The Jewish Community Center in Vilnius was defaced
with anti-Semitic graffiti in August. Photograph by Tobaron Waxman
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 Jews.
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 in Kaunas.
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.
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.
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 armed forces.
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 historical information.
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.
Lithuanian militia men round up Jews in Kovno during a pogrom in June-July,
1941. Photo courtesy of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org
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 were nationalized
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 the street.
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 European values.
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 travelling public.
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.