Lithuania at the crossroads

For the second time in three years, the Lithuanian authorities find themselves in a serious dilemma on Holocaust Memorial Day.

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September 22, 2018 20:46
4 minute read.
Lithuania at the crossroads

A visitor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum walks past a mural of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Washington, January 26, 2007. (photo credit: REUTERS/JIM YOUNG)

 
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Today, September 23, Lithuania will mark Holocaust Memorial Day, an official day of mourning for the more than 200,000 Jews murdered there during the Shoah. The decision to designate a special day for Holocaust remembrance was made in 1994, shortly following the renewal of Lithuanian independence, and the date chosen marks the liquidation by the Nazis of the Vilna Ghetto in 1943. (International Holocaust Remembrance Day is marked by many countries on January 27, the day of the liberation of Auschwitz, but hardly any Lithuanian Jews were murdered there, as some 90% of Jews victimized in Lithuania were shot near their homes.)

Today, for the second time in three years, the Lithuanian authorities find themselves in a serious dilemma on Holocaust Memorial Day, as recent events have boldly challenged the government’s highly problematic narrative of the Holocaust, which conceals the massive participation of local collaborators from all strata of Lithuanian society in the murders and refuses to allow Holocaust crimes to disqualify anti-Soviet fighters from being regarded as national heroes.

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Two years ago, the government’s problems started with the publication of Musiskiai: Kelione su Priesu (Our People: Journey With an Enemy,) which popular Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite and I wrote exposing the scope of Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes and the false premises of the official narrative of the Holocaust.

The book was a bestseller despite all the efforts of government officials to present it as Russian propaganda and a “threat to national security.” The book was followed by two op-eds by popular Lithuanian playwright Marius Ivaskevicius, urging Lithuanians to finally face the truth about their role in the Holocaust, all of which resulted in an unprecedented turnout of approximately 3,000 mostly ethnic Lithuanians to the dedication of a memorial at the mass grave in Moletai, a small shtetl in northeastern Lithuania.

What appeared to be the beginning of a possible revolution in terms of Holocaust history and acknowledgment of guilt, was thwarted by a vicious counter-attack by the authorities, in the course of defending an initiative to honor an anti-Soviet fighter, whose record in the Holocaust, as well as in the postwar period, was open to question. In fact, the government even proposed a bill in Parliament, which would ban the sale of any product which “distorts” the history of Lithuania, or questions its territorial integrity.

Now, once again, a threat to the cover-up of Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes has surfaced in a very powerful manner, from a most surprising source. In early September, The New York Times published a front-page story on the research carried out recently by Silvia Foti, a Lithuanian-American journalist living in Chicago, who is writing a book about one of Lithuania’s most-decorated heroes, anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, also known by his nom de guerre as General Vetra (General Storm).

Since Lithuania obtained independence in 1990, Noreika has been honored by many institutions. There is a school named for him in his birthplace of Sukioniai, a plaque honoring him in the Vilnius Library of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences and his name is carved in stone, along with those of other leading heroes, on the front of the Vilnius District Court.

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Foti has discovered, however, that Noreika played an important role in the roundups, murder, and robbery of the Jews in northwestern Lithuania. According to Foti, as quoted by Andrew Higgins in the Times, Noreika oversaw the murder of the 1,800 Jews of Plunge (Plungyan), as well as the annihilation of the far larger Jewish community of Sauliai. He apparently did not “pull the trigger,” but was certainly a “desk murderer.”

Normally, allegations like these, are automatically dismissed by Lithuanian officials and historians as “Russian propaganda.” The problem in this case is, however, that Silvia Foti is no ordinary journalist or researcher, she is Jonas Noreika’s granddaughter, and thus the Lithuanians now face a serious dilemma, with fingers pointed at various officials and historians who are expected to provide answers, but all of whom have hitherto passed the buck to the others.

The mayor of Vilnius expects answers from the historians of the Genocide and Resistance Research Center, who in turn expect him to decide what to do. Finally, Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius called for the removal of the plaque honoring Noreika from the library of the Academy of Sciences, but as of the writing of this article, it still remains to be seen what will happen.

Several weeks ago, Faina Kukliansky, the chairwoman of the Jewish community, called for the removal of the plaque by September 23, and hopefully this will indeed occur. The real question remains, however, whether such a welcome step will mark the beginning of a serious reassessment by the Lithuanians of their very flawed official Holocaust narrative, or will it only be another minor gesture which raised hopes but did not lead to the necessary changes to reflect the true reality of the events of the Holocaust in Lithuania?

Dr. Efraim Zuroff is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and Director of the Center’s Israel Office and European Affairs. His most recent book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, is ‘Masa im Ha-Oyev’ [Journey With the Enemy] and was recently published in Hebrew by ‘Yediot Aharonot,’ having already been published in Lithuanian, Polish and Russian.

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