VILNIUS – The eerie silence at Paneriai, a village 25 minutes outside this Lithuanian city where 100,000 were killed during World War II – 70,000 of them Jews – is deafening. Seventy years ago, in three years between July 1941 and August 1944, just over 30 percent of Lithuania’s 220,000- strong Jewish community was killed and shoved into mass graves, the largest of which measures 10 meters in diameter. The adjacent railway was the main mode of transportation for the intended victims, but some were marched the 10 kilometers from the Vilnius ghetto.
Men, women and children were lined up and shot by the German SS Einsatzgruppe and the Ypatingas Burys, a Lithuanian killing squad consisting mainly of volunteers. The mass killings were documented by SS officer and Einsatzkommando leader Karl Jager in a series of entries later called the Jager Report, where a typical log read:
“On my instructions and orders the following executions were conducted by Lithuanian partisans:
4.7.41 Kauen-Fort VII 416 Jews, 47 Jewesses [Total] 463
6.7.41 Kauen-Fort VII 2,514 Jews”
Another meticulous record of events was kept by Polish-Lithuanian journalist Kazimierz Sakowicz in the form of a diary between 1941 and 1943. Sakowicz and his wife lived in Ponary (Polish for Paneriai) in an apartment adjacent to the forested areas where thousands were executed. He wrote down his eyewitness account on sheets of paper, which he placed in bottles, sealed and then buried. The account was first published in Polish in 1999 and in English in 2005 as Ponary Diary 1941-1943: A Bystander’s Account of a Mass Murder, edited by Lithuanianborn Yitzhak Arad, who served as chairman of Yad Vashem.
The separate sheets of paper were painstakingly put together over the course of several years by Dr. Rachel Margolis, a Lithuanian-born Holocaust survivor and author of A Partisan from Vilna, who found the first batch of entries while working at the Jewish State Museum of Lithuania years after the war ended.
Margolis now lives in Israel, but until two years ago she made yearly visits to her native Vilnius. In 2007, she received a letter from acquaintances in the city telling her that uniformed people from the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office arrived at her registered address looking for her. They said she was wanted for questioning in regard to a battle that took place between Jewish partisans and villagers of Kaniukai in 1944 – a battle in which she denies involvement. Since then she has not gone back to Lithuania for fear of being arrested or taken in for questioning.
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“I’m too old for this,” Margolis, who will be 89 this year, told The Jerusalem Post
in a telephone interview. “My life is here now, my daughter lives here, I will soon have more grandchildren.”
Margolis, Yitzhak Arad and two others have been the targets of a campaign started in 2006 in Lithuania to investigate those who joined the partisans for alleged war crimes against Lithuanian civilians during World War II.
“This is outrageous,” says Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem and coordinator of Nazi war crimes research worldwide for the center. “Not a single Lithuanian war criminal has been punished in Lithuania and they are going after elderly Jewish people?”
Some 15 suspected Lithuanian war criminals were found in the United States in the 1990s, says Zuroff, of whom only three stood trial in Lithuania: Aleksanzras Lileikis, commander of the Saugumas, the Lithuanian security police, Kzys Gimzaukas, his deputy, and Algimantas Dailize, a Saugumas operative in Vilnius. The three were stripped of their US citizenships and deported in the early- to mid-90s, but due to some serious foot-dragging – and to avoid looking “unpatriotic” – Zuroff says they only stood trial in 2000, 2001 and 2006 respectively. They were never arrested because by that time they were deemed medically unfit and were not required to attend legal proceedings. Of the three, only Dailize was convicted of accessory to murder and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment – which he never served.
“These were show trials,” says Zuroff. “Lithuania was fairly newly independent and just becoming a member of the EU and NATO, and it wanted to show that it was up to par, but it turned the whole judicial process into a farce.”
“They are doing this in order not to have to talk about the Lithuanians’ battle against the Jews, how they shot the Jews. My parents, my whole family was shot by Lithuanians. They don’t want to talk about that, but they want to show that the Jews did them a lot of harm,” Margolis said in a 2009 interview with Dovid Katz, founder of the Web site Holocaust in the Baltics (www.holocaustinthebaltics.com) and of the Vilnius Yiddish Institute at Vilnius University.
Brooklyn-born Katz, who is of Lithuanian heritage, moved to Vilnius in 1999 to start the Yiddish Institute and only began his Web site – which houses an impressive collection of entries, statements, documents, links and photographs in Lithuanian, English and Yiddish related to the Holocaust in the three Baltic states – in September 2009.
“I started the site because I felt uncomfortable bombarding people with e-mails. With zero technical knowledge, I began to publish everything online,” Katz told the Post
. “I am dedicated to fighting this trend of Holocaust obfuscation and anti-Semitism in the Baltic states.”
Zuroff and Katz maintain that there is systematic Holocaust distortion, misinformation and miseducation in the Baltic states, and particularly in Lithuania.
