A man walks past a sign at a commemoration place during the March of the Living to honor Holocaust victims in Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Lithuania is a country known for the great reverence and care with which family graves are treated. Earlier this month, on All Saints Day, all the cemeteries in the country were full of visitors bringing flowers and lighting memorial candles, and there were huge traffic jams near the larger ones in the major cities. Yet, unfortunately, this praiseworthy sensitivity does not extend to all the graves in Lithuania, and certainly not to many of the more than 200 mass murders sites of Holocaust victims scattered along the length and breadth of the country.
One such neglected mass murder site is that of Veliucionys on the outskirts of Vilna (Vilnius). I had visited the grave together with Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite in the summer of 2015 as part of our research on Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and the sad state of some of the murder sites, for our book, Musiskiai, which was published earlier this year.
Although a marker on the road pointed to a mass grave, it was misplaced, there was a large garbage dump right nearby and we never would have found the location without the help of a local resident who often picked mushrooms in the forest and knew where the murder had taken place.
In fact, when we returned a few months ago to prepare a memorial ceremony, it took us almost three hours to locate the site where 1,159 Jews from the vicinity of Vilna, among them 196 children, had been murdered and buried in a huge pit on September 21-22, 1941.
A few weeks ago, on All Saints Day, after visiting her parents’ graves, Ruta wanted to pay her respects to the victims at Veliucionys.
This time there was no problem finding the site, since the local authorities had put up makeshift signs leading to the grave in anticipation of our ceremony on Holocaust Memorial Day, after its abysmal state had been publicized by delfi.lt, Lithuania’s leading news portal. Yet a far more shocking surprise was in store for us this time. It turns out that during the past year, the entire area around the mass grave had been privatized, and the owner was now advertising the sale of the property. Ruta took down the number and called, posing as an interested prospective buyer.
The price, she was told, was 35,000 euros for the entire plot of 6.5 hectares. When she asked if she could build a house there, explaining that she had heard that there was a mass grave on the site, the owner said that there was no mass grave, only a few people buried there and a small monument, and that the murders had taken place so long ago that it really didn’t matter anymore. At Ruta’s request, he even sent all the pertinent documents, which all were signed and approved by the relevant authorities, who noted that the land in question included a “Protected Area” 46 meters long by 28 meters wide.
The problem is, however, that there never was any official exhumation report on the murders in Veliucionys, and it is almost certain that the area of the mass grave is much larger, and even possible that the number of victims was considerably higher.
At this point we turned to the local media, and delfi.lt, 15min.lt and TV3 all gave this shocking story extensive coverage, which prompted an investigation by the authorities.
Their response, however, bordered on the ludicrous, suggesting that if any person had information to indicate that the size of the mass grave was larger, they should provide it to the authorities, as if this was the responsibility of private citizens rather than of the pertinent official bodies. We now await their decision, having promised them an “international scandal” if this type of sale is allowed to proceed.
If this were the only such incident it would be bad enough, but during the past year, local and Jewish media revealed that the Seventh Fort in Kovno (Kaunas) had been privatized and was now the site of parties, and that the monument at the Ninth Fort is being used to practice Alpine climbing.
In all these cases, the government continues to fail to perform one of its most elementary duties: to respect the victims of the Holocaust in Lithuania, many of whom were murdered by Lithuanians. So while during the past year there has been growing awareness and sensitivity to Holocaust issues among younger, more educated and liberal Lithuanians, the government continues its indifferent treatment of these critical issues.The author is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, is Musiskiai; Kelione Su Priesu (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), was a bestseller in Lithuania and will appear in Polish in January 2017.