English / Lithuania and Jews Today / “Can Lithuania face its Holocaust past”.

Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the writer, explains why thousands of Jews, especially Holocaust survivors, boycotted the Congress in Vilnius. The Lithuanians did not do anything to fulfill their duty as a free country. They did not bring to court or punish even one murderer of Jews during the Second World War.The Lithuanians did not fulfill the agreement in which they promised to supply information to the Israeli Lithuanian Committee, which was created in order to check the immunity given to the murderers of Jews. It’s no wonder that Holocaust survivors do not believe the Lithuanians.

 

Can Lithuania face its Holocaust past? Reflections of a concerned Litvak.

Excerpts from lecture given by Dr. Efraim Zuroff, Director of the Wiesenthal Center, Jerusalem, at the conference on “Litvaks in the World,” August 28, 2001.

As the grandson of Shmuel Leib Zar of Lingmiany and Beila Gifter Zar of Shaduva, may I say how especially pleased I am to be able to participate in this conference of Litvaks, which for me is a family gathering.  I am only sorry that more of my fellow Litvaks are not here with us, but to perfectly honest, I am not surprised.  This is because the topic I would like to speak on is one of the reasons that some Litvaks, especially those from Israel, decided not to join us here today.

 That topic is Lithuania’s Holocaust past, an issue that hovers like an ominous black cloud over the Jewish past in this country and continues to dominate Lithuanian-Jewish relations.  Twenty minutes are obviously not enough to adequately describe the role played by Lithuanians in the Holocaust, but perhaps I can leave you with several images, which illustrate the depth of the problem.

With so much attention focused in recent years on the Sagumas (Lithuanian wartime security police), and the police battalions due to the cases of Lileikis, Gimzauskas, Gecevius and others, there is a tendency to overlook terrible cruelty of the Lithuanian population during the initial days and weeks of the Nazi invasion.  In at least forty communities, Jews were physically attacked by their Lithuanian neighbors before the Nazis arrived, and in many places such attacks were accompanied by indescribable brutality. In Uzpaliai, the murderer Caponis raped the daughter of the local rabbi Leib Kamerantz in front of him and then imprisoned Rabbi Kamerantz for several days without food or water before finally executing him. In Birziai, the local shochet (ritual slaughterer) was murdered by local townspeople who tied his beard to a horse’s tail and sent the animal galloping through the streets until the man was dead. In Papile, the local rabbi, Abraham Hacohen Levin was forced to eat pork soup before he was murdered (see article “Murder of Lithuanian rabbis”).

In major cities, the situation was, of course, no different. Who can forget the horrifying testimony of the German photographer who witnessed the brutal murder of tens of Jews in the Lietukis garage on June 27, 1941?  (See article on Lietukis).

 And on that patriotic note, who can ignore the words of Major Anatanas Impulevicius who reminded the men of the 12th Lithuanian Auxiliary Battalion prior to setting out for their mass murder mission in Belarus that they should fulfill their mission “with resolute will, honesty and honor. Always and everywhere show yourselves worthy of the noble name of a Lithuanian soldier because you are the representatives of the entire Lithuanian nation.”

 The results of this patriotism and its impact on Lithuanian Jews and Jews elsewhere speak for themselves:

1.      More than 96% of the 200,000 Jews who lived under Nazi occupation in Lithuania were murdered during the Holocaust, many by Lithuanians.

2.      Lithuanian police battalions murdered thousands more Jews outside Lithuania, primarily in Belarus but also Poland and the Ukraine.

3.      Thousands of Jews from countries in Central and Western Europe were transported to Lithuania and also murdered by Lithuanians.

 And who better to describe the Lithuanian role in the aforementioned murders than Ona Simaite, the courageous Lithuanian righteous gentile who clearly demonstrated the fact that people did have a choice at that time and that some Lithuanians helped their neighbors. These are her recollections recorded after the war:

“With the onset of World War 2, relations between Jews and Lithuanians took a turn for the worse that was far in excess of anything we’d ever dreamed of. Speaking as a Lithuanian, it distresses me deeply to have to say that many of my countrymen were incapable of demonstrating any compassion towards their Jewish neighbors as the latter were being systematically tortured and persecuted by the Nazis. And I feel great sadness when I think that there were those who even actively assisted the Nazis in their quest to destroy the Jews.