“Lithuania had 220,000 Jews before the war started. By the end of 1944, 212,000 were killed – that’s 91% of Lithuania’s Jewish community. That’s one of the highest kill rates in Europe, except for Estonia, which only had 1,000 Jews,” says Zuroff, “The Nazis, while very effective, did not do this on their own. In Lithuania, Jews were killed by their neighbors before the first Nazi ever set foot in the country. They don’t talk about that. They don’t take responsibility.”
Indeed, Nazi propaganda painted local Jews as communists, adding fuel to the already existing anti-Semitic fire in the country, and according to Leonidas Donskis, a Lithuanian MP in the European Parliament, “quite a large segment of Lithuanian society is still inclined to consider Jews as collectively responsible for the mass killings and deportations of civilians, as well as other atrocities committed during the Soviet occupation,” he told CNN in June.
“The most problematic right now is the Prague Declaration,” says Katz, referring to the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism of June 3, 2008, which seeks to have European parliaments recognize the communist atrocities in the same way Nazi ones were.
The declaration states that “Europe will not be united unless it is able
to reunite its history, recognize Communism and Nazism as a common
legacy and bring about an honest and thorough debate on all the
totalitarian crimes of the past century,” and calls for the “recognition
that many crimes committed in the name of Communism should be assessed
as crimes against humanity serving as a warning for future generations,
in the same way Nazi crimes were assessed by the Nuremberg Tribunal.” It
also calls for the “establishment of 23rd August, the day of signing of
the Hitler-Stalin Pact, known as the Molotov- Ribbentrop Pact, as a day
of remembrance of the victims of both Nazi and Communist totalitarian
The document has 27 founding signatories from officials around Europe,
including Germany, the Czech Republic, Sweden and the United Kingdom. It
is also signed by European Parliament member Vytautas Landsbergis, a
former dissident and president of Lithuania, and Emanuelis Zingeris, a
Jewish member of the Lithuanian Parliament and chairman of the
International Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi
and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, also known as the
International Historical Commission for short.
This attempt at equating Nazi and Soviet crimes has been called the
“double genocide” theory, in what many see as an attempt to shirk
responsibility by claiming Jews also committed genocide against
Lithuanians, so essentially everyone’s “even.”
“This is part of a campaign to be portrayed as the victims also,” says Zuroff.
WHILE UNDOUBTEDLY Lithuania suffered under the Communist regime – the
Soviet occupation of the country in 1940 was so brutal that many
welcomed the Nazis in 1941 and as the Soviet army reoccupied the country
in 1944, hundreds of thousands were killed, deported or imprisoned –
the parallel does not stand, argues Zuroff.
Zingeris maintains that the equivalency charge is false and that the Prague Declaration is misunderstood.
“The Czech Republic is very pro-Israel. Lithuania is pro-Israel. This
accusation of anti-Semitism and such is wrong. A Soviet- Nazi conspiracy
has no place here,” he told the Post
in his office at the Seimas (the Lithuanian Parliament) in Vilnius.
However, he concedes that some of the wording in the declaration can be
viewed as problematic and, as such, insists that there should be a
declaration underlining the differences between Nazi and Soviet crimes.
He claims that an amendment was implemented in February at the
conclusion of the Crimes of the Communist Regimes conference in Prague
to reflect the differences. Article seven of this document found online –
which makes no mention of the Prague Declaration or who the signatories
are – states: “…Communism needs to be condemned in a similar way as
Nazism was. We are not equating the respective crimes of Nazism and
Communism. They should each be studied and judged on their own terrible
“Victims of Soviet crimes have a right to be remembered. There was so
much hidden during the Soviet years, Lithuanians know little about their
own history,” says Zingeris. “Israelis should include in their memory
those Jews killed by Joseph Stalin. I see no danger in commemorating the
victims of these two evil regimes on the same day [August 23]. There is
already an international Holocaust Day.”
As chairman of the International Historical Commission for the
Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation, founded in
1998, Zingeris plays an important role in Holocaust education and
research in Lithuania. The commission he heads is charged with
publishing educational materials, research projects and other findings
and founding “tolerance centers” in Lithuanian schools, of which there
are now 67.
“Anti-Semitism is a problem,” says Zingeris, “We have been sending
teachers to Yad Vashem for training and we publish materials to show the
extent of Lithuanian collaboration in the killing of Jews during WWII.”
IN 2002, Lithuania became a member of the Task Force for International
cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research and in 2003
a National Holocaust Education Program was drawn up and implemented by
the International Commission. In 2007, the Commission signed a
cooperation agreement with the Teachers’ Professional Development Center
through which teachers attend Holocaust seminars at Yad Vashem and in
Ronaldas Racinkas, the executive editor of the International Historical
Commission, says Holocaust education is mandatory in the fifth, sixth,
eighth and 10th grades in Lithuania but that it is up to the teachers to
decide how much time to spend on any given topic. “We provide
supplementary materials and encourage teachers to spend more time on
such subjects,” he tells the Post
“We also encourage them to become part of our Tolerance Centers network
and adopt our Holocaust education program, through which we try to
develop a system of values. Teenagers in our programs go on organized
trips to Paneriai and other places where Jews were killed.”
There are over 200 such sites in the country and Racinkas and his team
encourage all schools to visit them in their locations “as not everyone
can make to Paneriai.”
