As Lithuania celebrates the Year of Vilna Gaon it must come to terms with her past

Several months after the publication of a shocking explanation issued by a Lithuanian state institution, the Center for the Study of the Genocide and Resistance of Residents of Lithuania, which seemed to amount to Holocaust Denial, and as the country marks the  anniversaries of the Kovno garage massacre and the destruction of the Kaunas and Šiauliai ghettos, the Lithuanian Jewish Community, the country’s EJC affiliate, feels it is important to examine the roots origins of the Holocaust in Lithuania.

The statement from the Lithuanian national historical research institution claimed that “the inhabitants of occupied Lithuania did not understand ghettos as part of the Holocaust” in attempting to vindicate Jonas Noreika’s culpability in establishing the Šiauliai (Shavel) ghetto, isolating Jews and seizing their property.

The community not only believes these statements violate article 170-2 of the Lithuanian criminal code, but also desensitise the public to the Holocaust, and may encourage conflict in society and belittle the memory of brave Lithuanians who rescued Jews from the Holocaust.

The manifesto of the Lithuanian Activist Front in Berlin which was read out over the radio, calling for Lithuania to liberate herself “from the Jewish yoke,” could be considered the moment the Holocaust began in Lithuania.

The Lithuanian Activist Front formed the so-called Lithuanian Provisional Government (led by Juozas Ambrazevičius, Kazys Škirpa, Adolfas Damušis and others) and became the Nazis’ political tool in Lithuania. The minutes of the sittings of the Lithuanian Provisional Government overflow with anti-Semitic rhetoric and the terms Jew and Bolshevik enemy almost always appear as synonyms. This puppet government established the Tautinio darbo batalionas (TDA, National Labor Battalion) and a concentration camp for Jews and drafted and signed on to the infamous Regulations on the Status of Jews, thus contributing to the creation and execution of Nazi doctrine.

LAF leader Kazys Škirpa, previously known for his leftist views and sympathies for the Soviets, later became one of the ideologues under Nazi influence in the Provisional Government. Škirpa and other PG leaders intended not to form a Lithuania SS legion, but rather to have Lithuanian institutions (government, military) allowing them to make decisions independently. Lithuania was not able to follow Finland’s example in this, however, and the result of this “autonomy” was Lithuania had the largest per capita percentage of Jews murdered in Europe, including Nazi Germany.

The consequences of the war for Lithuania were horrific: entire shtetlach (Jewish towns) exterminated, with the resulting guilt and impotence lingering subconsciously, depressing and demoralising the nation as did the oppressive Soviet regime which sought to erase national identity. Right up into the present time there is a real lack of understanding in Lithuania that this painful erasure of identity under the Soviets is as well known to Jews as it is to ethnic Lithuanians.

Following the murder of upwards of 95% of Lithuanian Jews and the theft of their property, now, when people walk through the “recreational forests” which independent Lithuania has established on old Jewish cemeteries and mass murder sites, has some moral statute of limitations expired so that it’s OK to commemorate Lithuanian Nazi ideologues and rewrite this “uncomfortable” history? In this regard, Vidmantas Valiušaitis, the head of the (LAF ideologue) Adolfas Damušis Center for Democratic Studies whose function isn’t really clear, claims that the Lithuanian Provisional Government “even tried to help Jews.”

Furthermore, it is in no way clear how this alleged aid to Jews corresponds to the LAF’s ideology which simply repeats the fundamental positions of the Nazi doctrine.

The Lithuanian parliament passed a resolution naming 2020 as the Year of the Vilna Gaon and Jewish History, to mark the Gaon’s 300th birthday and 700 years of Jewish history in Lithuania. These anniversaries carry with them real responsibility and challenges to Lithuania. They could become an opportunity for Lithuania to come to terms with her past.

As was the case 78 years ago, so now as we balance between the truth and lies, the ethical counter-weights are in our hands.


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