(photo credit: REUTERS)
I had never heard of Veliucionys, a small village on the outskirts of Vilna (Vilnius) before Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite and I set out in the summer of 2015 to visit sites of Holocaust mass murders for a book we wrote on Lithuanian complicity in Shoa crimes.
Our original list of destinations was compiled based on our biographies.
I chose the birthplaces of my maternal grandparents Samuel and Bertha Sar, and the towns in which they had grown up and studied, as well as the presumed site of the murder of my great-uncle Rabbi Efraim Zar, for whom I am named, his wife and two sons. Ruta chose the places where her grandfather Jonas Vanagas and her aunt’s husband Antanas Stapiulionis had played a role in the murder of Jews.
Toward the end of our research, after we had visited Ponar (Paneriai), the site of the mass murder of the Jews of Vilna, where Efraim Zar and his family almost certainly were killed, we decided that we should visit one more place in the vicinity of Vilna to get a more complete picture of the events in most important center of Lithuanian Jewish life. Ruta read in the Holocaust Atlas of Lithuania, a superb resource for this kind of research, that the mass murder site in Veliucionys was hard to find, so we thought it might be important to write about it, as an example of the numerous such sites that are either unmarked, erroneously marked and/or very difficult to find.
And that was indeed the case in Veliucionys. We initially traipsed around through thick brush and bramble with no success for almost an hour, during which we found ourselves facing a large garbage dump on the spot where the memorial was supposed to be, but could not find the site. If we had not purely by chance run into a local mushroom-picker who was well acquainted with the area, we most probably would never have found it. In fact, several weeks ago, after we had for that reason chosen Veliucionys as the site for a memorial ceremony to be held on Lithuania‘ s Holocaust remembrance day, it took us almost three hours to again find the monument.
We later learned that starting in mid-September 1941, the Jews of Naujoji Vilnia, Rudamina, Sumsk, Mickunai and Rukainiai were rounded up and brought to the local orphanage, barracks and stables in Veliucionys, where they were held until September 21-22, 1941, when all 1,159 Jewish men, women and children were murdered nearby in Bald Mountain by Lithuanian volunteer murder squads. In 1951, the Soviet authorities placed a monument surrounded by a low fence, but virtually no mourners had been there for many years, which made the site a perfect location for a memorial ceremony as part of a new project which Ruta conceived this year entitled “Cia guli Musiskiai” (Here lie our people).
The project is based on the fact that there are 227 Holocaust mass murder sites in Lithuania scattered all across the country, and in fact, practically any resident of Lithuania can reach such a site in less than an hour. The problem until now, however, was that since independence in 1991, it has been very rare for the average Lithuanian to show any interest in the victims of the Shoa, even though a highly significant number were murdered by Lithuanians. Part of this was due to the government’s efforts from the very beginning to minimize or hide the role of local collaborators in the murders, and to promote the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes.
During the past year, however, things appear to be changing for the better, with increased interest by younger and more educated Lithuanians. The two main milestones in that respect were the appearance of our book, Musiskiai, on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes, which became a best-seller to the consternation of many, primarily older Lithuanians, who continue to view Jews as supporters of the Communist occupations of Lithuania. The second was the August 29 memorial march in Moletai, which attracted about 3,000 participants, most of whom were Lithuanian. Also important was the impressive support for these initiatives by Lithuania’s leading news portal, www.delfi.lt.
This past Friday, on Lithuania‘s official Holocaust remembrance day, we were able to add another milestone. In response to Ruta’s call on social networks, about 80 Lithuanians of all ages, among them several outstanding local cultural and media figures, came at 5 p.m. to Veliucionys, and marched the almost two kilometers from the manor to the murder site, where a very moving ceremony was held to honor the long-forgotten victims.
In addition, ceremonies were held in at least four other locations – Saukenai, Naujaneriai, Lazdijai and Vilkaviskis.
We hope that this will be the beginning of a country-wide movement to turn the Jewish victims of the Shoa from nameless outsiders to neighbors and fellow citizens of Lithuania, in short, into musiskiai, our people.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of the center’s Israel office and Eastern European affairs. His most recent book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, Musiskiai; Kelione su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy) was published this year by Alma Littera. His websites are www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com He can be reached on Facebook and @EZuroff.