Yad Vashem and the Holocaust in Lithuania

Lithuanians must acknowledge their society’s active complicity in the murder of its Jewish citizens

The Holocaust memorial at Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania (photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
The Holocaust memorial at Paneriai near Vilnius, Lithuania
(photo credit: INTS KALNINS / REUTERS)
The grave accusations made by Danny Ben-Moshe in his piece, “Yad Vashem and the two genocides” (August 12), are far from true and distort the actual situation. He raises well-known problems regarding Lithuania’s attitude toward its Holocaust history, while offering no constructive ideas on how to tackle them.
For its part, Yad Vashem has long been addressing these issues directly with the Lithuanians.
First, it has been conducting comprehensive seminars for Lithuanian educators (more than 200 to date) at its International School for Holocaust Studies, in order to ensure that appropriate remembrance and historically sound understanding of the Shoah is passed on to the next generation of Lithuanians.
Second, in discussions with Lithuanian leaders and historians, Yad Vashem has always made very clear its position that there can be no equivalence whatsoever between the “two genocides,” between Hitler’s and Stalin’s crimes, and that celebrating local fascist collaborators with the occupying German Nazis is no way to build a healthy, democratic national narrative.
Third, for much the same reason, and to ensure that the field of historical memory is not abandoned to those seeking to blur responsibility for the crimes, Yad Vashem has chosen to participate in the renewed “Commission for the Evaluation of the Crimes of the Nazi and Soviet Occupational Regimes in Lithuania,” under very specific conditions – just as it did over 10 years ago, when it participated in the commission’s first tenure. Indeed, before we agreed to rejoin the commission, we submitted substantive prerequisites and received concrete Lithuanian assurances that they would be fulfilled.
These included a commitment to establish two distinct sub-commissions, one that would study the crimes of the Holocaust and one that would focus on the Soviet era. The Lithuanian government accepted our demand that the reason for this distinction be explicitly stated in their president’s constituting decree, namely that it takes “into consideration the unique and unprecedented nature and scope of the Holocaust” and that the government has “an intent to distinguish between the crimes committed by the Nazi Occupation Regime and the Soviet Occupation Regime.” Such historically significant statements had not previously been part of official Lithuanian discourse.
Other well-known Western researchers of the Holocaust in Lithuania, such as Dr. Christoph Dieckmann, who has recently published an extensive and definitive study on the Holocaust in Lithuania, have been slated by the Lithuanian government to join the renewed commission.
Furthermore, we have made it clear that Yad Vashem will participate only in the sub-commission designated to study the crimes of the Holocaust in Lithuania.
Unfortunately, Ben-Moshe’s article contains significant errors and omissions. For example, the original commission was also constituted in 1999 as two separate sub-commissions. The sub-commission studying the Holocaust was totally autonomous and published a number of important studies and findings. Prof. Dov Levin of the Hebrew University and Yad Vashem’s representative, Dr. Yitzchak Arad, resigned from the commission, not because they found fault with its research or publications, to which they were partners and contributed from their vast knowledge, but because Lithuanian authorities had outrageously begun to investigate several Jewish partisans, including Arad himself, for purported “war crimes,” supposedly committed during World War II. Yad Vashem protested vigorously at the time to the highest governmental levels in Lithuania, and Arad, British historian Martin Gilbert and others resigned at its behest, thereby compelling the commission to suspend its work.
Much work remains to be done to ensure that Lithuanians engage their past as openly and as objectively as possible, especially regarding their society’s active complicity in the murder of its Jewish citizens.
Rather than adopting a populist tack against Lithuania, Yad Vashem seeks to make certain that the confrontation with Lithuania’s acrimonious and troubled past should be part of its current national discourse.
That is why Yad Vashem agreed to rejoin the commission. No less important, it is why Yad Vashem continues to work with a new generation of Lithuanian teachers and researchers to explore, study and transmit, as accurately as possible, the tragic fate of Lithuania’s Jews during the Shoah.
Prof. Dina Porat is the chief historian at Yad Vashem and head of the Kantor Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University.