Leyb Koniuchowsky & Jonathan Boyarin: The Lithuanian Slaughter of its Jews: Testimonies of 121 Survivors of the Holocaust in Lithuania
Jump to: English media section
As anyone who has been following events in Lithuania for the last several years surely knows by now, the country sports street names and monuments honoring locals who collaborated with the Nazis during World War Two. It was in this context that I attended an event in Washington, DC yesterday at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute discussing Ruta Vanagaite’s controversial book “Our People” (it appeared in Lithuanian in 2016) that blows open the door describing the true extent of Lithuanian collaboration in the Holocaust. Vanagaite and her co-author Efraim Zuroff , director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Israel Office, spoke at the event.
PEN America released this statement on its website today:
NEW YORK—The decision by the Alma Littera publishing house to cut all ties with their author Ruta Vanagaite, and to remove remaining copies of all of her five books from circulation and pulp them, is a troubling overreaction and should be reconsidered, said PEN America today.
The publisher’s decision to remove and destroy all of Vanagaite’s books was a response to her recent criticism of Adolfas Ramanauskas, a Lithuanian nationalist widely perceived as a hero. Vanagaite previously touched on sensitive historical issues in her most recent book, Mūsiškiai (Our People), published in Lithuania in 2016, which discusses the role of Lithuanian nationalists and freedom fighters in the persecution of Jewish Lithuanians and the Holocaust during World War II. Lithuania still denies their role in WWII and the Lithuanian authorities claimed that the book jeopardized national security. The destruction and removal of Vanagaite’s books demonstrates the tight borders of what is acceptable criticism of a national hero in Lithuania. Since the publication of the book, Vanagaite has received threats, which have escalated in recent weeks; a suit against her for slander and denigration of a deceased person has also been filed with the prosecutor by a patriotic group (the prosecutor has declined to take up the case, finding no evidence of malicious intent).
VILNIUS—The Weekly of Vilnius, sometimes considered to be this city’s most prestigious English-language news publication, today released its weekly issue which contains a highly documented summary of many of the sides in the debate over author and PR specialist Ruta Vanagaitė’s comments concerning state plans to name 2018 for someone who led a pro-Nazi militia during the early days of the Lithuanian Holocaust in 1941, but who is being honored for his postwar service in the anti-Soviet resistance. Defending History has published its own take along with a much more limited summary of the debate which readers may consult for comparison and helping “complete the picture” as best as it can be in English. Note that selections of Lithuanian articles on the subject from the major news portal Delfi.lt, and from BNS (Baltic News Service), in both cases generally representing government and “nationalist establishment” positions, are available in English translation on the English Delfi.lt (Lithuania Tribune) site (search “Vanagaitė” for rapid reference).
What makes Rūta Vanagaitė’s Ours (Mūsiškiai) very different from all other Lithuanian books on the Holocaust is that it was from the start written as a bestseller. Written by an experienced public relations professional as an appeal to the Lithuanian public, the book raises the painful issue of historical responsibility. The author does not refrain from giving a personal twist to the story (it would be impossible otherwise, as the Holocaust is an issue of individual position and individual responsibility). The author is piercingly direct and uses black comedy. She approaches the topic with composure and a sense of supremacy. These two features may irritate the reader. However, she is entitled to it as she aims to confront the reader, which she so eloquently achieves.
For the first time, a Lithuanian author teamed up with an Israeli Holocaust scholar in search for the truth about widespread local enthusiasm, seventy-five years ago, for mass murder of civilian neighbors, and today’s failures in coming to grips with that history, in a land of hundreds of Jedwabnes. A genuine historic advance in Lithuanian-Jewish relations is seen in the startling partnership of Rūta Vanagaitė and Dr. Efraim Zuroff in Vanagaitė’s Mūsiškiai: Kelionė su priešu (“Our People: Journey with an Enemy”), published in Vilnius in January 2016. See also the media tracking page on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Operation Last Chance website.
The following listing of coverage by language (English, Lithuanian, Russian, Polish) is far from exhaustive. The humongous reaction needs to be studied in its own right.
Tomas Venclova addresses Ruta Vanagaite’s conference at Vilnius City Hall on April 17, 2015. Photo: Julius Norwilla.
The national Lithuanian television channel Lietuvos rytas TV recently (on May 4) broadcast a show by veteran talk-show host Rūta Grinevičiūtė (surname recently changed to Janutienė) called Nuoga Tiesa, “Naked Truth,” which posed the question, “Do you want the Jews to return again [sic] to Lithuania?” Viewers were invited to call in and/or vote by special telephone lines for Yes and No with a one euro toll per call. For that and a number of other reasons the entire program had something of the macabre about it, and although some of the guests made some important points, all of them seemed to miss certain glaring details which would have been the center of attention in the West.
Vilijampolė — a part of Kaunas — wintertime. The project is “Being a Jew.” A group of thirty teachers led by a Jewish guide is standing in the former Kaunas ghetto. Houses, garages, storage spaces, wood piles where during the war thousands of Jews, herded here like animals by the Nazis, milled about, yards where Jewish children played, and were later taken to the square or to one of the Kaunas forts and shot. The houses and storage buildings have been rebuilt, renovated, replaced, and there are Kaunas residents living in them now who don’t know where they live and what happened here before they were here. And how could they know? There is no written notice, nothing preserved, only a stone next to the entrance. And a building is being renovated which was the store whose display window once featured the head cut off of the rabbi who lived here.
European exchange students on the Erasmus program in Lithuania have received this email from the program’s local leadership inviting them to join for free an interactive ‘Exchange Genocide Project’ complete with Russian speaking actors and psychological and physical punishment. Participating Erasmus students are required to sign this confirmation form.
There is no mention of any ‘Exchange Genocide Project’ to commemorate the Holocaust or to visit peacefully any of the 202 mass murder sites in the country.
Erasmus is financed by the European Union.