13:35 03/10/2008
  Lithuania's crocodile tears
Dr. Efraim Zuroff

September 23 was the anniversary of the 1943 liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, and as it has every year since 1994, Lithuania observed Jewish Genocide Day, to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. Flags were flown at half-mast, a special parliamentary session was convened, and there were ceremonies at sites of mass murder, and at former ghettos and synagogues, to which youth brought stones and spelled out the word "remember" (atmink, in Lithuanian).

Given that Lithuania had the highest rate of Jewish Holocaust deaths in Europe (96.4 percent of its community of 220,000), and that a significant percentage of those victims were murdered by fellow Lithuanians - initially in spontaneous pogroms led primarily by armed vigilantes, and later by security police units - such events are ostensibly very important and augur well for the future of the country's current Jewish community of some 5,000. But a closer look at the content of the observances and at the government's approach to Lithuania's Holocaust past reveals a stubborn reluctance to honestly confront the crimes committed by local Nazi collaborators, and what amounts to an aggressive campaign to minimize Lithuanian guilt by distorting history.

The writing was on the wall from the start. Thus, one of the first resolutions passed by the Seimas (the Lithuanian parliament), in 1990, condemned the genocide of the Jews "in the name of the Lithuanian people," but attributed the blame as far as the locals were concerned to "Lithuanian citizens," a category that included Jews as well as Russians and Poles, a clear allusion to the participation of non-Lithuanians, and even Jews, in the crimes. This was followed by a deliberate policy of obstructing justice to ensure that no Lithuanian would actually be punished for Holocaust crimes. Many of those who had been convicted of such by the Soviets were even granted pardons and financial benefits - in direct contradiction to Lithuanian law.

When several prominent Lithuanian Nazi war criminals who had escaped overseas after the war were eventually deported from the U.S., they were allowed to return to Lithuania without fear of trial or punishment for their crimes. Even the three cases of Nazi war criminals who were prosecuted were handled in such a way that those ultimately convicted never spent a day in prison.

When Lithuania was admitted to NATO and the European Union, things only became worse. Freed from their fear of failing to become part of these bodies, the Lithuanians began an aggressive campaign to downplay their responsibility for Holocaust atrocities, and maximize recognition for their suffering under the Soviets. Thus the historical commission established to investigate Holocaust crimes was entrusted with studying Communist crimes as well, thereby creating a false symmetry between the periods of Nazi (1941-44) and Soviet (1940-41 and 1944-91) occupation, designed to relativize Lithuanian complicity in the horrors of the Shoah. This was followed by efforts to seek the extradition from Israel for genocide and/or war crimes of Jewish men who had been KGB officers either in 1941 or immediately after World War II. At the same time, non-Jewish Lithuanian officers in the same units were never questioned, let alone investigated or prosecuted.

Simultaneously, the Lithuanian institutions involved in the study of genocide artificially inflated the number of locals recognized for assisting Jews during the Shoah, while minimizing or ignoring their countrymen who actively participated in the implementation of the Final Solution.

In May 2006, this policy entered a new and much more dangerous phase, with the start of a campaign to investigate and prosecute Jewish anti-Nazi Soviet partisans. The primary target of this shocking effort was none other than noted Holocaust historian and former Yad Vashem chairman Dr. Yitzhak Arad, who had saved his own life by joining a Soviet partisan unit. When the opening of an investigation against him was initially virtually ignored outside Lithuania, additional Jewish anti-Nazi partisans were added to the list of potential suspects. Articles in the right-wing Lithuanian media incited against the partisans, and in a march last winter in the heart of Vilnius, local police passively looked on as some 200 Lithuanian neo-Nazis shouted anti-Semitic slogans, even though such expressions are ostensibly illegal in the country. Subsequently, the Jewish communities of Vilnius, Panevezys and Klaipeda were vandalized.

Late last month, however, after serious international pressure against the investigation of Dr. Arad was finally brought to bear on the Lithuanian authorities, the Prosecutor General's Office announced that the investigation had been closed due to lack of evidence, explaining its initial misstep by accusing Arad of having exaggerated his own activities as a partisan. A day earlier, at the Holocaust Day ceremony in Ponar (Paneriai in Lithuanian), the site of the mass execution of approximately 70,000 Lithuanian Jews by a murder squad of local volunteers, Speaker of Parliament Ceslovas Jursenas claimed that those who killed Jews did so for fear of their lives, a total distortion of the Lithuanian reality during the period.

At the same time, the Lithuanian campaign to "equalize" Soviet and Nazi crimes is moving into high gear in the European Union and elsewhere as a proposal to grant equal recognition to Holocaust and Communist crimes is approaching submission to the European parliament. So while the tip of the ugly iceberg of Holocaust distortion, deflection and obfuscation has officially been cut off, the huge bulk of lies, misrepresentations and excuses remains intact.

Under these circumstances, we don't need the crocodile tears shed last week in Vilnius. A serious measure of painful truth about Lithuanian complicity would be a lot more valuable, most of all for the Lithuanians themselves.