You discover that your grandfather had a role, even a relatively small one, in the mass murder of Jews. You’re a public figure, a journalist, your country’s best-selling author, a mother of two.
What do you do? If you are Ruta Vanagaite, you engage in what we Jews call tshuva, a process best translated as repentance. It requires examining the deeds of your family, your fellow Lithuanians, and your own. Then you express regret. But if you are Ruta Vanagaite, saying you’re sorry is not enough. You are determined to awaken the consciousness and conscience of your country, which has denied its guilt, even if that means going from Lithuania’s most popular author to someone who is daily called a traitor.
Just off the triumph of a book on women’s midlife sexuality, Vanagaite was offered a book contract for a parallel book on men. Sure, she says, but only after you publish another book I’m determined to write.
SHE WAS about to use her celebrity and talent to co-author a muckraking volume about the shameful and shocking past of her homeland, where 96 percent of the Jewish community was murdered. The vast majority of Lithuania’s 220,000 Jews living under the German occupation weren’t deported to death camps for murder. They didn’t have to be. The Jews of Lithuania were slaughtered by neighbors in Lithuania.
Since Lithuania got independence in 1990, not one of the unpunished murderers ever sat a day in jail as punishment for his crime.
Her co-author is, by his own admission, the most hated Jew in Lithuania: Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the Israeli Nazi-hunter who heads the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem. Zuroff has been trying without success for the last quarter century to get a response from Lithuanians to their culpability for these murders. He is regarded as the troublemaker from Israel, a Jew who wants to dig up long-buried secrets, who besmirches their country. Zuroffas, they call him in Lithuanian, always pronounced with a sneer. But he keeps coming back, knocking on doors, protesting neo-Nazi marches, questioning the warm reception of Lithuanian officials in Israel.
He is reviled in editorials.
Vanagaite admits that it’s her association with the Israeli Nazi-hunter that brings the most censure from her fellow Lithuanians – even more than exposing that their grandparents shot Jews.
“People tell me that I should have made the journey alone, not with Zuroff,” says Vanagaite, speaking of the odyssey to 35 of the 227 mass-murder sites in the villages and forests of the country that is the heart of their book, Musiskiai; Kelione Su Priesu (Our People: Journey With an Enemy), published in Vilna in January 2016, seven decades after the end of World War II.
TO THE surprise of the publishers and despite the topic, Our People has topped the Lithuanian best-seller list at the Pegasus Book chain ever since, propelled – at least in part – by the success of her previous book. It has stirred controversy around the country.
For Vanagaite, the experience of traveling with Zuroff, the frustrated seeker of justice for the victims, is what this journey was about. Vanagaite’s grandfather had made a list of Communist Jews for the Germans, and one uncle was a high-ranking police office.
Zuroff is named for his great-uncle Rabbi Efraim Zar, who was murdered with his wife and two sons in Vilna.
Vanagaite wrote to him and invited him to Lithuania. But why did the veteran Nazi- hunter, an observant Jew who is a walking encyclopedia of every anti-Semitic atrocity, agree to travel with her? Says Zuroff, “First of all, we don’t blame grandchildren for the sins of their grandparents.
This woman blew me away. She discovered her relatives were involved, and she felt terrible. She was already organizing education days about Judaism for Lithuanian schoolchildren. I was skeptical at first, but she won me over. As a Lithuanian, she was in a much better position than I was to be listened to.”
The journey was much harder than he expected. For Zuroff – who has spent his adult life studying Holocaust history, visiting death camps and confronting murderers – this was the most emotional ordeal of his life.
“It was a journey to hell,” he says. “To be effective in my mission, I had to create a barrier between my emotions and the work I have to do. Not here. Partly, it was my own family history. Partly it was seeing these beautiful forests near towns of regular people and knowing that many had murdered Jews.”
At each site, Zuroff recited kaddish, the prayer for the dead. “I shed more tears there than in all my research or visits to concentration camps,” says Zuroff.
Says Vanagaite, “I cried, too, but tears of anger and tears of shame that no one cared.”
LITHUANIA’S MOST infamous Holocaust site is Ponary, a forest 12 kilometers outside Vilna, where some 70,000 Jews were murdered. Vanagaite went there for the first time a decade ago with tourists from abroad. “I’d grown up in Vilna, but I had never been to Ponary. Growing up, we knew Jews were killed, and even that my aunt’s husband was somehow involved, but no one was too interested in it.”
That visit created both an interest in Jewish culture and deep horror of the behavior she sensed was lurking there.
The former Soviet archives were also being opened to the public, with the postwar trials of Nazi collaborators.
“I began to wonder how normal young men, churchgoing men, peasants, farmers could so easily become murderers,” she says. “The most horrifying details were in the reports.”
More than 20,000 Lithuanians took part in the murder. Vanagaite and Zuroff went from town to town and found eye-witnesses.
“Lithuanian villagers who witnessed the killings in their own towns didn’t know that the same was taking place around the country. No one talked about it,” says Vanagaite.
Tens of thousands of Jews were murdered in big cities like Vilna and Kovno (Kaunas), but also dozens of villages were the sites of massacres, small towns – many little known today like Lingmiany, from where Zuroff’s family comes. Other towns are remembered in the Jewish world for being homes to prestigious academies of Jewish learning, centers of scholarship like Telz and Panevezys. When Zuroff and Vanagaite visited the last, the museum curator had no idea that millions of Jews knew of his town because of the Ponevezh Yeshiva that was reestablished in Israel.
The curator had never heard of the yeshiva – nor was there any mention of it in the town’s history – let alone the slaying of Jews there.
“I needed to expose this,” says Vanagaite.
“I realized no one else was going to do it.”
Our People, the book title, has become a brand – referring to the Lithuanians’ view of themselves as a homogeneous people that the Jews, despite their achievements, had no part in. Debates have ensued around Lithuania on the degree of guilt they bear today.
A list of over a thousand collaborators is scheduled to be published soon by a government agency.
Even though most of the perpetrators are old or dead, young people are open to hearing, says Vanagiate.
Her young adult son and daughter say they are proud of their mother.
This week Vanagaite will be in Israel, joining Lithuanian survivors and their offspring to present the book. Among them, she is a heroine.
She says, “I am grateful that they invited me. I am looking forward to being in an environment where I don’t have constant hostility addressed to me.
“This is my way of making amends, although it will never be enough, for my people.” The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.