(photo credit: REUTERS)
MOLETAI, LITHUANIA – If anyone had told me prior to this week’s Holocaust memorial event here that numerous people from all over the country, the majority of whom were ethnic Lithuanians, would participate, I would have considered them delusional. Yet that is precisely what took place earlier this week here in Moletai (Malyat in Yiddish), where at least 3,000 persons, the majority of whom are not Jewish, marched about two and- a-half kilometers from the center of town to the main site of the mass murder of 2,000 Jewish residents of Moletai exactly 75 years ago.
The fate of Moletai’s Jewish community was exactly the same as that of all the provincial Jewish communities of Lithuania, which together included approximately 100,000 Jews and were virtually totally annihilated during the summer and fall of 1941 by the Nazis, with the active participation of numerous local collaborators from all strata of Lithuanian society. Until recently, this latter fact was rarely acknowledged by the country’s leaders, and certainly never sufficiently emphasized, neither in the school curriculum nor even at Holocaust memorials.
On the contrary, Lithuania was one of the most active promoters of the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes, and state-sponsored research organizations focused almost exclusively on the latter, virtually ignoring the former. In addition, much effort was invested to enlist European support for a joint memorial day for all victims of totalitarian regimes, which undermines the uniqueness of the Holocaust and might very well jeopardize the future of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Yet despite the ostensibly overwhelming odds against historical truth regarding the Holocaust, the participation of so many mostly young Lithuanians in the march at Moletai is proof that positive changes are taking place in this largest of Baltic republics.
In order to understand why these changes are taking place, we must examine two events which took place during the past six months. The first was the publication of Musiskiai by popular Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite, who only recently discovered that her grandfather and uncle had played a role in Holocaust crimes, and set out with me to visit 35 sites in Lithuania and Belarus where Lithuanians had carried out the mass murder of Jews. Purposely written in the popular style, the book clearly delineates the highly significant role of Lithuanians in the murders, and openly assails the failure of all Lithuanian governments since independence to acknowledge the full scope of these crimes.
Contrary to all expectations, the book became a best-seller overnight, but most importantly, it inspired a much more open discussion regarding Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes.
The second event was an incredibly powerful article published about a week before the march by noted Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivaskevicius entitled, “I am not Jewish,” on www.delfi.lt, Lithuanian’s leading and most influential news portal. Ivaskevicius, who grew up in Moletai, presents an impassioned and highly emotional plea to his fellow Lithuanians to participate in the memorial march in Moletai, and finally begin the process of sincere reconciliation with the Jews and a long overdue acceptance of the victims of the Holocaust as neighbors and fellow citizens.
Obviously, there are still many Holocaust-related issues in Lithuania which remain unresolved, such as the glorification of Holocaust perpetrators who were heroes of the anti-Soviet resistance, the continued promotion of the double-genocide theory, the neglect of many murder sites and the inappropriate events at the Seventh Fort in Kaunas.
But in the wake of the march in Moletai, it appears that there are many Lithuanians, and especially young people, who realize that a profound change in the approach to the subject of the Holocaust is absolutely necessary to help heal their country. They also understand that the only way to emerge from the shadows cast by Lithuanian complicity is to shed light on them, not to hide them. So let us all hope that the new spirit on display in Moletai will mark the beginning of a new era in Lithuania.
The author is 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 (Our People; Journey With an Enemy), Alma Littera, 2016. His websites are www.operationlastchance.org and www.wiesenthal.com. He can be followed on Facebook and @EZuroff.