Lithuania’s shame

On May 17, the remains of former head of Lithuanian Provisional Government of June 1941 post Nazi invasion to be reburied in Vilnius.

By
May 15, 2012 23:03
4 minute read.
Remembering the Holocaust

Remembering the Holocaust. (photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)

 
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On Thursday, May 17, the remains of Juozas Ambrazevičius, the head of the Lithuanian Provisional Government established in the wake of the June 1941 Nazi invasion of the Baltics, will arrive in Vilnius from the United States where he died in 1974, to be reburied in Kaunas (Kovno), with full honors.

Besides an official ceremony at Vilnius International Airport, there will be a religious service at the Church of the Resurrection in Kaunas and a rich program of cultural events to mark the occasion. In theory, this Ambrazevičius “festival” is of no interest to non- Lithuanians, but anyone knowledgeable about the history of the Holocaust in Lithuania will no doubt be disgusted and shocked by the decision to honor the wartime political leader as a Lithuanian hero.

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In order to understand why honoring Ambrazevičius is a national disgrace, the role played by Lithuanian extreme nationalists during the years 1940-1941 must be explained. On October 17, 1940, in Berlin, a group of politically right-wing Lithuanians, headed by Lithuania’s ambassador to Germany Kazys Skirpa, established the “Lithuanian Activist Front (LAF),” a political and military framework whose goal was assist Nazi Germany to oust the Soviets from Lithuania and thereby hopefully achieve at least some degree of Lithuanian independence.

Needless to say, from the very beginning of its existence, the LAF fully supported Nazi Germany and its plans for territorial expansion, as well as its notoriously anti-Semitic policies. Even before the Nazi invasion, the LAF called for the cancellation of the Jews’ civil rights in Lithuania and incited the local population to unleash violence against them.

Thus, for example, in a leaflet issued in Berlin in June 1941 prior to the Nazi invasion, the LAF declared that: “1. The old rights of sanctuary granted to the Jews in Lithuania by Vytautas the Great [in the early 15th century – EZ] are abolished forever and without reservation. 2. Hereby all Jews, without any exception, are strictly ordered to immediately leave Lithuania. 3. ...Should it become known that.... Jews guilty of grave crimes, manage to escape in secret, the duty of all honest Lithuanians is to take measures on their own initiative to stop such Jews and, if necessary, punish them....”

The Nazis invaded Lithuania on June 22, 1941, but Kazys Skirpa was not allowed to return to Lithuania, and when the Lithuanian Provisional Government was established by the LAF the next day, it was Ambrazevičius who was called upon to lead the political body which represented Lithuania’s aspirations for independence. By this time, even before the Wehrmacht troops had managed to reach most of the Jewish communities of Lithuania, serious violence inspired by LAF anti-Semitic incitement had been unleashed by local LAF supporters and others in some 46 different communities. Jews were murdered, raped, wounded, robbed and humiliated by Lithuanian nationalists who did not wait for the arrival of the Nazis to attack their Jewish neighbors.

INSTEAD OF trying to protect their Jewish fellow Lithuanian citizens and calling for a halt to the anti- Semitic violence, the LAF stoked the flames and was a willing and zealous partner of the Nazis. In fact, during its relatively short (43 days) existence, it managed to issue a myriad of anti-Semitic laws which implemented the initial stages of the Final Solution of Lithuanian Jewry. These included definition, Aryanization and concentration, which paved the way for the annihilation of 96.4 percent of Lithuanian Jewry, which was carried out with extensive local participation.

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In fact, the only aspect of the measures against the Jews which aroused the concern of the Provisional Government was that executions were being carried out in public, so they issued a recommendation that such killings should be avoided, although all measures against the Jews should definitely be implemented.

Under these circumstances, the decision of the Lithuanian authorities to honor Juozas Ambrazevičius is a grave insult to the victims of the Shoah, and especially to those murdered during the initial wave of violence inspired by the LAF and carried out by its supporters. But therein lies the heart of the problem and the motivation for Thursday’s grotesque festivities.

For it is precisely those crimes which the Lithuanian government is especially trying to hide or deny.

Thus since independence, the Lithuanians have been extremely reluctant to acknowledge the full, and very extensive, scope of local participation in Shoa crimes and have tried to deflect blame almost entirely to the Nazi invaders, but as far as the violence committed before the Nazis’ arrival, the blame is exclusively Lithuanian and therefore inexcusable, unless it is erased from the history books. By honoring the leader of the Provisional Government, the Lithuanian authorities seek to whitewash its crimes and the active partnership of its leaders in the initial phase of the Holocaust.

As someone who has followed this issue in Lithuania since it regained its independence in 1991, I cannot say that Thursday’s events are very surprising, but what I find absolutely unacceptable is the total lack of any meaningful protests from the State of Israel, the United States and the European Union.

Ambrazevičius, it is true, was neither Hitler nor Himmler but he was a zealous and willing partner, whose complicity in Holocaust crimes was limited not by his compassion and humanity, but rather by political circumstances.

To honor such individuals is to falsely rewrite the history of the Shoa in Lithuania and insult the memory of its victims, who deserve that at least the truth about their tragic deaths be recorded for posterity, and those responsible for their murder be publicly identified and shamed not honored.

The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and director of its Israel Office. His most recent book Operation Last Chance; One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan) chronicles the failure of Lithuania and other post-Communist countries to fully acknowledge their Holocaust crimes and prosecute local Nazi war criminals.

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