In an unprecedented partnership to discover the truth about the Holocaust in Lithuania, the Jerusalem-based Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff and Lithuanian writer Rūta Vanagaite undertook a 40-day journey together through the country – and co-author a book about it. What makes things even more poignant is that Vanagaite was motivated by her discovery before the trip, that her relatives had played a role in the persecution of Jews by Lithuanians, while Zuroff – whose maternal grandparents were born in Lithuania – was named for a great-uncle murdered with his family in Vilnius.
“When we set out on our mission to visit sites of mass murder of Jews by Lithuanians during the Holocaust, we were not really sure what we would find,” they write. “After all, no one had ever attempted to do so, let alone a descendant of the perpetrators together with a Nazi-hunter who was a descendant of the victims.” During their harrowing journey, Vanagaite and Zuroff interviewed eyewitnesses, found mass graves of the victims and vowed to do whatever they could “to inform Lithuanian society about the scope and nature of this terrible tragedy.” When they launched their book in 2016 in Lithuanian, Mūsiškiai: Kelionė su priešu (Our People: Journey with an Enemy), at a restaurant in Vilnius that had been the wartime base of a notorious Lithuanian murder squad, it became an instant bestseller. Despite harsh criticism by the Lithuanian government, they say, “large segments of the public... welcomed Mūsiškiai as the first book of its kind to tell the truth about the scope of Lithuanian complicity in the annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry in an interesting and easily readable manner.” The government took revenge in 2017, when the publisher, Alma Littera, severed relations with Vanagaite and removed all 27,000 copies of her six books, only one of which dealt with the Holocaust, from all the bookstores in Lithuania.
“When Vytautus Landsbergis, the father of Lithuanian independence, suggested that she should do her countryment a favor and commit suicide, she realized that she could no longer reside safely in her homeland, and she moved to Jerusalem,” the preface states.
The authors say that rather than burying the issue, which the government sought to do, the Holocaust has become a hot topic of debate in Lithuania. They cite the example of the debates over whether antisemitic political leaders such as Kazys Skirpa or Holocaust perpetrators who became prominent in the anti-Soviet resistance after World War II such as Jonas Noreika should be lionized as national heroes.
Efforts to hide Holocaust crimes have thus been challenged, they argue, and the first steps toward an accurate historical narrative of the Shoah are being “painfully” taken.
“We hope and pray that this will indeed be the case, and if so, the many tears we shed as we traversed Lithuania will not have been in vain,” they write.
Vanagaite and Zuroff take turns in telling their stories and the stories of the people they interview and places they visit, including the dozens of Holocaust mass murder sites and neglected gravesites in Lithuania and Belarus. They document the role played by the pre-war Lithuanian political leadership and the thousands of ordinary Lithuanians in the murder of their Jewish neighbors, and uncover hints of the rich life that had existed in hundreds of Jewish communities across Lithuania.
On the day that Hitler began the war on June 22, 1941, the authors tell us, the Lithuanian Activist Front, led by Skirpa, broadcast an address entitled, “Let’s liberate Lithuania forever from the yoke of Jewry.” Addressed to “Lithuanian brothers and sisters,” it contains some of the most offensive antisemitic language ever documented, which is why it is worth repeating here:
Vytautas the Great granted Jews the right of refuge in Lithuania, believing they would not transgress the obligations of being polite guests. This, however, was only see as an initial opportunity for the bloodsucking tick of Israel to insinuate itself into the body of the Lithuanian people.
Before they embark on their “mission impossible,” the two writers have an interesting exchange about facing the truth about the horrors of the past.
“Let me face this truth,” Vanagaite says. “Let us face it together. Let’s start the journey with an enemy. We’ll split the gas. Hopefully, we will not fight all the time; otherwise, this journey could become a nightmare.” Zuroff replies, “Okay. Let it be a ‘No Violence Journey with the Enemy.’”
And so they embark on “a journey with the enemy” to 40 destinations. Before each destination, they note how many Jews had lived there before the Shoah. An estimated 212,000 of the 220,000 Lithuanian Jews who lived there under the Nazi occupation were murdered in the Holocaust, more than 96% of the Lithuanian Jewish population.
