
No one wants to live surrounded by death. It's understandable
that people who now live on the spot that was once the
Kovno ghetto, where close to 35,000 Jews were herded,
starved and eventually led to their deaths, would not
want to be constantly reminded of the fact. So I was not
too surprised this week to watch fathers pushing baby
buggies and mothers carrying groceries on Linkuvos Street,
a residential road in modern Kaunas, Lithuania, with just
one small obelisk – barely visible amid the traffic at
a junction – marking the site where the gates to the ghetto
once stood. The wording, in Hebrew and Lithuanian, is
brief: no death toll, no mention of the unspeakable suffering
that happened within.
I understand, too, why there are no special road signs directing visitors to
make the short drive to the Ninth Fort, the place where
the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators dug deep, vast
pits – into which they shot almost 10,000 Jews, including
4,273 children, on a single day in October 1941, the so-called
Great Action. I can see why the people of Kaunas would prefer
the Ninth Fort to be seen only by those people who come
looking for it.
Memory and history never belong
solely in the past; they are contested in the here and now,
as freighted with politics as any other aspect of the present.
So it is in Lithuania, which, along with neighbouring Latvia
and Poland, had a walk-on part in British politics last
year, when David Cameron came under fire for partnering
his MEPs with assorted ultra-nationalist fringe parties
from eastern Europe. This week, searching along with my
father for the roots of our family – one branch of which
once lived in the Lithuanian village of Baisogala – I had
a chance to examine what had once been a faraway Westminster
battle on the ground and up close.
I have now seen for myself, for
example, that the Ninth Fort includes not only a massive,
Soviet-era socialist-realist memorial to the dead buried
in those pits, but a newer exhibition hall, covering the
oppression of the Soviet years – even though the connection
between subject and location is tenuous at best. Of course,
I can see why Lithuanians want to remember the era of the
gulag and forced exile to Siberia. It was more recent than
the second world war; it lasted longer; and it affected
families still living in Lithuania. Besides, for four postwar
decades to speak of that pain was forbidden, leaving a yearning
for commemoration and recognition.
Pushing myself hard, I could almost
empathise with the "double genocide" approach, officially endorsed in Lithuania and other former Soviet lands, which
holds that nazism and communism were twin evils of the 20th
century and ought to be remembered alongside each other
– an approach embodied by the Ninth Fort, with its double
museums, one recording the horrors of Hitler, the other
counting the crimes of Stalin.
After all, this is not a competition
– and if it is, it's not one any Jew would want to win.
Jews don't want or need a monopoly on grief. Tears are not
in finite supply: there are more than enough to go around.
But, no matter how great an effort
of empathy I make, I cannot go along with the "double genocide", especially not now that I've seen how it plays out in practice rather than
in theory. For one thing, the equation of Nazi and communist
crimes rarely entails an honest account of the former. The
plaque at the Ninth Fort, for instance, identifies the killers
only as "Nazis and their assistants". It does not spell out that those assistants were Lithuanian volunteers, enthusiastically
murdering their fellow Lithuanians. In my travels, visiting
a whole clutch of sites, I did not encounter one that gave
a direct, explicit account of this bald, harsh truth: that
Lithuania's Jews were victims of one of the highest killing
rates in Nazi Europe, more than 90%, chiefly because the
local population smoothed the Germans' path. Indeed, they
began killing Jews on June 22 1941, before Hitler's men
had even arrived.
Second, even if the theoretical
intention is to remember a "double genocide", it rarely stays double for very long. Take the Museum of Genocide Victims,
off Vilnius's central Gedimino Boulevard. You would think
such a place would feature the genocide of which Vilnius
was close to the centre, namely the slaughter of the Jews.
But you'd be wrong. The Holocaust is not mentioned. The
focus is entirely on the suffering inflicted by the KGB.
Outside, there are two prominent stone memorials for Moscow's
victims. If you wish to remember Lithuania's 200,000 slain
Jews, you have to wander far from the main drag, up a side
street, to the tiny Green House – which is anyway closed
for renovation and whose director, under pressure from state
officials, is fighting for her job.
It's the same story with a 2008
change in the law that, in the name of equivalence, banned
not just Nazi symbols but Soviet ones too. As if that were
not bad enough – banning a veteran of the anti-Hitler resistance
from parading his medals – in May, a Lithuanian court held
that the swastika was not a Nazi symbol after all, but part
of "Baltic culture" and therefore could be displayed in public.
Even if the authorities were rigorous
in maintaining a balance, and telling both stories honestly,
I would still reject this "double genocide". For the symmetry here is false. No one wants to top the persecution league
table, but nor can one accept that those who were "arrested, interrogated and imprisoned" – to quote the Vilnius museum – suffered the same fate as those Jews who were
murdered, despite the exhibit's attempt to equalise them
under the bland umbrella term "losses". The oppression of the Soviet years was terrible, but it was not genocide: to
be arrested is not to be shot into a pit. They are different
and to say otherwise is to rob "genocide", a very specific term, of all meaning.
Finally, there is a sinister undertone
to all this equivalence talk. Professor Egidijus Aleksandravicius
of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas told me that many
Lithuanians like to imagine that if their forebears killed
Jews it was only as "revenge" for all that communists (for which read Jews) had inflicted on them. On this
logic – warped because Soviet rule hit Jews as hard as anyone
else – the "double genocide" in effect says: you hurt us, we hurt you, now we're even.
Why has this poisonous idea taken
such deep root? Dovid Katz, who taught Yiddish at Vilnius
University until his contract was not renewed this year,
suspects geopolitics: "It supplies a massive stick with which to beat today's Russia," he says. Lithuania wants its European Union partners to see Moscow as a genocidal
regime that has not made restitution.
He detects another motive too: the
nationalist desire for Lithuanians to see themselves as
a pristine people, free of stains on their record. Admitting
the truth of the wartime past threatens that; insistence
on victim status preserves it.
This may inform the action the rest
of the world should take. Professor Aleksandravicius calls
for a "soft hand", for outsiders to understand how psychologically difficult it is for people
to realise that victims can be perpetrators too, to accept
that having suffered in the first Soviet rule of 1940-41, "Lithuanians turned on the weakest people of all, the Jews".
I respect that approach: memory
is a sensitive business. But governments will have to speak
more forcefully. Lithuania is in the EU and Nato: its partners
in those bodies have a duty to tell Vilnius plainly that
it needs to reckon with its past truthfully, no matter how
painful that may be. Only then will the haunting spirits
of the past let it rest.