Like most South African Jews, my ancestors came from Lithuania and my family tree has family who perished in the Holocaust. I grew up with very little knowledge of what occurred in Lithuania during the Holocaust and attributed the slaughter of its Jews to the German Nazis, however, in fact, it was the Lithuanians, with very little or no German supervision, who enthusiastically carried out this slaughter and this is borne out by the testimonies of 121 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania.
On June 22, 1941, 80 years ago, the war between the Germans and Soviet Russia began. Lithuania, being a tiny country in the vast Soviet Union and bordering German, was one of the first countries the Germans occupied.
“Armed bands of Lithuanian self-described ‘partisans’ took control of Lithuanian towns as soon as the occupying Soviets left. Often, even before the Germans arrived, these bands started to terrorize and abuse the Jewish population: Partisans and others broke into Jewish homes and brazenly looted Jewish property. Jailings, torture, and summary executions began shortly afterward. First to be killed were Jews with Soviet connections; later, any perceived or invented offense could mean execution, or a Jew could be killed for no reason at all. Jews’ non-movable possessions were claimed by their Lithuanian neighbors, particularly the partisans and their families.
In towns and villages, new civilian administrations suddenly emerged from underground with the start of the German invasion. Lithuanian mayors, police chiefs and civil servants worked hand in hand with the partisans and a few Germans. These new governments often worked to extort money, jewelry and household goods from the Jews.
Jews were harassed and subjected to harsh decrees. They were forced to wear yellow armbands, forbidden to walk on sidewalks, barred from trading or even talking with non-Jews, and permitted to leave their houses only at certain times each day. Jews had to report for forced labor that in many cases was designed to be demeaning, harsh and degrading. Guarded by armed Lithuanians, they were constantly tormented, humiliated, beaten and starved.
Jews were forced to remove Torah scrolls and holy books from synagogues and study houses and burn them. Rabbis were humiliated, often having their beards cut or ripped off. Jewish women were frequently raped, and often tortured and killed afterward.
Within several weeks of the German invasion, most Jews were forced out of their homes and confined in small, closed areas, without food or water, and subject to constant harassment and torture as they were prepped for the final slaughter. Many died during this process. Often their former neighbors turned up to watch Jews being beaten and bludgeoned. In other cases, Jews were crowded into tiny ghettos in rundown areas. Hunger, thirst, and filth was common, and disease followed.
Eventually, the Jews were taken to pits dug in nearby forests to be shot. Amid the chaos of this organized slaughter, many were buried alive in the pits. At times partisans broke small children on their knees or bashed their heads on trees before throwing them, half dead, into a pit.”
Who committed the crimes, and who knew?
“From the 121 testimonies, it is clear that the slaughter of the Jews was widely known. Townsfolk saw Jews being confined, tortured, abused and taken away. Peasants with wagons at times helped to transport Jews and their property.
Besides that portion of the population that actively participated in the slaughter of the Jews, or engaged in torture or rape, many local people appropriated or “inherited” Jews’ houses. The same happened with household property, including the clothes Jews had to remove at the pits before they were murdered. Money and jewelry not taken by the Germans or by those in charge was extorted by townsfolk or rural people.
It was common for Jews to entrust their property to Lithuanian friends or neighbors, “until after the war.” The mass slaughter meant that most often, this property was never reclaimed. In some cases Lithuanians later betrayed Jews who tried to recover their property.
On the other side, there were Lithuanians who were honest, and who risked their own lives and the lives of their family members to help Jews. Today we salute, honor, and thank them. Moreover, it is important to recognize that contemporary Lithuanians are not guilty of the crimes of earlier generations.
Yet, the current Lithuanian government, unlike the German government, is reluctant to take full responsibility for the genocide committed on its territory. Indeed, some of the perpetrators have been honored as heroes for resisting the Soviet occupation. They have commemorative plaques and streets named after them. None of these “heroes” were prosecuted when alive.
The extent of participation in the genocide of Jews and collaboration with Nazis is still downplayed in Lithuania and the current Lithuanian government is seeking to legislate their responsibility away.” (1)
“There are now about 5,000 Jews in Lithuania and many are from Russia who settled during the Soviet era. There were about 220,000 Jews in Lithuania at the start of World War II and about 20,000 survived the Holocaust mainly by fleeing.
“Most towns had Jewish residents and what you can see now are the old houses of Jewish merchants around the town square, found in front of the main church. You can recognize these houses as they had bricked up entries. The shul (synagogue) would be found a street or two back from the main square, if not destroyed, now used for storage or other purposes and generally there are neglected and desecrated cemeteries just outside the town, at best with tombstones removed, with some built over. Lastly every town has its Jewish killing site, generally in the forest outside the town and maybe if it is a very small town the Jews were sent to the nearest big town. There are about 200 killing sites scattered all over Lithuania.
“Today, decades after the lifting of the Iron Curtain, the government has started to properly signpost and mark the killing fields, to erect monuments to those killed and there is a day set aside each year to remember all those killed. I liked to think that the locals are trying to come to grips with their past. However, there is a Genocide Museum in Vilna to remember the 22,000 Lithuanians who lost their lives during the Soviet era, but there is no mention of the 200,000 Jews that were slaughtered in Lithuania during the Holocaust, mainly by the Lithuanians themselves.
“At dusk on my last day in Vilna I was walking home through a market. There was a man sitting on a chair with a tray on his lap filled with carved faces for sale. I caught only a glimpse of the faces but to me they looked like grotesque carvings with exaggerated Jewish features. I was shocked. I did not want to look again and kept walking. Did I imagine it?” (2)
Lithuania was beautiful to visit. I was, however, overwhelmed with sadness.
Sources: (1) The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews (2) Our Litvak Inheritance, both compiled by David Solly Sandler, firstname.lastname@example.org