Thus, for example, the chapter on Kaunas/Kovno begins by telling the reader that at the end of the 19th century, more than 25,000 Jews lived there (35.9% of the local population), while the community numbered around 30,000 before the Shoah.
They begin their visit to Kaunus with a professional Jewish guide, Chaim Bargman, who disputes Zuroff’s claim that many Jews had been murdered by firehoses shoved into their mouths and the water turned on to explode their stomachs.
“I certainly was not knowingly lying,” Zuroff says. “I had no reason to doubt the testimony of the German army photographer, but now I have to admit that Chaim cast some serious doubt on the story.” They then visit the site of the first of many mass murders in Lithuania: Some 416 men and 47 women were shot at the Seventh Fort in Kaunus on July 4, 1941, according to the Jäger Report.
“All the Jews were pushed together into the pit and shooting took only half an hour,” he wrote. “They kept shooting until no one moved in the pit.”
At the site, a camp counselor shows them a memorial post in the high grass of the Seventh Fort where a children’s summer camp is taking place. They find a Cold War museum and a chemistry laboratory and see the children engaged in various activities. “How is it possible that mass murder sites have been privatized?” they ask.
The web page of the Kaunas Seventh Fort describes the site as “an oasis of nature and history” where celebrations and corporate gatherings are held, and it invites children to celebrate their birthdays there with activities that include a “Treasure Hunt.” Seventy-five years ago, they recall, Pranas Matiukas, a murderer of the Jews, hunted treasure in the large pit filled with corpses and after the war, worked as a dental technician in Joniškelis. “How many gold teeth pulled from the mouths of corpses were melted down and placed in the mouths of the residents of Joniškelis?” they ask. “Maybe a few teeth are still left in the pit at the Kaunus fort, and it might be profitable for parents to pay the three euros for the ‘Treasure Hunt’ there?” Zuroff says, “Don’t you think that on the way from this horrific place we should talk about antisemitism in today’s Lithuania?”
Vanagaite responds, “Yes, we should. Many Lithuanian people of my generation have some antisemitic prejudices. I understand them... Lithuanians of my generation, or younger, have never met real Litvaks. The majority were killed, the rest emigrated, and what we encountered were mostly Soviet Jews who came here after the war...” After a fascinating exchange, Zuroff tells Vanagaite, “Listen you were antisemitic before the Soviets, then they made it worse.”
“Yes, they made it worse,” she agrees.
While I can’t go into all the mind-boggling details that the book reveals during the protagonists’ journey in Lithuania – from Linkmenys, the ancestral home of Zuroff’s mother’s family to Panevezys, the home of one of the most important yeshivot in prewar Lithuania – it is both fascinating and shocking.
They end their journey with “a heavy heart. Not exactly the same heavy heart – different nuances, different emphases – but what we clearly share is a sense of anger and frustration at what happened.” Vanagaite prefers to call it “a strong sense of shame. And of disgust. Because of what happened then, and because of how we forgot all this. For the criminal indifference of many people in Lithuania.” Zuroff says this is the difference between them. “I feel the anger,” he writes. “Because no explanation in the world is sufficient to explain – and certainly not to justify – what happened. And that leaves us with the crime itself.” Vanagaite says they have one common enemy: indifference. Zuroff begs to differ, saying they have two enemies – indifference and ignorance. “This book is mostly to fight the other enemy.”
I recommend this book for those who want to know the truth, and care about it. Honestly, it should be essential reading at schools in Lithuania, Israel and throughout the world.
As Vanagaite concludes, the book sold 19,000 copies in Lithuania, and is passed on from one reader to the other, leaving many readers in tears; there is a waiting list to borrow the book at all the libraries in the country. It doesn’t matter, she says, that it has been removed from all bookstores, which don’t dare to sell it anymore. “The learning process has already begun – an important part of healing for Lithuanian society.” Our People: Discovering Lithuania’s Hidden Holocaust
Rūta Vanagaite and Efraim Zuroff
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2020
Hardback 240 pages; $24.95