Austrian Volunteer Reflects on Year in Lithuania, Calls for City-Center Holocaust Museum in the Capital




O P I N I O N

by Sebastian Hager

 

Iwas proud to serve as Austria’s remembrance volunteer (Gedenkdiener) in 2013-2014. Based in Vilnius in the Green House, the country’s only serious Holocaust exhibit, I was able to travel extensively and meet Lithuanian citizens from a wide variety of backgrounds. Despite all the hype, the Jewish heritage is not really in the best of shape. There is a lot of ignorance combined with an ethnocentric nationalist worldview.

One of the worst culprits is: misinformation. When visiting schools as part of my mission, I was very often shocked by pupils’ statements. I often heard exclamations like “What? My town was half Jewish before 1941?” Something was wrong in the education these youngsters had received.

But in a way more disturbing were the reactions of those who did have in-depth historical knowledge and some sophisticated jargon. They had been trained to counter outsiders like me who take an interest in Holocaust education. From that angle the questions were along the lines of “You know, Sebastian, there were two Holocausts. After the Nazis killed the Jews there was another Holocaust by the Soviets. And by the way, in 1940 and 1941, the Jews disproportionately gained from the Soviet occupation whereas the Lithuanians were starving, so to some extent I understand the racial hatred.”

I did my level best to be an ambassador for the record of history, even if a young and imperfect one. I tried to point out that it’s utter nonsense to try to justify the horrific mass murder of civilians by trying to make leaders in the mass hysteria into some kind of “national heroes,” whether Noreika, Lukša, or Ambrazevičius-Brazaitis in Lithuania or Bandera and his ilk in Ukraine. All countries have their heroes and their criminal villains and it is sad, almost unbelievable, in the twenty-first century to see people trying to construct a romantic narrative based on the exploits of brutal collaborators in the mass murder of innocent people.

Moreover, no matter how much people in the Baltics and more generally in Eastern Europe rightly and understandably despise the Soviet period, that does not make the brutal killings of innocent people in the Soviet time genocide. Genocide, is the planned killing of a group of people with a different ethnicity, national background, “race,” a mass killing based on things people could never have changed about themselves. That is, the objective to annihilate the existence of a particular people makes mass killings into genocide, whether the victim count is six million or twenty thousand. Thus, calling the KGB museum on Gedimino Boulevard in the heart of Vilnius the “Museum of Genocide Victims” is historically incorrect and does not befit a fine capital city in the European Union and NATO.

For some strange reason there is a well-financed movement underway for getting the Soviet period acknowledged as equal to the Holocaust (or worse). I do not get the point of trying to do so. The killings and deportations in the Stalin-era and the decades thereafter had completely different objectives, victims and perpetrators, and were orchestrated by different systems and political conditions. They were not genocide. But don’t get me wrong – this does not make the Soviet Union any “less bad” than it was in the area of human rights and crimes against its perceived societal enemies.

Misguided museums like this “Museum of Genocide Victims” reflect a macabre kind of competition about which “totalitarian regime” was worse and this is all just a part of shabby attempts to supposedly be nation-building on the basis of misrepresented history. These are all countries with long histories. They do not need this antisemitically tainted fake history as a supposed nation-builder.

As a believer in individual rights and limited government I despise every single aspect of the Soviet Union. However, retrospectively imposing the bogus Double Genocide (as exemplified in “occupation museums” all around Eastern Europe, in the Vilnius-based Red-Brown Commission or the Prague Declaration) distorts history badly.

There is no need for the obfuscation that is so often insinuated into Lithuanian historiography. There is no need to point out that the Soviet Union also was a crime against humanity, when speaking about the annihilation of the Jews by the local collaborators and the Einsatzgruppen. And there is definitely no need to try to distort the facts about the victims and perpetrators.

It is no coincidence that the nationalist false narrative about genocide, totalitarian regimes and history is the backbone of today’s far-right and neo-Nazi elements in the country. The chant “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” meaning “pure ethnic Lithuanians,” echoes disgracefully in Kaunas on February 15 and Vilnius March 11, the two independence days that should be celebrating the inclusion of all citizens. It echoes with the not so subtle implication that some peoples are superior to others, an idea that was the root of so much misery in the twentieth century.

It sometimes seems, when it comes to the present, and I’m not talking just about Lithuania, this is for all of Europe, there are only very few who want to tackle it head on. One disturbing symbol of this in Lithuania is the ongoing effort to glorify with films, statues, street names and monuments the white-armbander fascists of June 1941 who started in some cases to butcher their Jewish neighbors even before the Nazi forces arrived on site.

Let me hasten to stress that I am not saying that everything in my native Austria is in order on these counts, be it the public opinion about Jews and other Others, the way in which the period from 1938 to 1945 is commemorated, or in Austria’s politics. But progressive elements in Austria over the last thirty years have worked hard to climb out of a state of denial, misrepresentation and ignorance. Regularly in our television schedules, you can find a documentary about World War II and the role of a large number of Austrians as perpetrators. You can find it in many newspapers and city-center museums. It is widely addressed in arts, theatre and other cultural activities. Furthermore, the Holocaust is a core building block of the subjects History and German literature. There is little doubt about the role of Austrians in the Holocaust. In many countries further east, like Lithuania, there are hundreds of local mass graves, virtually outside every town in the country, for students to visit and be taught the unpalatable truth about the identity of the perpetrators.

I would like to conclude these thoughts about my year in Vilnius with what I believe is a constructive suggestion. Instead of a phony museum that makes mincemeat of history, the magnificent center of the beautiful Lithuanian capital needs to have a truth-telling museum that befits a grand European capital, alongside all the other museums that exhibit the rich culture and history of the country. One proposal for the name has come informally from a colleague in Vilnius: Dark Side of History: Nazi Genocide, Soviet Mass Murder and Local Collaboration. That could for short just be known as The Dark Side of History. Still, the enormity or what happened dictates the obvious need for a distinct, unambiguous, un-mix-up-able Holocaust museum that would build substantially on the material now at the Green House, but with much more exhibit material needed, particularly on collaboration, a topic not dealt with seriously in any museum in Lithuania. A new downtown Holocaust museum is of primary importance to the dignity of the country in our new Europe.

Not in the forest, at Ponár, or up a steep driveway. But right in the heart of the capital on its central thoroughfare.

 

 

 

 

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