The high rate of Lithuanian collaboration during WWII is a sensitive
subject, he says, adding that their program makes it a point to address
the issue head on, showing the negative aspects, as painful as they are.
“It is our moral responsibility to do so. The problem is that
Lithuanians, unfortunately, still perceive the Holocaust as a tragedy
that happened to the Jews. But the Jews are part of Lithuania, we have
600 years of Jewish history here. This was a tragedy that happened to
all Lithuanians, not just Lithuanian Jews,” says Racinkas.
There are now approximately 4,000 Jews living in Lithuania, most of them in Vilnius.
“We are trying to show that the Holocaust wasn’t just about numbers,
it’s about empty streets now where once it was rich with Jewish
culture,” he adds.
DOVID KATZ is unimpressed with Zingeris, Racinkas and their efforts.
“Emanuel Zingeris is hated in the Vilnius Jewish community. He is the
man who is ‘fixing’ the Holocaust for the Lithuanians in exchange for
political gain. He is betraying the memory of the 200,000 Lithuanian
Jews killed during World War II.”
Katz’s sharp criticism of Zingeris and the Lithuanian government may be
the real reason his contract at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute was not
renewed and ends this month, he suspects.
“It is also my view that they went after Rachel Margolis because of her role in getting the Ponary Diary
published. I know of others who are finding themselves in similar situations.”
These are serious charges which Lithuanian Ambassador to Israel Darius
Degutis strongly refutes. “No one will arrest Rachel Margolis or anyone
else if they go back [to Lithuania]. Any legal action against Margolis,
Arad and others has been stopped,” he tells the Post
“Let’s look at what Lithuania has done to reconcile. This prime minister
[Andrius Kubilius] was the first to approve the compensation law [for
victims of the Holocaust] which is now making its way through the
Parliament. This government has set up a special commission for the
preservation of the Vilnius Jewish quarter. Our Holocaust education is
one of the best in Europe according to the OECD,” says Degutis.
It should also be noted that Yad Vashem has recognized 728 Righteous
Among the Nations in Lithuania, not an insignificant number for a small
Degutis adds, “When speaking about Stalinism and Nazism, Lithuanians and
eastern Europeans need to be more sensitive when using the term
‘genocide.’ I have no problem saying that I am ashamed of what some
Lithuanians did in the past. We need to be more explicit when we say we
suffered under Stalinism. It is not about comparing the two regimes, it
is about properly evaluating each of them.”
Zuroff claims that the Lithuanian government could be doing much more.
“For example, September 23 is Holocaust Day in Lithuania, the day of the
forced evacuation of the Vilnius Ghetto in 1943. If a message of
acknowledgment is there on their part, why not choose October 28 when,
in 1941, 10,000 Jews were murdered by Lithuanians in Kaunas? They have
to think of the message they are sending.”
“The Prague Declaration must be rescinded,” adds Katz.
“But things don’t happen in one day,” counters Degutis. “Critics such as
Efraim Zuroff and Dovid Katz are too reactionary. They won’t focus on
anything positive that we do.”
Last month, the Lithuanian government announced that the Lithuanian PM
has set up a task force for the development of a Litvak Heritage Forum
which would “unite all Litvaks across the globe into a community.” The
Simon Wiesenthal Center blasted the move and accused the Lithuanian
government of “trying to enlist Jewish support for its ongoing campaigns
of Holocaust distortion and promoting a false equivalency between
Communist and Nazi crimes.”
“Such an initiative is the equivalent of forming an Armenian support
group for Turkish efforts to deny the Armenian genocide,” said Zuroff in
a press release on the matter.
The Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, the world’s largest
organization of Jews of Lithuanian descent (Litvaks), called for a
boycott of the new initiative on Tuesday. Association chairman Josef
Melamed commented: “Our association understands the Lithuanian
government’s true intentions: muster Litvak support for a false
narrative of World War II that minimized the extensive complicity of
Lithuanian Nazi collaborators in the mass murder of the Jews in
Lithuania and outside her borders.”
“This is an outrageous case of national identity theft,” adds Dovid Katz.
SO IS Lithuania doing enough to battle its Holocaust demons? Zuroff doesn’t think so.
“You can’t say that Lithuania doesn’t talk about the Holocaust. It does.
A lot. But it omits and distorts very critical parts,” says Zuroff.
In the fall, the Simon Wiesenthal Center will release its annual report
on the worldwide investigation and prosecution of Nazi war criminals, of
which the initial findings were published on Holocaust Day in April.
The full 50-page report includes details about the number of
convictions, indictments and ongoing investigations of Nazis in European
countries and a most-wanted list. The Center also gives out grades
based on performance over the last year. In 2006, Lithuania got a B for
its conviction of Dailize but when the courts refused to implement the
punishment “we were astounded,” says Zuroff. Since then, the country has
gotten an F consistently.
Darius Degutis feels that there is still room for hope.
“If we work at building on the positive, we can achieve much more. I
would like to see them trust our intentions and not resort to automatic
criticism every time we make a move.”
The writer is the op-ed editor at
The Jerusalem Post.
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