In honor of Lituanian memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust

During the Nazi occupation of 1941-44, the order in Lithuania was so efficient, that there were almost no Germans in the local administration or police.

The Jewish cemetery of Šeduva, a Lithuanian town once home to a majority of Jews (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish cemetery of Šeduva, a Lithuanian town once home to a majority of Jews
(photo credit: Courtesy)
My dear murdered Lithuanian Jew! You are lying there in a pit in a forest on top of other murdered Jewish men and women. And children, of course. I think of you quite often. I was thinking of you while writing my book about the Holocaust in Lithuania, and I was thinking about you last week on the Lithuanian memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, and the pope himself was praying for you in the Vilna ghetto... Now, that I am not living in Lithuania any more, I feel I abandoned you...
How did you die? How are you resting there, in the pit?
I read an exhumation protocol about the mass grave in Lazdijai: “The victims are lying in three or four layers, the majority of the bodies are lying bent over, with their hands covering their heads or their eyes, some victims are holding a body of a child.”
And then I saw a video interview of one of the killers who served in a Lithuanian self-defense battalion. His name was Juozas.
The journalist asked him, “How did you shoot the Jews?”
He replied, “The Jews would walk in a line, silent like sheep, then at the pit they would remove their outer clothes, remaining in their underwear, lie down in the pit face down, on top of the Jews already murdered. And if there was father with a son, the father would lie down and put his arm around the child. Then we would shoot.”
“Whom would you shoot first: the father or the son?” asked the journalist.
“Are we some kind of beasts who would shoot the child in front of his father? Of course we shot the father first.”
So our Lithuanian killers were not beasts. There were human. They were ordinary people just doing their job. As the historians of the Lithuanian Genocide and Resistance Research Center would write: “The Nazis succeeded in dragging some of the soldiers of the Lithuanian battalions into participating in the mass murder of the Jews.”
“The job was very unpleasant, actually, a disgusting job,” said Juozas at the end of the interview.
There is a heated debate now in my country whether the memorial plaque for Jonas Noreika, former head of the Siauliai district under the Nazi occupation, should be removed. No, say the Lithuanian patriots, it should be preserved! He was such a brave anti-Soviet fighter!
WRITING ABOUT Noreika, the historians of the Genocide Center used their very safe formula to describe his role. “The Nazis managed to drag Jonas Noreika into participating in the genocide of Lithuanian Jews.”
What exactly Noreika did do after being “dragged” into the crime? He ordered all Siauliai Jews to move into the ghetto. They never came back. Perhaps Noreika also felt that this job was unpleasant, even disgusting? Maybe. But a job is a job. And as one of Lithuania‘s political leaders is currently asking: “Can we condemn a person who serves in the administration of an occupied country for collaborating with the occupiers? People had to obey orders.”
And in this case, the orders seemed like the right thing to do. It was not difficult to obey, especially since the Lithuanian civil administration was given the right to distribute the Jewish property. Of course, some of the valuables had to be given to the Germans, but the rest would be distributed by the Lithuanian administration to its population. So, the Lithuanian civil servants could implement a favorable social policy for the sake of their own people. Anyway, Jews got rich by exploiting Lithuanians, didn‘t they?
That‘s exactly what Noreika himself wrote in his early literary pamphlet, “Raise Your Head, Lithuanian!”
During the Nazi occupation of 1941-44, the order in Lithuania was so efficient, that there were almost no Germans in the local administration or police. They were not needed. Orders and instructions were issued by the German Gebietskommisar, and they were implemented without any problems by the Lithuanians. Orders to identify and isolate all the local Jews. Orders to find a place for a ghetto, put a fence around it, round up the Jews and guard them, take all Jewish property and organize its distribution. Jews were alive, squeezed and starving in the ghettos and in the meantime, all over Lithuania commissions for distributing their property were working full speed. The Siauliai commission gave Noreika a big Jewish house. So he moved into it with this family.
As Lithuanian historians would say, “He was dragged into moving.” The Jewish owner of the house and his family were most probably still alive. The order to shoot them would come a few weeks or even months later. The order to carry out the murders would not be given to Noreika, but to other Lithuanians.
Yes, Noreika was a Lithuanian patriot. No doubt about it. He sincerely believed that Lithuania would be better off with no Jews there. But the Germans did not stop with the orders regarding Jews. No, they had bigger plans for Lithuania.
IN FEBRUARY 1943, after almost all the Lithuanian Jews had already been murdered, the Germans asked the Lithuanian civil administration to mobilize 30,000 Lithuanian men into SS units. And Lithuania said no. Noreika and many of his colleagues refused to obey this order. The mobilization of Lithuanian men failed, because without the help of the local administration and police forces, the Nazis could not do a thing. They had only a few hundred German policemen in the country and were unable to punish those who disobeyed their orders, and thus only a total of about 50 Lithuanians were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp, including Noreika.
It should be noted that a large number of these protesters had participated in the genocide of Lithuanian Jewry. Noreika himself was actually granted status as an “honorary prisoner,” since the Nazis could not totally disregard what he has done for them in 1941-1942.
Do you know, my dear murdered Jew, that your pit is just one of very many in my country, 227 altogether? Do you know that we have quite a few memorial plaques or monuments for individuals who participated in the mass murder of your people? We have a plaque in the center of Vilnius for Jonas Noreika and also a provincial school named after him. We also have a monument for two commanders of the murder squads: Juozas Krikstaponis in Ukmerge and Juozas Barzda near Plunge, as well as a beautiful street named after our prime minister of 1941, Kazys Skirpa, a supporter of the Nazis, and an arch enemy of the Jews.
Do you know that we are not yet ready to remove any of them? It is only 75 or 77 years since you were shot. It is less than 30 years since we retained our independence. You, murdered Jew of Lithuania, should wait a little bit longer, at least some 20 years until we are ready. So keep holding your child tight in your arms. You were lucky not to see how he was murdered. We, Lithuanians, were not some kind of beasts.
Lithuanian writer Ruta Vanagaite is the author of several best sellers, including with Efraim Zuroff, Musiškiai; Kelione su Priešu (Our People; Journey with an Enemy), which chronicles Lithuanian complicity in Holocaust crimes. All her books were removed from the book stores in Lithuania after she criticized a government initiative to honor an anti-Soviet hero whose past was questionable.