“The “Ypatingas Burys” (Special Lithuanian Platoon) traveled the length and breadth of Lithuania killing tens of thousands of Jews. Individuals such as Bobelis, Piragius, and others are criminals whose names will live in infamy for all time, not just for their crimes against the Jews but also the disgrace they brought on the Lithuanian nation.  Not only did these carry out Hitler’s orders to kill all the Jews but also in many instances they displayed a ghoulish enthusiasm for torturing and terrorizing their victims before murdering them.  I saw acts of sadism and savagery with my own eyes as Lithuanian policemen supervised the transfer of the Jews to the ghetto.  Even as they were leading Jews to execution Lithuanian police were incapable of demonstrating any common decency by sparing the traumatized victims news of the horrific fate that awaited them”

With this in mind, what did Jews expect from the newly independent Lithuania?  After all we had boycotted Spain justifiably for far less for close to 500 years!

 To start with, the least that we could expect was an unequivocal explicit admission of guilt and a sincere apology, a serious attempt to prosecute murderers and a determination to teach the truth about what happened in Lithuania during the Holocaust. Today, from the perspective of more than a decade, we can say that very little has actually been done. We can start with the official declaration of the Seimas regarding Holocaust crimes, which despite being issued on behalf of the “Lithuanian people” expressed regret that “Lithuanian citizens” participated in the murders, a vague turn of phrase that could even include Jews.

Instead of immediately seeking to bring to justice those responsible for the murders, the Lithuanian authorities introduced a wide-scale rehabilitation program under which tens of thousands of Lithuanians previously convicted by Soviet courts were granted pardons and awarded generous compensation.  Even though the law excluded those who had “participated in acts of genocide,” the Wiesenthal Center discovered that at least dozens, if not hundreds and perhaps thousands of Lithuanian Nazi murderers had been granted rehabilitation.

Even worse, the theory of two genocides – the Holocaust and a purported equivalent or parallel genocide of Lithuanians – became common parlance not just among fringe elements in Lithuanian society.  Two false unholy symmetries were created and repeatedly reiterated by Lithuanian officials- the relatively few crimes of Jewish communists against Lithuanians were presented as the rationale for the participation of Lithuanians in the murder of Jews during the Holocaust.  Added to this was the blatantly untrue claim that the number of Lithuanian righteous gentiles exceeded that of Lithuanian murderers.  Another myth often circulated asserted that those Lithuanians, who actually murdered Jews, were usually social misfits, when in truth they came from all walks of life in Lithuanian society and included many members of the Lithuanian intelligentsia.

 Today, if we sum up what the Lithuanian government has achieved on these issues we can point to the following:

-         2 indictments against Lithuanian murderers – Sagumas commanders Alexandras Lileikis and Kazys Gimzauskas – which were filed only after it was clear that they were medically unfit to stand trial.  Both arrived in Lithuania long before they were indicted.  Neither sat one day in jail.

-         1 extradition request to Great Britain, submitted following a call by the Wiesenthal Center in February 2000 to initiate an investigation of 12th battalion officer Antanas Gecevicius, who was discovered living in Edinburgh.

-         47 rehabilitations cancelled in the wake of the establishment of a joint Lithuanian-Israeli commission of inquiry of which I am a member.  I should point out, however, that the research mechanism created by the commission was unilaterally disbanded by the Lithuanian government which ceased providing information to Israel commission members.  It is also important to add that the Lithuanian government did not even publicize the cancellation of the rehabilitations, let alone demand the return of property and money by those individuals whose rehabilitations were revoked. 

 

In this regard I want to use this platform to call upon the Lithuanian government to renew the activities of the joint Israeli-Lithuanian commission on rehabilitations, and give priority to the prosecution of Lithuanian Nazi murderers. Just yesterday, I submitted the names of 97 Lithuanian suspects – members of police battalions and local police units – to the director of the division for special investigations at the office of the Prosecutor General.  I can only hope therefore, that during the next few years some of the perpetrators of the Lithuanian Jewish Holocaust will finally be held to account in Lithuanian courts for their crimes.

 In conclusion, I think it would be particularly appropriate that the next Litvak congress is held in Israel, which is home to one of the largest Litvak communities and certainly the most active Litvak expatriate organization, the Association of Lithuanian Jews, headed by Adv. Joseph Melamed.  It is high time that we Litvaks gave a meaningful practical dimension to our yearly declaration, “Leshanah Haba’a BeYerushalayim,” next year in Jerusalem.

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