Much has been written in past years about the systematic efforts of the Lithuanian government to distort the history of the Holocaust, to promote the canard of equivalency between Communist and Nazi crimes, as well as the glorification of anti-Soviet resistance fighters, even if they had actively collaborated with the Nazis in the mass annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry.
Unfortunately, despite the serious nature of these crimes of historical omission and commission, the misdeeds of successive Lithuanian governments did not arouse sufficient protests and condemnations, neither in Israel nor in the European Union or the United States. On all three fronts, especially during the last decade, it was always diplomacy as usual, with nary a word or serious gesture of protest, despite the fact that the false narrative invented by the Lithuanians presented a serious danger to the future of Holocaust education and commemoration, as well as the accuracy of the historical narrative.
In the wake of recent events, however, it now appears that there is a serious chance that the Lithuanian authorities will be finally be challenged regarding their systematic Holocaust distortion. The story begins about three weeks ago, when the Vilnius district court rejected a suit initiated by an American Jew of Lithuanian origin named Grant Gochin to get the government to remove a plaque in honor of Jonas Noreika. Noreika was a hero of the anti-Soviet postwar resistance, who during the Holocaust had served as the liaison between the civil administration and the German occupiers in northwestern Lithuania with horrific results.
Gochin estimated that more than a hundred of his relatives had been murdered with Noreika’s help, and their property and belongings stolen. Gochin’s suit was basically rejected on technical issues, with the court claiming that he had no basis on which to sue, despite the fate of so many of his relatives and the fact that he had obtained Lithuanian citizenship.
The verdict, as outrageous as it was, was only the beginning of this developing drama. At the same time as the verdict was made public, it emerged that the Lithuanian government’s Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, which is regularly consulted to resolve various historical issues regarding the Holocaust and German and Soviet occupations, had submitted an unsigned expert opinion to the court to provide historical analysis and evidence to exonerate Noreika.
It was, however, so full of errors and patently false assertions, that even those organizations that deal with Holocaust issues in Lithuania, and which in the past were reluctant to criticize Lithuania’s attempts to distort the history of the Shoah, felt compelled to issue very strong and unequivocal condemnations of the document.
Thus, for example, the document claimed that the German occupation of Lithuania was unique because from the very beginning the Lithuanians fought to regain their independence, and that the local administration that served the Nazis did so to soften the impact of the occupation. The truth is that the Lithuanian political leadership pledged allegiance to the Third Reich even before the invasion of June 1941, and the local administration was a full participant in the mass murder of Lithuanian Jewry. In addition, the document asserts that the ghetto-ization of the Jews was actually designed to improve their situation, as if it had nothing to do with the Holocaust, when this step was in fact an integral part of the implementation of the Final Solution.
As far as Noreika is concerned, the document claims that he cannot be considered a Nazi collaborator since he was an active member of the anti-Nazi underground. But his opposition to the Nazis only began in 1943, long after he had actively assisted in the mass murder of the Jews of northwestern Lithuania. The evidence that he supposedly saved Jews was his friendship with a Lithuanian who was a Righteous Among the Nations, and the “proof” of his “humanitarian nature” is among other things a prayer that he composed while in the Stutthof concentration camp (as an honorary prisoner) and a message he sent his daughter before his execution by the Soviets, in which he wrote that “hatred is destructive, but love is a creative force.”
The Lithuanian Jewish community responded immediately with community chairwoman Faina Kukliansky calling the document “an incident of institutional antisemitism,” and demanding an immediate retraction by the center. It took a few days for the contents of the document exonerating Noreika to circulate outside of Lithuania, but once that happened, the responses came fast and furious. The most important in this regard was the response of the Sub-commission for Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi Occupation Regime and the Holocaust, which is part of the International Commission for Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupation Regimes in Lithuania, established by the Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus in 1998.
After reiterating their condemnation of the commemoration in the public sphere of persons against whom there is reliable historical evidence that they participated “in any way in the persecution and/or murder of Jews and other victims during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania regardless of any other activities in which they have been engaged at that time or at a later date,” they ripped the document to shreds, disproving its arguments one by one. Thus, for example, they point out the pivotal role of the ghetto-ization of the Jews of the Siauliai district, which was ordered by Noreika, commenting “If this is not participation in the process of the genocide of Lithuania’s Jewish citizens, then what is?”
Also of significance was a response signed by current and recent chairpersons of expert groups and committees of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), among them the doyen of Holocaust historians, Prof. Yehuda Bauer. The signees note that “The IHRA Working Definition of Holocaust Denial and Distortion identifies attempts to ‘excuse or minimize the impact of the Holocaust or its principal elements, including collaborators and allies of Nazi Germany’ as tantamount to distortion of the Holocaust. We therefore urge the government of Lithuania and the center to acknowledge and condemn the activities of Jonas Noreika during the German occupation of Lithuania...” (Lithuania is a full member of the IHRA.)
To date, there has not been any official response from the Lithuanian authorities or political leadership, except for a message on the website of first head of state, Vytautas Landsbergis, who wrote, “Let’s disband the commission and stop the discussion.” It was he, who suggested to popular Lithuanian author Ruta Vanagaite to commit suicide after she questioned a decision by the parliament to honor a hero of the anti-Soviet resistance whose past was questionable, a remark that also prompted her publisher to remove all copies of her six books from the book stores.
Even more worrying has been the fact that virtually none of the criticisms has been publicized by the local media, with the exception of the portals of Lithuanian television and radio and the daily Lietuvos Zinios, which are not among the country’s most popular sites. In a related development, popular playwright Marius Ivaskevicius, who made a comment in a media interview that “we murdered our Jews,” was summoned to the police for questioning.
Until today, the Lithuanian government’s attempts to hide or minimize local participation in the murder of Jews and the glorification of individuals who participated in the Holocaust have never come under such critical scrutiny and been denounced so unequivocally. The rejection of Grant Gochin’s suit and the outrageous document by the genocide center exonerating Noreika create an opportunity that must be utilized by Israel, the European Union and the United States and Canada to start a process to help the Lithuanians understand that their efforts to rewrite the narrative of World War II and the Holocaust will no longer be tolerated.The writer is the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the director of the center’s Israel Office and Eastern European Affairs. His most recent book, together with Ruta Vanagaite, Our People; Journey With an Enemy has been published in Lithuanian, Polish, Hebrew, Russian and Swedish, and is scheduled to be in English (by Rowman and Littlefield) and Japanese in early 2020.
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